June 10, 2010

Hebrew Book Week - Part VI: The End(?)

This week the city of Ramat Gan awarded a lifetime achievement award to Prof. Menachem Perry, cantankerous and venerable editor of the "New Library" ("Hasifriya Hahadasha") imprint, who had some harsh words regarding the state of Israeli literature:
Today this complex known as Hebrew Literature, the literary system coming into being, no longer exists... The end of literature, the age of "like literature" and "like publishers," predates by far the end of good books. we have books, but we don't have literature. More than a few good books are published in Israel, sometimes even by the cynical commercial publishers, but they appear stealthily one by one, into a literary desert, and are decreed to exist, like a fish out of water, out of any context of a cultural-literary system, following the collapse of the literary republic's walls.
Books in the "New Library" imprint, clockwise from top left: Textile by Orly Castel Bloom, Friendly Fire: A Duet by A. B. Yehoshua, To the End of the Land by David Grossman, Finale by Hanoch Levin.

Perry did not exempt himself from criticism and admitted that his life's work is gone, did not survive, and accepted the award as "a consolation prize." Though it may seem that Perry is calling for a return to the canon and the dictation of tastes by a certain literary elite, he is actually lamenting the lack of active debate and argument:
Literature is not a democratic pile of books. It has a center and a periphery, it has judgments, rejections and revitalizations... Its hierarchies are never stable, they're always threatened. No one appointed its leading speakers, and no one grew them. These are critics that have won their status in the republic through hard work and constant activity; that have trained themselves by accumulating broad knowledge, and are tested according to the quality of their taste, the extent of their cultural responsibility, their ability to withstand constant challenges and ongoing debates.
Books have no life without the conversation around them. Without that kaleidoscope of creative narratives and competing narratives which the critical conversation supplies.
Perry's statements can be linked to global trends in literature,reading habits, and publishing, but they are also specifically related to the odd structure of the Israeli book market, wherein the two biggest bookstore chains are owned by the two biggest publishers, who in turn have a complex network of links to medium and small publishers, that are often reduced to de facto imprints of the bigger houses. The duopoly of the two bookstore chains (which makes up 80% of the book market) and the heated competition between them come at the expense of:
  1. Independent bookstores that can't compete with their discounts and omnipresence (and therefore hardly exist in Israel).
  2. Independent publishers that have to compete with the books published by the bigger, store-owning publisher, that are usually cheaper, more widely promoted, and always in stock.
  3. Authors whose writing has to meet broad commercial standards and whose royalties are calculated as a percentage of the sale price, which due to excessive discounts amount to very little.
  4. Readers who face a narrower, lower quality, and less diverse selection of titles to choose from.
Major publishing houses and bookstore chains in Israel (click image to enlarge)

Recently, one of the chain stores separated from its owner/publisher, and its CEO is now advocating the separation by law of publishing houses from book store chains, but even if this were accomplished the duopoly would remain, as would the intense competition which harms the authors most of all (already competing over a very small market). Other proposals include the limitation of discounts given by the chains (who sometimes have sales that offer as many as 3 or 4 books for the price of one), and setting the author's royalties at a minimum of 7% off the cover price (between $1.40-1.60, whereas now they average 18 cents per book sold at full price, and even less for books sold at a discount). The most ridiculous aspect of all this might be that there are still people like me who actually want to be published.

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