Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hope: A Hebrew Book Week story

I'm linking to this video, even though it's in Hebrew and I know the majority of you won't be able to understand it, but just in case, it's worth a view. Essentially, an "undercover reporter" goes to the two major bookstore chains in Israel to observe their downright embarrassing Hebrew Book Week selling and marketing tactics. On a superficial level, nothing in this video is new to me, but it highlights a lot of the problems I have with the Israeli publishing and bookselling markets.

Israel has two major bookstore chains. These two chains do not merely compete, they battle each other tooth and nail, while almost any other form of competition has been pushed to the sidelines. To be perfectly honest, until a year ago the only independent Israeli bookstores I knew about were secondhand shops. Recently I've discovered a few legitimate, non-chain bookstores that stock new books, but even these stores usually have discounts along the lines of the major chains, also publisher-based.

The problem with Steimatzky and Tsomet Sfarim (the two major chains) isn't just their aggressive competition. It's their ties to the publishing industry. Tsomet Sfarim is owned by two major Israeli publishers, Steimatzky is partnered with two others. There is a constant, never-ending stream of discounts and sales, but exclusively for the books that that specific store is teamed with. The popular titles from the other publishers are obviously sold, but finding a slightly more obscure, older or (god forbid) independently published book is nearly impossible. The focus is entirely on the bestsellers, and more specifically on the bestsellers from the partnered publishers.

None of this is new. I stopped buying at these bookstores years ago, once I got tired of booksellers who knew way less than me and were just trying to earn a commission. Which makes the linked video even more interesting. Because in it, an experienced worker explains that "the customers don't need to know" that the books that are on display and are discounted are actually the books that the store's owners are publishing. And it strikes me that many readers probably don't know, probably in the same way that they don't grill their bookseller enough to figure out if the recommendation is sincere or scripted.

Some take this as an opportunity to declare the end of Israeli literature. Specifically one someone: the always outspoken and rather prickish Mr Menachem Perry, himself the editor of an Israeli publishing house. Perry has been declaring the death of Israeli literary culture for at least six years now (six years that I'm aware of it, at the very least). And though I completely disagree with him when it comes to most of the crotchety old man nonsense he spouts out, he's right that the current situation is seriously harming Israel's literary culture, in the same way that any homogenized, limited and severely profit-based literary culture may be.

Here's the reason I feel hope regardless. It's possible to dig through. It's possible to find booksellers who truly and sincerely care about the literature, with no regard for the publisher. I once had a long, very detailed conversation with a seller who eventually recommended a book to me that was from a different publishing house (we'll ignore for a moment that I hated the book, though it's considered to be a grand literary achievement...). During Hebrew Book Week, some booksellers try only to peddle the bestsellers, but behind them are the selectors and the publishers and the translators, and a whole heap of people who do care. And who, when I ask for a backlog title, squeal with excitement and tell me how much they love that book. Or lean forward and whisper, "I shouldn't be telling you this, but if you liked this book, you should read [other publisher's book]." Or stare, dumbstruck, as they realize that I've read most of the books on their table and a few that aren't. And then say, "You're my hero!"

It's possible to find readers who know how to look for books. It's possible to find bookstores that - despite their perpetual discounts and attempts to match the larger chains - genuinely want to sell you good books. It's possible to find beautifully crafted Israeli novels published by both larger publishers and smaller ones. It's possible to find quality literary critique. It's possible to change things, if we're only willing to try.

This year I'm feeling more disconnected from Hebrew Book Week than I ever have in the past. It might have something to do with my unrelenting schedule, my recent reading slump, and the fact that I am far away from the major Tel Aviv fairground. But I will be attending Hebrew Book Week this year, just as I have every year. Like last year, it will be without rose-tinted glasses. It will be knowing full well which books the publishers want me to read. It will be knowing full well that there will be arguments, and glares, and difficulties getting what I truly want.

But it will be with hope.

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