Prolific blogger and modern social media/marketing personality Seth Godin has claimed that “books remain the tool of choice for changing the discussion and for impacting the way people think. There’s really no better way for an individual to speak up with authority.”
Considering that Israel is apparently the country where people buy the most books per capita, this could be good news. What better way to “change the discussion” and “impact the way people think” in this tense, charged and volatile country than to sit everyone down with a good book? But then we would be forced to answer a crucial question: which book would it be?
What is interesting about book-buying in Israel today, as opposed to a few years ago, is that Israeli literature sells much better than translated fiction. This might seem self-evident, but up until relatively recently, it wasn’t. It seems as if the outside world exerts less pull than it used to. Israelis are more inward-looking, more interested in reading expressions of their own situation than in escaping into descriptions of others.
Whatever the reason, the consequence made room for my role at Israeli publishing house Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, where I work both in helping to pick what gets translated, and in marketing the finished product. This regularly puts me in bookstores across the (admittedly small) length and breadth of Israel, where I attempt to convince sellers and store managers that this incredibly successful New York Times bestselling, Orange prize for fiction winning, translated title will have equal appeal here in Israel. It’s surprisingly tough.
Having dealt with both commercial and more literary titles, it’s difficult to pinpoint what kind of books Israelis will like. Recent bestsellers have included Margaret Atwood’s superbly written and Booker shortlisted “Cat’s Eye” as well as Elizabeth Gilbert’s slightly more commercial offering, “Eat, Pray, Love.”
One thing comes across clearly, however: Every bookshop I visit is almost always busy, and people of all ages and backgrounds frequently come in with specific requests for books they’ve heard about or read reviews of. While it’s true that I never intensively toured the book stores of London, I can’t ever remember anyone coming in to buy the equivalent of 575 shekels’ worth of books without a second thought, like they were out buying groceries (today’s notable encounter in Ashkelon). We — can I yet include myself in the Israeli “we”? — need the written word just as much as we do that overpriced tub of cottage cheese.
Given that books in this country are almost as prohibitively priced as food (mitigated, admittedly, by the constant cycle of sales), this is even better news than the esteemed Mr. Godin’s declaration. It seems that even in a market flooded with books, the people of the book continue to live up to their name.