May 31, 2012
Israeli book price wars
by Sal Robinson
There’s been a new development in the ongoing debates in Israel over book-pricing. As Haaretz reports, about 270 authors, including heavyweights Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, have sent a letter to Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat urging her to continue to push for protection for authors’ royalties. Livnat has been working on a bill that sets limits on book discounting, an idea that has been in discussion since at least 2009. The bill would forbid retailers from discounting new books for the first 18 months after publication, except during Hebrew Book Week and before holidays, and set royalty rates (8% on the first 6,000 copies sold, 10% thereafter), which in US publishing are usually negotiated between authors and publishers.
The bill is a direct response to the price wars that have been raging between the two bookstore chains that dominate the Israeli market, Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim. Steimatzky is the old-timer: founded in 1925, Steimatzky had a virtual monopoly on the market for new books—which kept prices high—until around 2002, when Tzomet began a series of mergers and acquisitions that made it a direct competitor. There’s been furious competition on prices ever since, with two-for-one deals and extended sales periods, antitrust investigations, boycotts, demands for exclusivity, and all the hullabaloo we’re familiar with in debates over Amazon and the US market. There’s another similarity with Amazon that may also be shaping the discussions: both Steimatzky and Tzomet are part of companies that also own publishing houses—one of the mergers Tzomet made in the early 2000s was with publishing giant Kinneret Zmora Bitan Dvir. Soon after, Steimatzky merged with Keter Books, another one of the largest Israeli publishing houses, and the publishers of Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, and many foreign authors including Douglas Adams, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, and Haruki Murakami. Companies that combine bookstores and publishing houses are a longstanding feature of book marketplaces, even though they periodically seem to die out and, when extant, pose all kinds of questions about preference and competition.
Another letter was sent by a number of authors directly to Steimatzky and Tzomet, demanding that they stop selling books at “shameful and humiliating sales that plunder us of our assets.” Ouch.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.