The phrase “market volatility” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re publishing books in Israel. As part of PT’s continuing look at the book business overseas, Efrat Lev, Foreign Rights Director of the Harris/Elon Literary Agency in Jerusalem, profiles the Israeli market and parses the nation’s current bestseller list.
Reports from New York indicate that 2001 was not the best year for books, and much the same could be said for publishing in Israel. The political instability in our region has affected all walks of life, and amid the terror attacks and threats of war, we are constantly reminded of how badly our economy is doing — with still more clouds looming on the horizon. But incredibly, perhaps, not all of the news is bad. Israeli publishing has fared better than the battered tourism and entertainment sectors, for example, and many publishers have even reported an increase of 15% to 20% in book sales over the previous year. (These days, it seems, many of us prefer to simply stay at home and read.) Moreover, the usually sleepy Israeli publishing industry has seen a flurry of activity in the last few years, most recently the New York–style merger between Zmora Bitan, a venerable family-owned publishing house, and Kinneret Publishers, a large commercial house. This merger has been the talk of the town for insiders, and may precipitate a joining of forces between Zmora/Kinneret’s existing chain of discount bookstores and another chain of general bookstores — creating stiff competition for Steimatzky’s bookstore empire, which has dominated the market for many years.
By American standards, however, that market is a small one. Though Israel has a population of about 6.5 million, deducting from the count those who read in Russian and those who read in Arabic, as well as non-readers, brings the number of regular book buyers down to about 100,000. Hence the very small (and careful) print runs of about 1,500 to 2,000 copies for an average fiction or non-fiction title — from small or large publishers alike. About 4,000 titles are published annually, distributed to between 200 and 400 bookstores (the counts vary), which are mainly chain bookstores where titles live a relatively short shelf-life. Books are expensive in Israel, ranging from $11 (small format) to $20 (trade size), including 17% tax. The vast majority of books are trade paperback originals.
Given the market size, what makes a bestseller? The number of copies needed to capture a spot on the bestseller list has been steadily dropping. A translated title that sells over 5,000 copies within a year is already considered a winner; a huge seller is one selling from 20,000 to 50,000. For an Israeli work of fiction, sales of 10,000 copies ranks the book as a success, though the really big names can approach 100,000 copies. In nonfiction, on the other hand, anything over 2,000 will satisfy the publisher.
As is clear from the Israeli bestseller list (included in this issue’s bestseller chart on p. 5), successful titles come from a variety of genres. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have been selling very well in conjunction with the release of the movies. Some international bestsellers do well here (Amy Tan, The Girl With a Pearl Earring), yet most bestselling titles are still Hebrew originals. A.B. Yehoshua and Sami Michael are the current big names on the list, with the former’s work The Liberating Bride capturing the fifth spot this month. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading literary fictionists whom the New York Times once called “a kind of Israeli Faulkner,” is published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, and a number of his works are available in English, including A Late Divorce (Harcourt, 1993). Meanwhile, the Baghdad-born Sami Michael is on the list this month with Water Kissing Water. Published by the prestigious house Am Oved, the book tells the story of Joseph, an immigrant from Iraq in the 1950s who makes his assimilation to the new Israel via two complicated love stories. The book has sold almost 50,000 copies, with rights soon to be sold in Holland (Vassallucci) and Germany (Berlin). Before the invasion of the Tolkien books, Yael Hedaya’s novel Accidents and Batya Gur’s mystery Murder on Bethlehem Road also made strong appearances on the lists. And new works by Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev promise fierce competition in the lists of the coming year.
Translations of fiction tend to stay near the upper end of the genre, and such works of literature are well received. Consequently, the percentage of translated titles on a publisher’s list can be anywhere between 40% and 60%, depending on the publisher. José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, is an annual visitor to the list (Blindness spent most of 2001 on the charts), and Ian McEwan, Paul Auster, and J.M. Coetzee also do consistently well here. Yet hardly any translated thriller or mystery can sell as well as the local titles. Tom Clancy’s The Bear & The Dragon, for example, only made the list for one week in November.
‘Morrie’, Zen in Hot Demand
As for recent nonfiction, while the rest of the publishing world rushed out titles bearing any connection to September 11, Israelis saw very little in the way of tomes on terror and Islam. This is quite possibly because terror is such a part of our daily reality. Books serve more for escape rather than information. Hence bestselling current affairs titles will deal most likely with local politics, society, or a recent Israeli historical event. (Although surprising bestsellers have been Stalingrad and Fermat’s Last Theorem.) Other topics that appeal to our readers are alternative health, spirituality (Eastern religions and practices rather than Jewish spirituality), inspiration and self-help (Who Moved My Cheese? was a big hit, while Morrie in His Own Words is still on the list), and plenty of cookbooks by local chefs (including one from our agency’s director, Beth Elon’s Mediterranean Farm Cooking). Children’s bestsellers (other than HP, that is) include regular stars, mainly Spot and Felix. Olivia has also visited the list recently, as has William Steig’s lovable ogre Shrek, briefly.
It could be assumed that this multitude of translations has improved the professional standards of work in translation, but unfortunately this is not the case. Much has been written here about bad translations which are not edited properly. Leading literary publishers continue to uphold the quality of their translated books, but the more commercial houses seem to prefer cheap labor and shorter production processes, with appalling results. Publishers and agents abroad are well advised to take notice as they sell rights to Israeli publishers. It is a shame to see so much fine literature lost in translation.