Less About Literature, More About the Books

What began as a cultural calling that also earned money has, in recent years, become a commercial venture that also serves culture.

What began as a cultural calling that also earned money has, in recent years, become a commercial venture that also serves culture. Hebrew publishing is business, in every sense of the word - a competitive branch of the entertainment market that is developing and becoming more professional. The big money flowing into the industry has altered not only the atmosphere in which publishers and editors work, but also their list of priorities.

Hebrew Book Week provides the opportunity to observe local publishing and the significant changes that have transformed the industry in a very short time. Competition in the Israeli book industry began at the bottom, with the bookstores. Two major players were created: Kinneret-Zmora Bitan, publishers and owners of the Tsomet Sfarim book chain, and Keter, half of which was bought by competing book-sellers, Steimatzky. Both of them dictate activity in the market.

The CEO decides

Most decision-makers in publishing in Israel today are directors of publishing houses who do not come from the world of literature but from the world of management, marketing, and finance. If, until 10-15 years ago, major publishing houses were led by their founders, individuals with specific literary tastes who also ran the business, now, most influential publishing houses maintain a clear division between content and management.

For example, Am Oved is directed by Yaron Sadan, former-manager of the Khan Theater; Keter is managed by Yiftach Dekel, who also comes from the management world; Dov Ichilov, a book-marketing expert, heads Yedioth Ahronoth; Kinneret is managed by businessmen Yoram Rose and Eran Zmora; Modan is also managed by a businessman, Oded Modan. In practice, only Kibbutz Hameuhad is directed by a professor of literature, Uzi Shavit, who may be considered an endangered species among publishers.

Old style publishers, like Aryeh Nir, Sarai Gutman, the staff of WrestlingPublishing and others, may now mainly be found in intermediate and small establishments. Publishing houses like these are directed by the literary editor that founded them. But small publishing houses find it difficult to survive current market conditions.

Despite their differences, Hargol, Ivrit, Babel, Books in the Attic (Sifrei Aliyat Hagag) and Menahem Peri's Hasifria Hahadasha all began as independent ventures with cultural ambitions. But existential straits forced them to collaborate with strong, major publishers. A few of these houses were even annexed by another publisher.

The role of literary editors and even the status of chief editors shifted in response to the beefed-up clout of managers and their influence on publishing. In the currently accepted management ladder, major publishers are directed by a CEO, who supervises a chief editor who designs policy and directs editorial staff. Several literary editors work under the chief editor, each of them with his own limited domain and authority. This decentralization means that the CEO finally determines which books will be published.

"My position combines general management and management of the editorial staff, but it is not an editorial position," says Yaron Sadan, CEO of Am Oved. "We have a separate staff of editors for each series, and they operate within their budgets. If there is a project that exceeds the budget, such as a gift or leisure book, that is not part of a series, or an unusually large translated book, separate deliberations are held. Both volumes of Hitler's biography, for example, required financial deliberations because it was an enormous project that an editor could not choose to pursue on his own."

In most major publishing houses, the process is similar: Every few weeks, editorial staff meets with management, marketing and promotional staff to plan the next period. Editors present the books they would like to publish and financial requirements and marketing needs of each book are considered. Hebrew writers who publish original work collaborate with editors but negotiate the terms of their employment with management - usually with the CEO. "Simple contracts are passed by the editorial secretary and complex contracts come to me," Sadan says.

At the end of the day, general managers have the last word.

"I don't view the editorial staff in a hierarchical way, but in a synergistic way. The editors are responsible for content and I am responsible for management. And I clearly have to account for problems - not the editors. I trust their judgment regarding content but we decide on general considerations together and content is not always the determining factor. It is a central consideration, but not the only one. The final conclusion is my own."

Frequently replaced

As is in other branches of the market, CEOs in publishing retain their positions for many years, while employees responsible for content - editors in this case - are frequently replaced. Many editors relinquished their places of employment in recent years.

The job of literary editor has changed as well. Publishers may deny it, but the current atmosphere and conditions dictate that editors also be part of a production line that manufactures best-sellers. The unspoken, main criterion used to measure an editor's worth is financial: How much money enters the coffers from the books he or she publicizes.

In publishing houses like Keter, and even Yedioth Ahronoth, the chief editor is less focused on choosing specific books (literary scouts and specialty editors are employed to serve this purpose), and also not overly concerned with the actual editing of books, but with the management of the editorial staff and the policy of the house.

Thus, a waning number of chief editors create publishing houses in their own image or express their personal taste.

Moreover, it appears that many editors have internalized the codes of commercial conduct in the current industry. "From what I hear, editors also strive to produce the next best-seller," says Sarai Gutman, who stepped down from her position as chief editor of Kinneret-Zmora Bitan three years ago to start the independent publishing house, Ahuzat Bayit.

"I have friends, who are editors, in all the publishing houses and they are really afraid that they will miss the next hit. I hear them talk, read articles in which they are interviewed, and watch them get into best-seller hysterics. It has become the foremost criterion."

Dov Alphon, a journalist and refined, cultural figure, has served as chief editor of Kinneret-Zmora Bitan for the last two and a half years. How is his taste in literature expressed in the publishing house where he is editor?

"There is not a single Hebrew book, fiction or non-fiction, that I wanted to publish and did not publish," he says. "It is different in translations. There are books that I wanted, but other publishers paid more. But that is of less concern in terms of cultural responsibility, because the book came out in Hebrew, even if it was published elsewhere."

Shifting tides in the management of publishing houses also diminished the status of writers. There is a fine echelon of 20-30 authors who have proved their ability to write best-sellers. Publishers court these authors while the status of others is depleted. Contracts signed by writers provide ample evidence of this trend.

"One must only see the level of creativity that publishers invest in their attempts to minimize the earnings of writers in their contracts," notes Dr. Zvika Reich, a publishing consultant and member of the communications faculty of Ben-Gurion University. "There are stunts that were unprecedented in contracts written 10 to 15 years ago. They strive to offer the writer the lowest possible figure, unless he is experienced and has achieved commercial success."

Positive side

Despite everything, changes in the local publishing industry have a positive side: The industry is more professional, more up-to-date and sometimes produces finely wrought books, and there are more than a few good books on the best-seller list. In addition, small, quality publishing houses that express unique tastes emerge alongside major players.

Dr. Motti Neiger of Ben-Gurion University is currently writing a book about the history of publishing in Israel. "The story of the Zmora family is the best illustration of the development of Israeli publishing," he says.

"From Israel Zmora, a patron of literature who did it all for the love of literature, to Ohad Zmora, who combined a love of literature with business, to Eran Zmora, who is now mainly occupied with the commercial aspect of the publishing house.

"In its inception, local publishing was an important cultural project in the revival of Hebrew language and culture. Later, it became clear that it must sustain itself financially, and finally, it became a source of income - albeit, an honorable source of income for gentlemen, but nonetheless, income. Now it is more than just income - it is big business. But I believe there are still people in publishing who do it for the love of literature."