The true value of cheap books: why a law intended to help Israeli authors ended up hurting them instead.

Author:Rosner, Shmuel


It is Book Week in Tel Aviv. At Rabin Square, the tables are loaded with volumes, old and new, light and heavy, and buyers are leafing through them as they move from one publisher's table to the next. But the main topic of conversation is not an exciting new author or a provocative bestseller. Instead it is legislation--or, rather, the elimination of a thoroughly wrongheaded piece of legislation with as yet unknown consequences.

Two years ago, Israel, for reasons I still struggle to understand, decided to re-engineer its vibrant book market. Then-Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, backed by an energetic Member of Knesset from Meretz, Nitzan Horowitz, and encouraged by a chorus of Israeli authors--Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, Meir Shalev, Dorit Rabinyan, Haim Be'er and many others--convinced the Knesset to pass legislation attempting to regulate the market. Modeled after a similar French law, the new Israeli law made it a criminal violation to give a discount on a book in the first 18 months after publication. It also established rules for bookstores dictating the ratio of books they could present from each publisher. That is to say, whether a publisher was wonderful or lousy, the bookstore had to choose its books based on rules made by politicians. (Full disclosure: I work for an Israeli publisher that opposed the legislation.)

The idea behind the law was simple: Books in Israel were selling for prices the politicians considered too low. Discounts were common; special sales were frequent. The public enjoyed it, of course, but authors complained that with such prices, they could not make a living. The minister of culture thought it was her job to help Israeli authors make a living. She also thought the way to do this was to make books more expensive. She forgot the simple rule of capitalism: In most cases, the market sets the price of a product better than most politicians do.

This was a familiar battle: protectionism versus the free market. Interestingly, it was also a battle of the old novelists' elite versus newcomers. Low book prices--culminating in the campaign of "four (books) for a hundred (Israeli shekels)"--made the market for books much more egalitarian. In Israel, the number of books per capita is one of the highest in the world. Instead of going into a bookstore and buying one book by a well-established author--say, Amos Oz--Israelis can go into a bookstore and buy Oz and three more for...

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