Hebrew Book Week Opens Under a Cloud

As Steimatzky implodes, this could be make-or-break time for local publishers.

Tomer Appelbaum

A glum mood prevailed among book publishers as Hebrew Book Week kicked off Wednesday. In past years, the event was a festive one for publishers, giving an opportunity to boost sales by tens of percentage points and to show off their finest books. This year, though, many of the sector’s key players are struggling to survive.

“Book Week began with a gloomy atmosphere. The situation at Steimatzky influenced the mood,” said Ziv Cohen, owner of the small publishing house Sela Books, referring to one of Israel’s two major bookstore chains. Steimatzky is currently looking for a buyer to save it from financial distress. “We don’t know if we will indeed receive on June 20 half of the money they still owe us for the month, and if we’ll get what we’re owed at the beginning of July or at all, should the chain be sold to a buyer who doesn’t take on its debts,” said Cohen.

“We believe that at some point, Steimatzky won’t be able to pay the publishers, creating a chain reaction throughout the sector. The publishers without deep pockets won’t survive if Steimatzky collapses or reneges on its debts.”

The publishers started Wednesday morning with an emergency meeting, consulting with a lawyer to discuss how to minimize damages from Steimatzky’s troubles.

Some publishers have stopped supplying the book store chain with books, while others have continued supplying books, hoping they’ll see the money for them in the future.

Even without Steimatzky’s problems, the sector is struggling amid declining sales, which some players say have dropped as much as 30%. Publishers and bookstore chains say consumers have stopped buying following the implementation of the Book Law, which has minimized discounts on books and created confusion regarding prices, in an attempt to raise the status of books, publishers and authors. They also cite the economy-wide decline in consumption as a factor.

Shortly before Steimatzky’s financial woes became public, CEO Iris Barel told TheMarker that things were “catastrophic” and malls were empty.

Retailers speculate that consumers simply cannot afford to buy new books without discounts, even though list prices have dropped to an average of 68 shekels.

“All the talk about the difficulties in the sector and at Steimatzky will harm Book Week sales even further,” speculated one publisher. “People don’t like being part of a depressive atmosphere, so the events will bring only true book lovers.”

Last year, one million people attended Book Week events. “Book Week is the industry’s big test, and if the market doesn’t pick up for Book Week, it likely won’t recover,” said another publisher.

But others speculated that the Book Law may actually boost Book Week sales. The Book Law, which took effect in February, states that new titles may be sold at a discount of up to 20% only during the two weeks surrounding Book Week. Book Week is generally a time to showcase new books, but relatively few – 667 – titles have been published since the law took effect.

“Steimatzky doesn’t have the full range of titles any more, but the [Book Week] stands do,” noted one major publisher.