Israel’s Bookstore War

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka


By Edward Nawotka

ISRAEL: Hebrew Book Week started yesterday and — not unlike the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, where oil meant for a single day burned for eight — will miraculously last for ten days. Festivities are spread out across nine cities, while forty smaller towns will be hosting smaller three day events. Established in 1926 in Tel Aviv, it has become the most important book event on the Israeli publishing calendar and is typically a book buying bonanza.

This year, though, publishers are concerned that a price war between the country’s two largest booksellers – Steimatzky, the country’s long dominant bookseller (founded in 1925, and numbering 170 stores) and competitor Tzomet Sfarim (founded in 2000, with approximately 80 stores) – is costing them too much money.

“The competition between Tzomet Sfarim and Steimatzky brought about this situation where they began undercutting each other and fought between themselves at our expense,” Avner Fahima, owner of Korim publishing house, told The Jerusalem Post. “As time goes by they announce another sale and another and another. In short, we’re selling at a loss.”

Earlier this week, the Steimatzky chain began a two-for-one sale on Hebrew books. Tzomet Sfarim then countered with an offer that customers who buy a first book at full price – typically around 90 New Israeli Shekels (or $23) — can then purchase an addition two books for just 10 NIS ($2.55).

Numerous publishers have balked at an offer to participate in the program, wrote Adi Dovrat in Tuesday’s Haaretz. One publisher, who remained anonymous, complained that to make it work, Tzomet Sfarim was essentially asking for what amounted to an 80% discount from publishers. Among those publishers not participating in the sale are Am Oved, Yedioth Books, Keter Books (itself part of Steimatzky), and Matar Books.

Modan Publishing House and Kinneret Zmora Bitan Dvir Publisher, both owned by the same company as the Tzomet Sfarim chain, are participating.

Tzomet Sfarim offered a statement to Haaretz countering the criticism:

The sale includes more than 5,000 titles from 12 publishers. More than 50% of the books on the bestseller lists in recent weeks are in the sale. We are witnessing a process that repeats itself with each sale: Some publishers are at first hesitant to join because of pressure from their competitors. But ultimately, all publishers have taken part in all our campaigns. So the real question isn’t whether they’ll join, but when.

The upstart bookstore chain credits its aggressive discounting for the nation’s dramatic surge in book buying in recent years. In 2008, Israelis bought some 15 million books, accounting for a 7% rise hike from 2007. Still, there is some doubt that — due to discounts — much extra money is reaching anyone’s bottom line.

The answer may be to fix prices, says Knesset legislator Nitzan Horowitz of the New-Movement-Meretz party, and himself a well known journalist and television presenter. He said earlier this week that he planned to submit a bill to the Knesset that will fix prices for the first two years after a book’s publication.

A representative of Book Publishers Association of Israel told Publishing Perspectives that while they were aware of the problem of discounts, they were not yet aware of the proposed legislation.

“Just right now, everyone is more concerned with celebrating the opening of Book Week,” she said.

READ: A summary of some of the events taking place this week.

BROWSE: The Web site for Hebrew Book Week (in Hebrew)

FACEABOOK: Was Tzomet Sfarim’s clever ad campaign last December.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.