The greatest week and a half of the year is coming to an end, and this year I visited the main Hebrew Book Week fairground twice. The first time, like last year, I simply collected catalogs and got a feel for the books being pushed. The second time I came with a concrete list and specifically bought the books on it. Even when the best 2-for-1 deals were against me, I stuck to my list - even if I didn't "save" as much money, I saved precious shelf space and time. In the end, I left with 16 books overall - significantly less than last year, but still a very respectable amount of books.
But what struck me most about this year was the fact that I saw through a lot of the glamour. The recent debate in Israel over price-setting by the large bookstore chains (a ridiculously heavy topic in its own right, one I've been struggling to untangle for quite some time) sparked something in me. My love affair with both of the large bookstore chains in Israel ended a long time ago, but now I started to feel a bit of the familiar animosity towards the larger publishers, something that had until that point been limited to the Anglo publishing world.
My solution was to try to keep an open mind, and more importantly, avoid falling into the publisher's traps. I came with specific requests, and made sure to avoid adding additional books to my list just because "they seemed good". If there's one thing I've learned from four years of attending HBW, it's that I tend not to read the books I bought just to fill a specific deal. They sit on the shelf and gather dust. Most publishers were accommodating - even books that hardly sold could be found among their stacks of bestsellers. Others were not - one of the largest publishers in Israel actually laughed at the fact that I expected the books on my list to be available. Needless to say, I did not purchase anything from them this year.
It's not even that I favored smaller publishers. The majority of my purchases came from well-established publishers. Many were actually best-seller type books. But even among the heaps of bestsellers, I discovered a relatively smaller publisher (though by no means tiny) that publishes a respectable amount of world literature of a non-pop variety.* And so I came away from HBW this year with books originally in Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan, French, Russian, Japanese, Polish and German.
But like I said, the glamour is fading. The booksellers this year tried so hard to convince me to buy books I didn't want. Deals changed from day to day (something which actually would have changed which books I was planning on buying, or which books I would have researched). I realized just how few books many of the larger publishers actually bring with them. It wasn't disappointing, exactly, but I realized that I wasn't actually saving as much money as I might have been had I been buying more unnecessary books. Both of my visits did, however, remind me why I wait for this week all year.
It's still a wonderfully diverse experience. It's easy to find most aspects of Israeli society at HBW, all mingling together for one simple, pure purpose. It's great to have a stranger next to me point and say, "That's not as good as his other book", easily assuming that I had read that previous novel. It's fascinating to find those publishers who stand at their own booths (rather than hiring simple booksellers) and share blurbs about the trade with anyone who knows what to ask. It's fun to find smaller publishers, where the time, devotion and care each customer receives is unlike anywhere else. Simply put, there may come a year where I will attend HBW and not purchase a single book. Unlikely, perhaps, but the simple joy of attending far outweighs any of the technical bookselling faults.
*It was also at this booth that I had the loveliest moment of the day, when the bookseller saw the two books I had chosen (thus fulfilling the 1+1 deal). I asked if she had any other recommendations. "No," she said, "you've got two excellent books right there."