February 18, 2020

Not the people of the e-book

It took a call to customer service at Mendele, the Israeli online bookseller, for Ariela Baum to figure out how to download her first e-book by a pioneering romance author two years ago, but when she finally did, her life changed. 

The e-book — finally gaining prominence in a country where print is still king — was a revelation. Not only was a plethora of Hebrew romance fiction available in the palm of her hand in an instant, but Baum also realized that she, too, could use the platform to pursue her dream of becoming an author. The Kiryat Gat resident and mother of three eventually bypassed traditional publishing outlets and put out the first of her erotic trilogy, “Hidden Secrets,” as an e-book and in a limited print run (as print-on-demand does not yet exist in Israel).

Fast-forward to April 8, to the Jewish state’s first-ever conference on romance fiction, Romantican, held in Herzliya and organized by the Book Whisperers, a blog dedicated to the genre. Here, Baum received fans at her own booth next to fellow best-selling indie romance authors. 

“The concept of an independent author is on the rise lately, and I’m proud to say I’m one of the first,” Baum told the Journal. “People are having the courage to go after their dreams.”

Developments in Hebrew e-book production and distribution can take some credit for that. While Israel is known as the startup nation and Jews as “people of the book,” the popularity of e-books in Israel has yet to catch up with their popularity in the United States, where digital sales now surpass print sales. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are still ubiquitous on major Israeli streets and in malls. But more and more Israelis are trading in paperbacks for electronic ink — as are authors.

Three years ago, Ron Dahan founded Indiebook, today Israel’s leading online bookstore, to give a fight to what he calls Israel’s bookstore “duopoly” consisting of the chains Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim.

“My vision was to change the book market, and the e-book fits into this,” Dahan said. 

Like Amazon, Indiebook offers self-published authors royalties of about 70 percent. If the company’s sales reports are any indication, digital sales in Israel have more than tripled since last year. Where Indiebook’s digital sales in March of last year accounted for 20 percent of the store’s online sales, this past March it reached 70 percent. Romance fiction, Dahan noted, is the most downloaded digital genre. 

Shalhevet Zohar runs a company called ePublish that facilitates the production and distribution of e-books for both publishers and authors (including “The Settler” by this reporter). She also teaches e-book production at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan. Like Dahan, she attributes the slow growth of Israel’s e-book market in part to the lack of a powerful sales engine, like Amazon, that mass-markets and mass-produces e-books. But there are other factors, too. 

“People are suspicious, and people cling to the romantic idea of printed books,” Zohar said. “Actually, Israelis are usually early adapters of new technology, but it’s taken longer with e-books. There is no automatic tool that perfectly creates the e-book in Hebrew.”

Ori Idan, founder and CEO of Helicon Books, has been working to change that. He developed the Helicon Reader app for tablets and smartphones to provide a solution for the Hebrew font and also to provide added encryption layers for publishers who are wary of copyright infringement. Even today, the right-to-left direction of the Hebrew language does not neatly translate to the popular Kindle e-reader. 

When Idan started in 2012, only two online stores sold Hebrew e-books: eVrit and Mendele. Today, about 10 websites sell them, some exclusively. Of those, six utilize the Helicon e-reader. Idan counts at least 5,000 titles that have come out digitally via the Helicon app and over 100,000 downloads since 2014. 

“I see more people going to digital first,” Idan said. “We also see people who write shorter books — like 100 pages — and digital provides an affordable solution.”

Another event that has contributed to the rise of e-books and the self-publishing industry, perhaps unintentionally, was the passing of Israel’s controversial Book Law in 2013 that regulates book prices, making it illegal for booksellers to offer significant discounts on the retail price of new books put out by commercial publishers. 

Rotem Sella, founder and CEO of Sella Meir Publishing, has been a major voice lobbying against the Book Law, which he says has pushed new writers out of the mainstream market; commercial publishers are wary of taking risks on new talent they’d be forced to price above $15 to $20 per book. E-books, on the other hand, are much less expensive and less of a financial risk for readers.

Sella Meir’s most recent release is the Hebrew version of the German novel “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes.  Already a best-seller in Israel, digital sales for “Look Who’s Back” account for only some 7 percent of total sales. Given the minimal effort and cost required to sell a book digitally, Sella said that it makes economic sense for any serious publisher to publish electronically, but only as an added value.

“The fact that you’re seen on the table in book stores gives it a certain worth,” Sella said. “When you’re absent from this platform, you’re not in the established press and you can’t break the threshold of public awareness.”

As for Baum, she’d rather spend her time marketing her books on the many Facebook pages dedicated to romance fiction than vying for a shelf at Steimatzky or Tzomet Sfarim. 

“It’s not worth it financially,” Baum said. “You’re left with nothing, just a few shekels from each book. If you’re not center stage on the shelves and don’t go to the stores to make sure that you are, it’s hard to sell books there.”