MKs on the Cheap

Knesset members are not ordinary folk. They are highly cultured people, with a deep understanding of the importance of literary creation. Therefore, they recently girded their loins and stepped up to prevent the masses from flooding the bookstores and buying books on sale, heaven forfend. To this end they established a wall-to-wall coalition - from Likud to Meretz. On one end Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and on the other, MK Nitzan Horowitz (New Movement-Meretz). They were happily joined by MKs Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), Nachman Shai (Kadima) and Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), who never pass up a chance for a populist move or a headline.

The hard-working lawmakers want us to go back to the good old days, when buying a book was a festive, formative occasion. Why should every minimum-wage worker be able to just go out and buy a book, or a young couple at the mall take advantage of a four-books-for-NIS 100 deal? Is there no limit to the disgrace to literature and to authors?

They want us to stop buying books as lovely gifts at reasonable prices; they want the purchase of a book to go back to being an act that is weightily considered and planned. Discounts should be abolished and prices should be raised, so that we will learn to appreciate good literature and high culture.

In the best Orwellian tradition ("war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength"), they call their bill "the law to protect authors and literature." But if passed this law will have exactly the opposite effect: It will harm authors and destroy literature.

MKs who have never run even a little neighborhood kiosk know how to manage a bookstore chain, how to set prices and to whom to distribute the profits. That is how they produced a Bolshevik bill that clumsily interferes in the book market in an unprecedented manner.

This bizarre bill would require every book to be printed with a "recommended price" that in effect will become the minimum price. It will not be worthwhile to give discounts, because the law specifies the exact amount the publisher and the author will receive, calculated as a percentage of that high "recommended price."

But might different authors deserve different levels of compensation? After all, 5,000 titles are published in Israel every year! Can they all be the work of an Amos Oz or a David Grossman? But that does not bother the MKs. They want to decide everything, even the discounts given during Hebrew Book Week. They would impose various and sundry prohibitions on giving incentives to sellers and on the placement of books in the stores. In short, this is a law that would not pass even in the Soviet Union, and no Western country has a similar law - not even France.

Antitrust Commissioner Ronit Kan, who studied the book market a few months ago, wrote in a detailed report that it is a competitive, growing and dynamic market. Kan presented data showing that the number of Hebrew titles grew by 25% in the past year, and people bought many more books because prices dropped. There is therefore no reason to interfere in the market; it is working fine.

But the MKs ignore the expert's report. They want books to have a "respectable" price, and in practice will cause the market to shrink both in variety and quantity. Because when the limitations of the law are imposed, stores will have to cancel their discounts and raise prices, and the whole market will suffer. Fewer books will be sold and royalties will dwindle, because demand for books is flexible. Thus, the entire industry will be hurt; stores will take in less money, and in turn publishers will receive less revenue, as will authors. Everyone will be hurt by this clumsy meddling.

Sometimes the state intervenes and sets maximum prices for staples such as bread and milk to protect the poor. But here they are doing the opposite: They are raising prices through the force of law, which will hurt mainly those with lower incomes and young couples struggling to pay their mortgage. And so a whole generation will stay out of the bookstores they began to frequent in the past few years.

But don't worry. The MKs understand life full well. They will not allow the ignorant masses to buy lots of books cheaply. Because worthy books are only for people like them, with the kind of wages that MKs make and who belong to the lofty, elitist culture.