Book Value

'As far as I am concerned, they can give my books away as gifts at the supermarket to anyone who buys a multipack of yogurt.'

On Wednesday I ran into the head of a publishing house, who was walking around looking dejected. When he saw me his eyes lit up.

"So, what do you say?" he asked.

"About what?" I asked.

"You know, about the writers who organized to fight the discount deals at the bookstore chains. Well done."

I didn't know what to tell him. Am I really meant to feel a sense of shared fate with the downtrodden person in front of me, whose monthly salary could support a Hebrew author for a whole year? Seeing as the executive in question was convinced I was part of his camp, there was no point telling him my real opinion on this subject.

Well then, instead of telling him, I am hereby declaring, in writing - with the word of honor of a Hebrew author (I have written and published books in Hebrew and hence I am entitled to claim that title ) - that I have no objection to having my books sold at retail chains for 5, 10 or 20 shekels. As far as I am concerned, they can give them away as gifts at the supermarket to anyone who buys a multipack of yogurt.

All I want is for them to read what I've written, at any price. And that, I believe, ought to be the humble ambition of any writer. To make the pleasure that my book is meant to afford its readers conditional upon payment of this or that kind seems to me to be contrary to the spirit of modesty, which ought to be the basis for creating art.

A low price for a book is not demeaning. Virtual bookstores across the World Wide Web offer wonderful books for the price of a cup of espresso. When the book is designated by the seller as being "used," its price drops even further, and it will frequently happen that the shipping costs of a physical book will exceed the price of the book itself. Thus, practically anyone today can be a card-carrying member of the global education club without there being a guard at the gate barring him entry simply because he can't afford it.

And here is an example from another world: Disciples of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wend their way between cars at intersections, or stand at the Central Bus Station, and distribute a volume of his tales, glad for any donation they are given; sometimes they are even happy to hand it over without receiving anything in return. The stories of Reb Nachman are among the most wonderful works of literature we have. From a secular standpoint - in other words, a utilitarian one - it may appear that the rebbe's adherents distribute the booklets as part of the hunt for souls that their movement engages in. But even a secular person won't be able to deny that the sale of this booklet in such a manner not only does not demean the author who wrote it or its sellers, but, quite the contrary, serves as an exercise in humility for the seller and keeps his ego in check.

I wish I had the courage to stand at an intersection, dripping sweat, knock on a windshield and see the terrified or indifferent face of the driver as I propose that he take my book and give me a shekel or two, or just a cigarette and a thank you. An exercise like that, of maintaining humility, is something I would suggest to all the authors who cried out this week, ahead of the opening of Hebrew Book Week, and called on readers to boycott the excessive discounts and monstrous sales of the bookselling chains.

It is true that the aggressive sales deals are a distilled expression of capitalist crassness, and that they are done at the expense of the writers and on the backs of the publishing houses that publish their books (which are now gleefully joining the camp of the oppressed ). All this is true. But again, I hereby declare that joining the camp of the oppressed who are fighting against the oppressor is not less bad in principle than joining the camp of the oppressors: because both the oppressors and the oppressed are strengthening - through their battle against one another, and their negotiations with one another - the idea that you can put a price on the spirit.

The writers who joined the battle against the discounters will doubtless automatically arouse public sympathy, because the fashion these days is to protest and demand what you're entitled to. The public reveres strict adherence to the popular order "Thou shall not be a sucker," which has taken on the status of an 11th commandment handed down, like the others, from Mount Sinai. But in the long run, the writers fighting for what they deserve are putting themselves into the dangerous category of those who manufacture something and demand remuneration for it. They are abandoning the category of artists who are not obligated to supply a particular product with some designated value, but are instead in hazy limbo, and about whom it isn't clear what they do, what they want from themselves, and the world as a whole has no bearing on them and they have no bearing on it.

The protesting writers are operating, if you ask them, out of idealistic motives. They wish to spread the notion that if people want assets of the spirit, they should pay full price. "If somebody is prepared to buy a book of mine, then he should pay the list price," one of the authors was overheard saying. And who decided that the list price is the correct price? The CEO of the publishing company, or an amalgamation of these CEOs. And here we are back at the beginning. I hereby declare as a Hebrew author that I do not want to be in the camp of any CEO, be it the camp of the purest of the pure. And I will automatically move to the opposite camp, even if it is less in the right, or I will don a skullcap, hold a plastic cup and distribute my books at intersections.