"People, bring me a book that will sell!" Dov Eichenwald, the CEO of Yedioth Ahronoth Books, sometimes announces to his editorial staff. He expects them to conquer the best-seller lists. Sell, sell, sell he says without stopping to breathe. Eichenwald, who has headed one of the country's largest and most influential publishers for over 10 years, lives in a world of books and seems comfortable there.
He has a lot of respect for writers and the written word, but his marketing instincts are even sharper (just recently, Yedioth issued a book of Sudoku puzzles that immediately sold 4,000 copies). If there are publishers who think that publishing books should shape public taste and influence it, and opposite them are those who think the publishing house should ascertain the public's taste and then adapt itself - Eichenwald clearly belongs to the second group. "Wanting to shape public opinion is pretentious and condescending," he counters immediately. "I also don't believe that we can influence, we must only address the public's needs and focus as precisely as possible - that way you sell more. What do I know more than the public? Who am I exactly?"
Eichenwald's question reverberates especially now, not just because Yedioth Ahronoth Books is one of the five biggest publishers influencing the book industry in Israel, but mainly because the publishing house is now looking for a new editor-in-chief. Aliza Zigler, who held the post for the last 10 years, left this past May.
It seems the publishing house's major weakness, despite Zigler's genuine efforts, is in the area of original authors. Not only has the publisher failed to attract top-notch authors, it also has not managed to nurture authors of its own who will be associated with it.
"I hope the authors Aliza believed in, such as Yizhar Har-Lev, Dalit Orbach or Eldad Cohen, succeed in the future," says Eichenwald cautiously. "Our in-between generation of authors actually was successful --Yochi Brandes, Judith Rotem, Eyal Megged. They were also taken at first and it was tough to switch them over to us. Did we make a statement in the realm of prose? I think we need to improve."
Is that perhaps the reason for Zigler's departure?
Eichenwald: "After 10 years there is burnout and fatigue, Aliza wanted to go."
You didn't hasten her departure?
"No. I also told her that if she wants to edit something for the house, she could always do it. I'm not hiding the fact that there's something tempting and challenging in renewal, but our paths separated amicably. The publishing house is her baby; she built it. There were days when we fought and argued and didn't think the same thing. For example, with the book `Harakiri' by Raviv Druker, Aliza thought there should have been more careful editing and I thought the timing was more important and the book must be published as is. From a sales perspective, I was right, but from a literary perspective she was right. I imagine that in interactions with the next editor-in-chief, I will favor the commercial and the popular and he'll want the avant-garde and the literary."
Will there even be an editor-in-chief or will you assume that position?
"Certainly there will be an editor-in-chief, someone with a literary worldview. I'm meeting candidates, not rushing to decide. We have enough books in the pipeline and the publishing house is working."
What exactly are you looking for? Are you looking for an editor with experience in publishing, or someone from a completely different field, as they did at Keter with the appointment of Zvika Meir and Shimon Adaf?
"I still don't know. This is a publishing house that covers all areas; it's not easy to navigate such a ship wisely. Experience in the field is actually detrimental sometimes. There is something exciting about people with no experience, because they are the ones who can bring about a breakthrough, a new way of thinking, a new initiative. I'm not rushing to decide; it may take a month or even four months."
In March 1995, the Mozes family appointed Eichenwald CEO of the publishing house. His first step was to appoint Aliza Zeigler editor-in-chief (on the recommendation of Yehuda Melzer, the publisher of Books in the Attic (Sifrei Aliyat Gag) and the man behind the publishing of the Harry Potter books in Hebrew). The second step was to travel with her to Haifa to the home of A.B. Yehoshua to convince him to switch from Hakibbutz Hameuhad to them. Yehoshua did not agree. "I asked him in the most naive way if there was a price for him to switch to us. The answer was no. Neither he nor Meir Shalev wanted to switch. I didn't approach Amos Oz because I knew he had a commitment to Keter. Everyone said he was attached to his editor and a monetary offer wasn't at all relevant. It impressed me very much."
It didn't hurt you?
"Not at all. Suddenly I understood that the publishing house has to be built up from scratch, and that in the publishing business, money isn't enough. You need more than that - you need time and good people. So we started with politics because we realized that there we could establish a position. Then we went with translated books together with Yehuda Melzer and we succeeded."
Since then, Eichenwald has managed to transform the publisher into a key player in the book industry. The secret of his success is simple: he excels at publishing books for people who aren't used to reading - albums, leisure books, lexicons.
He is proud, for example, of one of the first books he published as CEO of the publishing house - "Yitzhak, Whom You Love" (Asher Ahavta, Et Yitzhak) from 1995, which was published a month after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin and features texts written by the best writers in Israel about Rabin.
The album sold 100,000 copies. He is also proud of "These Years" (Eleh Shnot) by Nissim Mishal for the State of Israel's 50th year of independence, which has sold 600,000 copies so far. And he is also proud of Rabbi Israel M. Lau's autobiography "Do Not Raise Your Hand Against the Boy" (Al Tishlah Yadkha el Hana'ar), which is now doing very well and also surprised many of the publisher's executives.
However, there has been quite a bit of criticism of his actions as a publisher. Industry executives criticize the fact that Yedioth Ahronoth Books has not become an important publishing house and formulated a clear literary-publishing statement; the fact that many of its books are published for obvious commercial reasons; the fact that the publishing house has not developed its own authors and instead has become a publisher that serves politicians and establishment people, who use it to publish their autobiographies.
"The publisher of a newspaper also has certain obligations," Eichenwald says. "We must be the best in the realm of politics and give voice to everyone - from Benny Begin to Yossi Beilin, from Carmi Gilon to Uri Saguy. People aren't just saying that when major generals are discharged from the IDF, their forms from the induction center pass through Yedioth Ahronoth publishing - to me that's a compliment."
A compliment? It sometimes seems as if the publisher is an organ of the establishment and does not do any kind of critical filtering.
"These books are the true documentation of what is happening in the country, and they'll remain here forever. In the future, when political science students want to look up what happened here during the peace process and the Oslo Agreements, they will research the books of Itamar Rabinovich, Uri Saguy, Yossi Beilin, Eitan Ben-Tzur, Uri Savir - which relate the same events from several different perspectives. These are the most authentic documents written here. For example, I would like very much for [Moshe] Bogey Ya'alon to write a book for us. It's almost a mission for us."
Smell of sales
Many of the books you publish seem to smell of sales potential and less of considerations of literary quality.
"What does that mean, commercial, that people buy the book? I want people to buy lots of book and read them. A good book sitting in storage doesn't make me happy."
Rina Frank Mitrani's book, "Every House Needs a Balcony" (Kol Bayit Zarich Mirpesset), is a solid example of a Yedioth Ahronoth-style success. This book was published by Yedioth Ahronoth Books, but not by its prestigious Prose series. The executive staff people did not believe in it and now - thanks largely to marketing campaigns - it is a commercial success. "In my eyes, there was something simple and correct in this book, that spoke to people at eye level and did something to them," says Eichenwald. "I don't know what high literature is, but soon 40,000 people had read the book. In my view, a large quantity of readers becomes quality. What is quality, 500 people reading a wonderful book but no one will know about it? Not every book is `A tale of love and darkness' (Sippur al Ahava Vehoshekh) by Amos Oz, both good quality and sells well. Or `Ropes' by Haim Be'er. I would gladly publish Zeruya Shalev, Amos Oz and Haim Be'er here - if only they would come to me."
Eichenwald, who will soon turn 50, is a child of Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Bnei Brak in a national religious home, studied at a yeshiva high school and then at the Haroeh high school. He wears a skull cap. He is a tall thin man, married for the second time, to Tali Dvir, a doctor of business administration at Tel Aviv University. He has six children - two of his daughters are at the ulpana (religious high school for girls) in Kfar Pines. He also has three grandchildren from his oldest daughter.
Since childhood, Eichenwald has been in the book business: his father was a distributor and then set up a small publishing firm, Sifrei Hemed, which published mainly religious books and later on also a series on science and on art. They went from door to door and sold books. Eichenwald remembers himself as a child standing excitedly behind stalls at Hebrew Book Week and selling books. About six months ago, there were rumors in the industry about negotiations between Yedioth Ahronoth and Steimatzky's over the purchase of the Steimatzky stores. In the end Eri Steimatzky denied the whole thing and no deal ever emerged. Several months later, Keter Publishing signed a deal with Steimatzky to establish a joint publishing company.
How true were the rumors of negotiations between Yedioth and Steimatzky?
"There was nothing to it. Forget it. Smoke without fire," says Eichenwald. Would he be interested in the publishing house also having a change of stores, like Kinneret-Zmora Bitan, which owns Tzomet Books: "We had a chain of bookstores called Lyric and we closed it eight years ago," he says. "We also don't sell today on the Internet. Our task is to produce good books and help market them and the stores task is to sell. I don't think Yedioth Ahronoth publishing needs to get into the commercial trade right now."
How did you take the news of the merger between Keter and Steimatzky?
"To say that I was glad? I wasn't glad about this transaction, I was surprised that Yiphtach [Dekel, the CEO of Keter] didn't tell me about it - this deal was brewing for over a year and I didn't know a thing. But in the end, the book industry is a solid business, everyone knows everyone else and there's a certain kind of fairness in the industry. In my opinion, in the larger sense, this deal will not affect the market."
Eichenwald's dream is to merge with Am Oved publishing, or at least to sell the books it publishes. In his opinion, he can do it better than them. He has already approached Amir Peretz, the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, which owns the publishing house, but they prefer to remain independent. In the past, he approached publishers such as Carmel, Hargol and Ahuzat Bayit seeking to collaborate with them in a similar arrangement to that of the business collaboration between Yedioth and Books in the Attic or Babel, but was turned down.
"I wanted to invest together in books and split the profits," he says. "They would have had complete autonomy and we would have given them the marketing advantages - books that are distributed better, we work with workers committees, we are now in some 150 sales points, in all the malls, we have deals for Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper subscribers, an audience of 200,000 people, people come to stalls with our coupons, we have a network of agents dispersed all over the country.
"The books published by Am Oved are my life's fantasy. We just reissued together with Am Oved Haim Be'er's `Feathers' (Notzot); I contacted them two months ago, pleaded with them that I want to publish this book; I feel honored that a book by Haim Be'er is being published by Yedioth Ahronoth Books."
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