The Marketing Dance

Sales, management and PR concerns are among the many nonliterary aspects of the job of editor in chief at a major publishing house. A conversation with Dov Alfon.

Dov Alfon, editor in chief of Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir - ostensibly Israel's largest publishing house - embodies a special combination of thinker and pragmatist. On the one hand, he comes across as a broad-minded intellectual, the kind that refined French culture tends to cultivate; on the other hand, he is a whiz at American-style marketing, a man who respects the literary mainstream - with all of its evident flaws - and does not shy away from making energetic efforts to increase its sales.

"From a young age," he says, "I've identified with Candide's servant, Cacambo, who suggests to his master that he should simply drift with the river's current toward an unknown country, and says, 'If we do not find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.'"

The interview with Alfon, 46, was held in his spacious office in the publishing house's new building in Or Yehuda, at the heart of a wholesale commercial district, near a factory outlet of Srigamish and a Mega supermarket. Alfon, who has been editor in chief for the past four years, sits in what used to be the office of Ohad Zmora, the founder of Zmora-Bitan, who died in December, 2003. On the wall hangs a portrait of S. Yizhar; the shelves are filled with encyclopedias and chunky, multi-volume lexicons, alongside the Dvir series of biographies. The view from the window is attractive: Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv spread out to the horizon, and in the center rises a verdant hill, the former garbage site Hiriya, now gradually taking on the pleasant ambience of a park.

Early in our conversation, Alfon voices reservations about financial interpretations and argues that the culture of reading and writing books in Israel is influenced primarily by the decreased status of book reviewing in the local press: "If we take the Haaretz [Hebrew] literary supplement as an example, we can see the phenomenon clearly: On the last page appears the best-seller list, which is determined, in effect, by 70 percent of the supplement's readers - because we've determined that there is an overlap of about 70 percent between the readership of Haaretz and Israeli book buyers.

"Here I see a constant contradiction between the reviews published in the supplement and the literature that, according to the buyers' tastes, is worthy of inclusion in the list. For example, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's 'The Shadow of the Wind' has had two negative book reviews in Haaretz, but week after week the readers of Haaretz vote against the critics. More than 100,000 copies of the book have been sold so far. Which raises the question: What is the meaning of this constant contradiction between critics and readers? My explanation is that the critics perceive books as the object of academic study, in an attempt to write in the name of history and to determine right away what will be included in the canon. This is an outrageous presumption, one that might more properly be the academic's duty, with the perspective of a century.

"In the last three years, the number of salaried book reviewers in Israel and in the United States has dropped, and the number of pages devoted to literary supplements and sections has decreased. They are two lone examples in the world. Throughout Europe there is a reverse trend. The competition between Le Figaro and Le Monde takes place mostly in the book supplements - with the theft and defection of writers, a phenomenon that we in Israel see only in the economic press.

"A man such as Pierre Assouline, who writes for Le Monde and for the magazine Lire, is responsible for the success of Jonathan Littell's 'Les Bienveillantes' ('The Kindly Ones'), which sold over one million copies in France. Something like that happens because the readers have absolute faith in the critic. There are six or seven other influential critics like him in France. If they say of a book, 'It is a masterpiece,' the masses rush to buy it. Here we have a lack of confidence in reviewers, which creates a vacuum, and other forces enter this vacuum as mediators of culture."

'Leader in sales'

Traditionally, information about books reaches readers in one of three ways: word of mouth (which is hard to gauge or control), public relations (arranging discussion of a book in the press, in articles and reviews), and marketing - that is, sales, ads and piles of volumes on bookstore tables and in display windows. In recent years, it seems that marketing in this country has replaced public relations. Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir, which has bought the Tzomet Sfarim book chain, is now emerging as the nation's book-marketing champion.

Alfon is happy to concur: "I think that we are perceived in recent years as a publishing house that is a leader in sales. And we do not have better PR than other publishers. It is easy to conclude that this has to do with marketing."

To what extent are you personally involved in these marketing decisions?

Alfon: "Every editor in chief, however much he pretends that 'they were all my sons,' has moments of crisis, when a book that he considered to be beautifully written and accessible to the general public fails to make a breakthrough. This happened with Yossi Avni-Levy's book 'Ish lelo tzel' ['A Man Without a Shadow,' published earlier this year], which did not do well during the first weeks. We decided, with my encouragement and that of the book's editor, Noa Manheim, to make a special effort. We visited the Tzomet Sfarim stores, talked to the salespeople and convinced them that it's an excellent book. We gave them free copies, and they read the book and agreed - otherwise, it would not have worked. This happens to me about four times a year, going out to the stores myself in order to help a book.

"For every book that we've managed to save this way - 'Ish lelo tzel' entered the best-seller list after we promoted it at Tzomet Sfarim - there are some that we did not. For example, it is entirely unclear to me why 'Hamadrich hayisraeli le'ochel organi' ('The Israeli Guide to Organic Food'), by Aviv Lavie and Shiri Katz, is not a best-seller. It did not even cover the big investment we made in it. We spoke with every bookstore and every food store, including some that don't sell organic food, and with high-tech companies, which have cafeterias serving organic food, and we took every marketing step imaginable. It didn't work. 'You were ahead of your time' - this is a sad statement in the publishing world. Because if I published a book at a bad time - as good and important as it might be - I have failed both ideologically and in a business sense."

What place does marketing occupy in your work as editor in chief?

"I tend to identify with Sartre's hero in the play 'Dirty Hands': I stick my arms in the mud up to the elbows if I think it can help. I don't want to strut around town like a peacock and claim that I only read texts and have no idea what a book costs. Not only do I have an idea, but that is the essence of the matter."

Alfon, a former journalist (one of his more prominent positions was as editor of the Haaretz Magazine in the 1990s), explains that "an editor at a publishing house, unlike a newspaper editor, is not measured by the interest that the entire content package generates, but by the success of each individual book. A book editor is not the head of a brand name. Most people who buy 'The Shadow of the Wind' or 'Im yesh gan eden' (by Ron Leshem; published in English as 'Beaufort'), which also sold over 100,000 copies, do not know that these books are published by us. The reading audience doesn't care about that."

It was recently reported in Haaretz that some prominent authors have switched over to you, including Aharon Appelfeld, Sami Michael and Yochi Brandes. Isn't acquiring these authors part of branding the publishing house?

"Readers in bookstores don't make the connection between the publisher and the authors. But every novice writer sweating over the eighth chapter of his first book knows who we are and what our address is. The link to the authors helps to draw more good writers our way."

There were reports that some of the authors who switched to you are on a monthly salary.

"It was indeed reported, and we did not deny it."

Alfon notes that the taxation on books and royalties in Israel causes ongoing damage to the local culture of writing: "In the European Union, value-added tax on books is lowered or, in some countries, completely abolished, to encourage book-buying, but here the tax is at the full rate. Money paid to authors is subject to a 50-percent tax. This makes it harder for books to get to the reading public. Only the competition between publishers temporarily corrects this wrong and brings prices down, but you can't count on that for long."

Translating victims

When asked how he divides his time between the different tasks of editor in chief, Alfon says: "I spend 30 percent of my time on the process of choosing the next titles - in meetings, reading readers' reports on books and reading the books themselves. Another 30 percent is spent on discussions with the management - my two CEOs, Eran Zmora and Yoram Rose - some of them loud disagreements and some conducted as a pitch, a campaign to convince. Twenty percent of my time is spent on communications with the outside world - talking to the press, giving lectures, answering letters from clients - and another 10 percent is devoted to contacts with our authors, in phone calls, at dinners. Sometime an author feels the need to talk to me even when no book is about to come out, or because he has an emotional problem with the text that needs my intervention, and the literary editor can't help. Another 10 percent is spent helping the editors - in decisions about covers, about the text itself, about various legal issues and so on. We have 10 in-house editors and we employ more than 30 freelancers."

Choosing titles, Alfon says, is a complex business that involves quite a bit of gambling. "With regard to translated literature, we get 70 requests a day from agents and publishers around the world. We have an entire system of evaluation, with the acquisitions editor acting as a kind of hound dog that catches what appears in the world and brings it to us. With original Hebrew writing, the system is smaller but very expensive. We receive a lot of manuscripts. Out of 220 books that we published in 2007, maybe two arrived as manuscripts in envelopes. And these are two out of 3,700 manuscripts that were sent to us. Some publishers, like Yedioth Ahronoth and Schocken, have decided to charge money for reading submissions. This seems to me anticultural. Our mission is to allow authors to reach publishers."

What are the disputes with management about? The books you choose?

"No, most books are published because I recommend them. The disputes are, for example, over the rates paid to translators. We insist on paying translators no less than NIS 800 per galley sheet. It's not much; some publishers pay between NIS 900 and NIS 1,000. And in any case, it is far too low for the scope and depth of work required for translating literary works. The translators are the big victims of Israel's small market. In a larger market you can pay more and also give translators royalties. The author is also the victim of the small market, but at least he can have his revenge when he manages to sell the book abroad - then the rights belong to him, not to the publisher."

To what extent do you win these struggles with your management?

"There are two ways that an editor can succeed in his job. One is by forming an intensive resistance to his management, which is a legitimate way, but not mine. The second way is to try and convince the management that it should, for economic reasons, support you in your choices. That is my way. The third way is a disaster: Either the editor gives up and says, it's not me, the management decided, or the editor does everything the management tells him to do. Either way, the relationship with the management is like a ballet, or a very difficult dance. But dancing is a big part of the job."