Israel's Controversial 'Book Law' Is Gone, but Bargains Aren’t Back

The sales in stores for Hebrew Book Week, which starts Wednesday, are pale imitations of the old days despite the withdrawal of a law that sought to save Israeli authors and publishers

Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
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A Steimatzky bookstore.
A Steimatzky bookstore.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz

The controversial Book Law is longer in force and the bargains that accompany Hebrew Book Week, which starts on Wednesday, are already available at bookstores, but the good old days of super-discounting are dead and gone.

Before the Book Law went into effect in February 2014, barring publishers from discounting new titles by more than 20%, Israel’s big bookstore chains typically offered four books for just 100 shekels ($28.20). But anyone poking their head today into a branch of Steimatzky or Tzomet Sfarim, which together account for 80% of all book sales, won’t see such bargains.

Both chains offer three children’s titles or two books for adult readers for 99 shekels. Pricing will be similar at the open-air Hebrew Book Week markets, where publishers sell directly to the public.

Major publishers Am Oved and Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, as well as the boutique science fiction and fantasy house Graff Publishing, are offering about the same discounts as the chains, a survey by TheMarker has found. Locus is offering thee for 100 shekels and 9 Lives Press (Tesha Neshamot) is offering two for 70 shekels. The prices for books for adults all work out to be 33 to 35 shekels each.

“We’re not returning to the destructive prices that we saw in the sector before the Book Law. The discounts we offer now are realistic and enable the writers, printers and publishers to survive,” said Itzik Shalev, vice president for sales at Steimtazky.

Even without the steep discount, Israelis are buying more books than they did last year. Shalev says same-store sales at his chain are up 8% so far in 2017, compared with 2016. He admits that prices are higher than they were before the Book Law went into effect but lower than the two years it was in force.

Tzomet Sfarim CEO Avi Shumer agrees. “Last year, when the law was still in effect, an author could go into the bookstores and buy a few copies of his book and put himself on the best-seller list. Now to be a best-seller you have to sell a lot more copies,” he said.

Publishers, however, aren’t thriving the way the book retailers are. When the Book Law went into force, the retailers raised the charges they impose on each book they sell from 50% of the price to 70%, leaving the publishers and the authors 30% to split between themselves. The retailers argued they needed the extra money as an insurance policy against a drop in sales due to the restrictions imposed by the law.

Uriel Kon .Credit: Emil Salman

But when the law expired, the book chains didn’t roll back the charges, which the publishers say is because Steimatzky and Tsmoet Sfarim effectively control the market. Worse, Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir owns two-thirds of Tzomet Sfarim and Yediot Books has a 15% stake in Steimatzky.

“I can’t say that I’m losing money, but I’m also not making any profits, The chains are in good shape and they always opening new stores in the most expensive locations like malls,” said Rani Graff of the publisher of the same name. He says Culture and Sports Minster Miri Regev has promised to do something about the duopoly but has not taken any action yet.

Rani Graff.Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki

At Steimatzky, they admit the fees haven’t come down, but they say the publishers are doing fine because the deep discounts of the pre-Book Law era are no longer. Publishers are getting 18 to 24 shekels per book, compared with 16 shekels before the law went into effect, said Shalev.

Independent publishers, namely the ones that don’t own a stake in a chain, are struggling without the protections of the Book Law, said Uriel Kon of 9 Lives, which has seen sales drop 40% since the law was repealed, in September 2016.

“The chains give preference mainly to the big publishers because they invest hundreds of thousands of shekels in marketing and public relations,” Kon said. “During the Book law our sales rose 200% because the big publishers stopped releasing new titles, it wasn’t worthwhile for them.”