Where Did the Royalties Go? Israeli Authors Fall Victim to Coronavirus Cuts

A long list of delays and cancellations due to the coronavirus cause heavy losses to Hebrew authors and others working in the publishing industry

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A book store in Tel Aviv, 2018.
A book store in Tel Aviv, 2018. Credit: Moti Milrod
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

This is a terrible time financially for the entire cultural world. But authors seeking information about their royalty payments for books lent out by public libraries in 2019 have been told they may not get any, and it’s not clear whether they’ll get paid for 2020 either.

The company that the Culture Ministry hired to calculate and distribute the royalties wrote on its website that so far, the Finance Ministry hasn’t approved a budget for royalties. Authors who sought elaboration were told that since there hasn’t been a government capable of passing a budget for the past year, it isn’t possible to pay them for the use of their books.

Even in normal times, royalty payments are low and based on incomplete data. And that’s especially true since the Culture Ministry amended the royalty regulations for books borrowed in public libraries exactly two years ago.

The new rules lowered the payments, which in any case is based only on a sampling of libraries. Moreover, they set a minimum for how many times a book must be borrowed and stated that authors whose book loans fell below this level would get no money at all. Finally, a maximum payment of 18,000 shekels ($5,100) was set. All these changes were made following a debate in the Knesset.

At the same time, the ministry decided to replace the company in charge of conducting the sampling and making the payments. And apparently because of this decision, authors ended up receiving no royalties at all for 2016.

“About a month ago, I tried to find out what was going to happen with the payment for 2019,” author Sharon Zohar said. “There’s an announcement on the website saying, ‘As of now, the Finance Ministry hasn’t approved a budget for the past year.’ The ‘past year’ they’re talking about is 2019.

“Last year, I got royalties for 2018 in November 2019,” she continued. “Therefore, there will be no payment for 2019. Even if they approve a budget now, maybe I’ll see it in 2021, and I don’t know what will happen regarding 2020. Will we see any money for hundreds or thousands of loans?

“This is my living; I work hard for it. And everyone benefits from it except me.”

The library loan payments join a long list of delays and cancellations stemming from the coronavirus that have caused heavy losses to authors and others working in the publishing industry. The economy has been in lockdown during one of the most crucial seasons for the industry – the pre-Pesach sales and activities related to the annual Hebrew Book Week, which usually takes place in early June but will be delayed this year.

While Hebrew Book Week is the major sales event, it’s always accompanied by a Reading Month during which many events are held in public libraries and schools. This is an important source of income for the authors who are invited to meetings with their readers.

The Book Publishers Association of Israel is trying to schedule Hebrew Book Week in July or September this year, but there’s still no final decision, much less a date. And Reading Month has been canceled entirely. All this has a harsh impact on many authors.

“Government grants to the self-employed for the coronavirus, which focus solely on March and April, don’t provide a solution at this stage to artists in general and to authors in particular,” author Yannets Levi wrote on his Facebook page recently. “The huge blow dealt by the decline in sales will be reflected in authors’ income only in October, because the payments are made twice a year.

“But the biggest blow for most authors is the cancellation of meetings with authors in schools and libraries and the cancellation of Hebrew Book Week in May-June,” he continued. “These are peak activity months that at the moment have been canceled completely.

“The grant applications don’t allow these months to be taken into account, and that’s why so many authors are being left with no income and no horizon, even as they know the rest of the year will be even worse, because of the halt in sales that occurred around Pesach,” he concluded.

Publishers aren’t doing great either. Only some of them have resumed work, including Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Am Oved; at most major publishers, the situation is still unclear.

Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, for instance, is supposed to go back to work next month, but employees put on unpaid leave still haven’t received official notification to this effect. Modan will resume work on June 1, but it’s not clear when Yedioth Books, one of the country’s largest publishers, will do so.

Some publishers are talking about resuming full operations only this fall, which puts their editors, translators, printers and distribution agents in a particularly bad situation.

“It’s clear there will be a wave of dismissals under cover of the coronavirus,” said a person employed in one of these fields by one publishing house. “We’re afraid this is an opportunity to thin the ranks. At the moment, there’s no forecast for resuming. They aren’t talking to us, and who knows when it will happen.”

The Culture Ministry said it “pays royalties to authors every year for loans of their books by public libraries. But because the national budget for 2020 hasn’t yet been approved, the project of paying authors on the basis of borrowing data for 2019 hasn’t yet received budgetary approval.

“Out of recognition of the importance of this project and the necessity of encouraging reading and granting appreciation and compensation to Israeli authors, the ministry has asked the Finance Ministry’s exceptions committee to approve the agreement in order to advance the payment of royalties to authors,” it continued. “When we get a decision from the Finance Ministry, the ministry will let the authors know.”

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