Why the Man Who Brought Harry Potter to Israel Fears for the Future of Books

Dr. Yehuda Melzer, editor, philosopher and founder of Books in the Attic publishing house, explains why Hebrew writers are impossible to work with.

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How did a relatively small publishing house succeed in winning the race against all the others when it came to publishing the Harry Potter books in Hebrew?

I was in my small apartment, on the roof. This was in a period when there were no book scouts. Today there are scouts, and thus publishers buy books long before they come out, and there are lots of rumors and speculation: “Ah, the Japanese bought it, too?” “What, the Bulgarians turned it down?” All kinds of things that I really can’t bear. But back then there were only two periodicals in the field – Publishers Weekly and The Bookseller – and I subscribed to both. One day, I saw a small item in one of them, a story about a single mother [JK Rowling] who had no money to pay for her heating, so she wrote in cafés. I liked the story, which in fact turned out to be true. I was also turned on by the fact that, according to the article, adults were reading her book on the train but covering it with a newspaper, because they were ashamed to be seen reading a children’s book. So it was published with a special cover for adults. I said, “This is something I want.”

Then what happened?

For 24 hours I made phone calls around the world, and in the end it turned out to be here, on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, in an office that no longer exists but which at the time sold the rights to 80 percent of the foreign books published in Israel. I called them and was told that the rights were held by an agent in London named Christopher Little. A year earlier, I had bought the rights to “Fermat’s Last Theorem” [by Simon Singh] from him. I told the Israeli office, “Well, then, give it to me.” They said they would look into it. They didn’t know exactly what it was. The next day I was told that they had spoken to Little but that in the case of Harry Potter, he didn’t work with middlemen like them but sold the rights directly. You know, he made about $20 million on that decision alone. I called him, introduced myself, told him about “The Giving Tree,” about the philosophy books I published and said that mine was a good publishing house. He said, “Let me check it out.” I was sure he wouldn’t call back, but the next day he called and sold me the rights to the first two books. Do you know for how much?

No.

$1,000 each. That’s how early it was.

Did you get rich from Harry Potter?

No. It used to be that you could get rich from books, but not anymore.

Not even from Harry Potter?

Not even Harry Potter. About 30 years ago, the vice president of one of the big publishing houses in the United States told me, “The most important thing for a publisher is to survive.” I think that publishers everywhere are all just fighting to survive. The enemies assail us from all directions, and here in Israel we also have enemies from within, from inside the industry. The publishing market has been destroyed in the past 10 years as a result of the battle between [bookstore chains] Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim. The question of whether the author will get two cents more or two cents less is nonsense. Hebrew literature is an important element, but it’s not the main thing.

What is the main thing?

The Hebrew publishing industry is such a great thing, you know. In the 1920s and ’30s, translations of Descartes and Spinoza and Kant appeared here. Abraham Fraenkel, the mathematics genius, did not go to Princeton [from his native Germany] but came here, established the center for mathematics and published books on how to write mathematics in Hebrew – you can’t but be moved by that. I don’t know if the industry can still be salvaged, after the new law [about book prices]. The serious damage has already been done.

You’ve been in the publishing business for more than 30 years, a period that was rife with changes and upheaval.

Yes. When I first started out and founded the Adam publishing house I was still a lecturer in philosophy at the university. At first I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t even issue tax invoices. I didn’t know anything about marketing. So that company went bust. When I founded Books in the Attic, the situation was different.

What was the market like at that time?

There were no crazy bookstore chains like you have today. There were a large number of private stores and the Steimatzky chain, which was very tough and had a monopoly status. But [the owner] Eri Steimatzky had two things that everyone is now nostalgic for: He was tough and very firm, a businessman, but he was also a decent man. However, the chain was sold to people from the capital market [Markstone Capital], about whom there is not much good to be said, and they were out to do what people of capital do: execute an exit, and the sooner the better. It didn’t work out. People who didn’t have a clue started to manage the business. Zmora-Bitan [publishing house] did the right thing and established a rival chain, and because they do truly understand the market, they were wildly successful. That success was the total destruction of the market.

Can you speak in numbers?

You can’t make a living from “four for a hundred” [selling four books for 100 shekels ($29)]. That’s 25 shekels a book, and you still have to deduct VAT. For how much can I, as a publisher, sell a book like that to the chain? How much can they pay me? At most, what it cost me for binding and printing. The editor, the office, the proofreader, the author – how will I pay them royalties? From what? I sold a book for 14 shekels. In addition, my other books – the ones that are not part of the deal – will not be sold. The people in the chain will be told not to promote them. How long can a publisher hold out?

At a conference of the Book Publishers Association of Israel, someone, whose name I will not mention, said, “Everyone who took home a salary, raise your hand.” Not one hand was raised. Kinneret Zmora-Bitan is a large publishing house, but how can they make a living from it? Not even they, who wanted to be so big, will be able to stay afloat. I don’t know anything about distribution, but I know enough about publishing to say that the situation is simply not sustainable.

So what will happen?

The idea is that in the same way that lunatics came and bought Steimatzky, some Rami Levy [entrepreneur and owner of a successful supermarket chain] will come along and buy Tzomet Sfarim. But it’s not happening, and they are not going to go public, so they roll along and devour one another. And in the meantime a big enemy is lurking – digital publishing – even though there are enough reasons for that not to enter Israel so fast. We are not Australia, and there is also the cost of the transition to Hebrew.

I will say one thing about the digital world. People are constantly talking about when we will be able to read [the best-selling author] Meir Shalev digitally. That is the question. It’s the right question, but not the main one. Do you know anyone who has the Encyclopedia Hebraica at home?

No, but I keep seeing volumes of the encyclopedia on the street.

I did not establish Books in the Attic on the basis of works of philosophy or Harry Potter, but in order to publish an encyclopedia of information about drugs. When the second or third edition of that book came out, Viagra hit the market – but it was not mentioned in the book. I asked myself, “What will we do? Put out a new edition with Viagra in it? And then something newer than Viagra will appear, and what will we do then?” So I became a cannibal: I ate the content I had created and set up a Web portal (infomed.co.il). None of our medical books is still in print. The content is on the Web. I did it myself. It’s not that people came from Waze and said, “Don’t buy an atlas.”

So what is more important? When will we be able to read Zeruya Shalev [Meir’s cousin, and also a best-selling author] on the Internet? And what then? Will books die or not? I read a great deal on the subject. No one knows. And what’s more, and no less sad, is that all the books that have not been digitized might be in for irrevocable death. If I don’t put all the poems written by my father, Shimon Melzer, on the computer, what will become of them?

Why sad? That’s the advantage of 
digitization: In the era of hard-print copies, only what entered the canon survived. Digitization makes it possible to preserve things in the margins, too.

Yes. What is happening now will certainly be for the best. Still, there are things which, if they are not formally preserved, will disappear. That’s the fear. I grew up in a home in which there were stacks and stacks of books. Every Yiddish poet in the United States sent my father a copy of his book, imploring him to translate it. My father sat in the kitchen while my mother cooked, and translated 13 volumes of [the Yiddish-language writer] IL Peretz. More than 100,000 copies of the set were sold. But it’s possible that if I don’t do anything with IL Peretz, he will disappear.

You don’t publish many original Hebrew books.

I will not say that I do not want Hebrew in principle, but I didn’t want to work with Hebrew writers. Really. It’s so easy to work with Descartes. His mother doesn’t call me to scream that she was in a store in Nahariya the day before and the book wasn’t there. But I am not saying that we will not work with Hebrew authors. I’ve had a book by Yehuda Poliker on my desk for the past two years. He’s a musician and doesn’t know how to write, but his story is authentic. He is real, he doesn’t lie like [the singer] Shlomo Artzi.

Which of the younger writers would you like to work with?

It wouldn’t be fair for me to say, because I don’t consider myself a great expert. I have a far greater desire to read what’s happening in the world in English.

Don’t you read Hebrew literature – for example, the books that are up for the Sapir Prize?

No. Not even one. I will not pretend that I read contemporary Hebrew literature, but I can tell you that many times I go into a store and read the first 40 pages of a young writer and say to myself that I would have done it differently. I don’t want to be judgmental, but experience has taught me: I’ve done it so many times, and it bored me stiff.

So, as a general rule you stick to the classics. The philosophy books you publish are also classics.

I have a very definite approach when it comes to philosophy. I deal with the greatest of the philosophers’ works – treasures that have preserved their character and profundity for 2,500 years. We also did John Rawls and Thomas Kuhn and John Stuart Mill, who aren’t exactly classics but are obviously of tremendous importance. I don’t regard the Continental philosophy as philosophy. When I see in the Haaretz books supplement [in Hebrew], as I did a few years ago, a double spread of an interview with Julia Kristeva, who is labeled “the greatest philosopher of the 20th century,” I am truly shocked. That is the sort of froth from which our publishing house will keep its distance.

The humanities faculty at Tel Aviv University will be offended to hear that.

That’s true. They will be offended.

How do you draw the distinction?

According to my biography. The fact is, I studied and taught certain things. You have to understand what a delight it is for me to engage with the smartest people who ever lived: Plato, Descartes ... that is a privilege. I recently spoke in a conference at the Hebrew University, and a young lecturer came over to me and said, “Yehuda, thanks to you we are teaching Descartes’ ‘Meditations,’ and all the students are lapping it up.” I was high for two weeks as though I’d smoked grass.

Why did you stop teaching at the university?

I don’t have the qualities of a researcher who sits all day with books. And even if I did, I became fed up with the social life at the university and all the intrigues. It’s terrible. I like teaching, but all the rest appalls me. There was a lot of resentment against me in the university when I went into publishing – if you go into business or economics or you advise tycoons, that’s fine, but you cannot establish a private publishing firm when you are in the department of philosophy. I’d had a rough time, because I had just gotten divorced, and I said to myself, “Wow, where is your salary on the first of the month?”

But the moment I got over that, I simply started to reap what I sowed in other fields. Many times, when people from universities suggest projects to me, I tell them politely that what they are proposing is not part of any external reality, only university reality. Their perception of reality is distorted. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that many academics use the fact that they are professors in order to render opinions in all kinds of articles and petitions. I find that despicable, because don’t forget that the fact you are an important professor means you are disconnected from most elements of the reality that is relevant to people.

Do you feel that you yourself are connected to that relevant reality?

Look, we are sitting here in Tel Aviv in a heated apartment [the conversation took place during the snow storms a few weeks ago]. I call my daughter in Galilee to ask what’s new, and I call Raja Shehadeh in Ramallah; they are people who are okay and who likely have electric power and are getting along. Yesterday I spoke to a friend who is not well-off, who lives in Kiryat Yovel [a Jerusalem neighborhood], and she told me that apart from a period of five hours, she had no water or power for a few days. It’s clear to me that this is a metaphor for situations with which I am not familiar. I employ about 40 or 50 people as freelancers. And a young woman, a single parent, who did a very fine translation for me, calls and says, “If you don’t have a book to translate, maybe I could come and clean the office?” I think I am far more connected to reality than any university professor.

It’s all relative. Why did you choose to go into publishing?

There was a right-wing American philosopher named Robert Nozick, who used the term “minimal state” in talking about the state he would like. The implication is that there is hardly any state – just a small police force, an authority to maintain the public roads; you don’t need more than that. Well, from my point of view, all the work I am doing is minimal Zionism, because people like me, who are on the left, find it hard to say wholeheartedly that they are Zionists. How can one identify with Zionism in the face of all these Elkins [referring to Likud MK Zeev Elkin]? I received a wonderful gift in that my father chose to come here, and I am a sabra and native Hebrew speaker. My father was a poet and translator. He could have had a position at any university. Why did he immigrate to this country? It is great good fortune, a gift of Zionism. But to say “Zionist” today, when I see what’s being done in the name of Zionism, is very difficult. Yet, I cannot ignore this wonderful achievement of Zionism: the revival of the Hebrew language. That is unprecedented. You work for a newspaper, I have a publishing house – it’s a miracle.

Dr. Yehuda Melzer.Credit: Gali Eytan

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