Interview with Alex Epstein about Israeli book-pricing
by Sal Robinson
There have been major debates over book-pricing in Israel lately, as recently covered in a MobyLives report. And this week brought some news: a bill that would limit discounting and set minimum royalty rates has been approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and will now move to the Knesset. To get a writer’s perspective on the issue, I posed a few questions to Alex Epstein, who started the petition “Call to the People of the Book” in April. Alex is the author of a number of books: Blue Has No South and Lunar Savings Time have been translated into English, and he published his newest book, For My Next Illusion I Will Use Wings, on Facebook and in print (English excerpts are available on Electric Literature’s Facebook page).
SR: Can you tell me about your “Call to the People of the Book”? What prompted it, how did you send it out, and what has the response been like?
AE: The debate on the situation of the Hebrew book industry is not a new one. It started more or less right after the two chains started to sell books as if they were rotten tomatoes, “buy 1, get 3 more” and etc. What always bothered me in this debate is that it was conducted with almost no creative effort from the side of the publishers and the writers. So I did something which seemed like the only thing I could do, wrote a manifesto calling on readers to support independent bookstores and to buy books only there and not in the two chains that are literally destroying our literature. I published it on Facebook, having no real expectations that it would actually change anything. But the response was immediate and overwhelming. The text went viral in no time (more than 1000 likes and 500 shares). Later, in order to demonstrate what will happen in a society that treats its publishers and translators and editors as it does now, I Google-translated the openings of some of world’s best literature into Hebrew. Anna Karenina, Lolita, Don Quixote, etc. As you can imagine, the result was hilarious and scary…. Since then—not only because of my texts, of course—it seems like a Pandora’s box has been opened; most of Israel’s writers signed different petitions against the radical discounting of books, and most of the government members changed their mind and decided to support the law for books.
SR: What do you think of the new bill that sets limits on discounting? Good idea, bad idea?
AE: The bill is a necessity right now, even if it comes too late and fails to tackle the fact that one of the chains is owned by the biggest publisher in Israel (Kinneret Zmora Bitan Dvir). There is no other country in the world where books are being sold this way—if the bill doesn’t pass most of Israel’s best publishing houses will have to shut down in a year or two. Nobody can survive or publish good literature when they are losing money on every book.
SR: Is there a strong independent bookstore scene in Israel? Are there alternatives to Tzomet Sfarim and Steimatzky? Where do you find/buy books? Is Amazon a major player there, the way it is here?
AE: There are a few dozen independent bookstores—ten years ago there were more than 200. They all had to close due to the chains. But the ones that are still left are fantastic, and that’s the reason I could write in my manifesto that they are the only democratic choice that is left for people who respect books, editors, writers, translators…. There is no popular platform for digital books in Israel yet, and Amazon is not selling books, digital or in print, in Hebrew (I guess that the market is just too small). I know that many publishers and writers in the USA are concerned with Amazon’s domination, but if you compare it to the completely unfair trade we have in Israel, Amazon seems like the best bookstore in the world….
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House, and co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.