The Folks Who Destroyed Hebrew Literature

The law to protect authors did precisely the opposite, reducing sales and hurting everyone in the publishing field. The new Knesset must repeal the law.

Eyal Toueg

A year after the Law for the Protection of Literature and Authors in Israel went into effect, it’s clear that it’s done precisely the opposite of what it supposedly set out to do.

The three politicians who promoted and pushed through this law - Limor Livnat, minister of Culture, Science and Sport; Amram Mitzna, chairman of the Education Committee, and MK Nitzan Horowitz - are not running for Knesset this time around but have left behind enormous destruction. 

These lawmakers, along with other MKs who never managed so much as a corner grocery store, decided that they were smarter than all the laws of business and economics. (Horowitz in particular prefers government management to the free market.)

They decided that books shouldn’t be sold cheap or on sale, so their law prohibited retailers from cutting the cover price of a book for a year and a half after it was published.

The public, the lawmakers asserted, would continue to buy the same amount of books as before since they’d have no choice. And as a result, authors, publishers and bookstores would all profit.

News flash to the Knesset: Markets don’t work that way.

Buyers don’t frequent bookstores much to begin with, and when they do, they skip the shelves of expensive new books (64 to 79 shekels, about $16 to $20) and seek out the books that are on sale at about half those prices. Those are the books that were fortunate enough to reach the stores before the law went into effect.

The upshot: Sales of new books have plummeted by around 35 percent.

These fine lawmakers said the law would protect authors and boost their incomes. They stipulated that an author would receive 8 percent of the price of a book. Terrific.

But when sales for even some of the best-known authors plunge as much as 60 percent, incomes fall precipitously, to the point where some writers cannot believe that their books are selling in such minuscule quantities.

While every author’s greatest desire is to reach as many readers as possible, now even libraries are ordering fewer books due to the high costs.

The law is also foolish because a book is most strongly marketed and advertised when it has just been published, and who’s going to remember any of that a year and a half later, when the book can finally be sold at a discount?

The law mainly hurts new, unknown authors. Publishers don’t want to take chances on them, reasoning that readers won’t pay high prices for books by authors with whom they’re unfamiliar.

So they ask new writers to bear the publishing costs themselves - to the tune of about 40,000 shekels. That’s deadly for new writing talents, who will never have a chance to be discovered. And that means that it’s not only authors who are getting hurt, but literature and culture in general.

Authors of books for children and youth have been hit especially hard. Retailers can’t sell new children’s books at full price when classic old children’s books are on the shelf for half price.

In other words, the Law for the Protection Authors has become the Law for the Detriment of Authors.

Publishers who supported the law are also hurting. The numbers of new books they are releasing have declined by dozens of percent, forcing them to cut staff and seriously hurting their profits.

Editors, translators, proofreaders, illustrators and book designers have all been affected. And just to survive, bookstores are allotting more of their space to sell toys, stationery and CDs.

The law also did not limit only book discounts and special sales. It also banned giving incentives to sellers, and it required store managers to display books in specific ways.

Because of the law, people in lower-income cities like Sderot and Ofakim, as well as soldiers and university students, can’t buy new books. Only the rich can afford them.

The law was supposed to be socially conscious. It’s in fact disastrous for everyone concerned.

Livnat, Mitzna and Horowitz: They came, they wrecked, they left. The new Knesset must undo the damage and repeal the law.