Showing posts with label HBW. Show all posts
Showing posts with label HBW. Show all posts

Friday, July 4, 2014

A bullet-point post

I am finding myself with many posts I'd like to write, but no time in which to write them (right now). So instead: a bullet-point update and random issues post.

WITMonth stuff:

  • August is coming! If you haven't already heard (and who are we kidding, if you're reading this post, you've heard...), August is Women in Translation Month here on the blog, on your blog, on your phone, in your favorite reading nook... wherever!
  • One of the ideas we had for WITMonth was guest posts and blog exchanges... Since I'm entirely inexperienced in this "hosting" thing, I'm really not sure if this is going to happen/if there's an interest - I'd love to get feedback from you guys on the matter.
  • I know I keep saying this, but spread the word! I think it'll be really amazing to see a WITMonth that spans the spectrum of the literary community, from lit-in-translation bloggers to YA to mystery to sci-fi... If you know someone who might appreciate just looking into the matter... I give you my blessing to bug them about this.
Other stuff:
  •  I have a lot of thoughts about Ruth Graham's "young adults should only be read by young adults" thing, and after having read many response pieces (most of which, I felt, completely missed the point), I want to respond even more virulently. The original article is so absurd for so many reasons, but so are many responses that claim to "set the record straight". For me, there are so many levels on which I just do not agree with the idea that books ought to be dismissed by who they are written for (or often, who they are marketed for). The age of the protagonist has nothing to do with the age of the reader - goodness, can't adults read To Kill a Mockingbird? Or should children not read books like The Count of Monte Cristo, because all the characters are adults? And what should the elderly do? Obviously reading "middle-aged" books is out, they're 30-40 years removed from that, it's just embarrassing! They can only read books about old people, because that's how literature works. There are so many issues with arguments about age-designations as "genres" that I find myself truly... angry, I suppose. As soon as I have the time, I'd like to carefully explain why I don't think that any of this really matters.
  • I also had a fairly unpleasant response to the "What happened to literary blogging?" piece by Mark Thwaite from a couple weeks ago - like Graham's piece from above, there's a level of utter disconnect. It's a  piece that doesn't both to do its research, and defines a huge field very, very narrowly. Literary blogging is, for Thwaite, his sort of blogging, about the sorts of books that he reads. He describes a yearning for long-form criticism, but his definition of criticism is... bad. Coming from a community where I can pointed to literally hundreds of fantastic literary blogs (in every genre, yes, even in SFF and young adult!), this sort of article comes off as even more pretentious than his actual blog (which I follow) ever did. The whole piece left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I think that it deserves a more careful and explicit response piece.
  • Hebrew Book Week this year resulted in a lot of super amazing things (many related to the Women in Translation project) - I'm not sure I'll have time to get into all of them, but I had some fascinating one-on-one conversations with the heads of four different Israeli publishing houses while browsing for books, and also some really eye-opening discussions with booksellers and translators. Like every year, the experience was truly wonderful. But I think it might have been surpassed this year by the level of discourse and the fact that I actually was able to reach some of the publishers. Plus, they handed out free chocolate slabs. So...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hope: A Hebrew Book Week story

I'm linking to this video, even though it's in Hebrew and I know the majority of you won't be able to understand it, but just in case, it's worth a view. Essentially, an "undercover reporter" goes to the two major bookstore chains in Israel to observe their downright embarrassing Hebrew Book Week selling and marketing tactics. On a superficial level, nothing in this video is new to me, but it highlights a lot of the problems I have with the Israeli publishing and bookselling markets.

Israel has two major bookstore chains. These two chains do not merely compete, they battle each other tooth and nail, while almost any other form of competition has been pushed to the sidelines. To be perfectly honest, until a year ago the only independent Israeli bookstores I knew about were secondhand shops. Recently I've discovered a few legitimate, non-chain bookstores that stock new books, but even these stores usually have discounts along the lines of the major chains, also publisher-based.

The problem with Steimatzky and Tsomet Sfarim (the two major chains) isn't just their aggressive competition. It's their ties to the publishing industry. Tsomet Sfarim is owned by two major Israeli publishers, Steimatzky is partnered with two others. There is a constant, never-ending stream of discounts and sales, but exclusively for the books that that specific store is teamed with. The popular titles from the other publishers are obviously sold, but finding a slightly more obscure, older or (god forbid) independently published book is nearly impossible. The focus is entirely on the bestsellers, and more specifically on the bestsellers from the partnered publishers.

None of this is new. I stopped buying at these bookstores years ago, once I got tired of booksellers who knew way less than me and were just trying to earn a commission. Which makes the linked video even more interesting. Because in it, an experienced worker explains that "the customers don't need to know" that the books that are on display and are discounted are actually the books that the store's owners are publishing. And it strikes me that many readers probably don't know, probably in the same way that they don't grill their bookseller enough to figure out if the recommendation is sincere or scripted.

Some take this as an opportunity to declare the end of Israeli literature. Specifically one someone: the always outspoken and rather prickish Mr Menachem Perry, himself the editor of an Israeli publishing house. Perry has been declaring the death of Israeli literary culture for at least six years now (six years that I'm aware of it, at the very least). And though I completely disagree with him when it comes to most of the crotchety old man nonsense he spouts out, he's right that the current situation is seriously harming Israel's literary culture, in the same way that any homogenized, limited and severely profit-based literary culture may be.

Here's the reason I feel hope regardless. It's possible to dig through. It's possible to find booksellers who truly and sincerely care about the literature, with no regard for the publisher. I once had a long, very detailed conversation with a seller who eventually recommended a book to me that was from a different publishing house (we'll ignore for a moment that I hated the book, though it's considered to be a grand literary achievement...). During Hebrew Book Week, some booksellers try only to peddle the bestsellers, but behind them are the selectors and the publishers and the translators, and a whole heap of people who do care. And who, when I ask for a backlog title, squeal with excitement and tell me how much they love that book. Or lean forward and whisper, "I shouldn't be telling you this, but if you liked this book, you should read [other publisher's book]." Or stare, dumbstruck, as they realize that I've read most of the books on their table and a few that aren't. And then say, "You're my hero!"

It's possible to find readers who know how to look for books. It's possible to find bookstores that - despite their perpetual discounts and attempts to match the larger chains - genuinely want to sell you good books. It's possible to find beautifully crafted Israeli novels published by both larger publishers and smaller ones. It's possible to find quality literary critique. It's possible to change things, if we're only willing to try.

This year I'm feeling more disconnected from Hebrew Book Week than I ever have in the past. It might have something to do with my unrelenting schedule, my recent reading slump, and the fact that I am far away from the major Tel Aviv fairground. But I will be attending Hebrew Book Week this year, just as I have every year. Like last year, it will be without rose-tinted glasses. It will be knowing full well which books the publishers want me to read. It will be knowing full well that there will be arguments, and glares, and difficulties getting what I truly want.

But it will be with hope.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Glamour fades, still amazed - HBW 2012

The greatest week and a half of the year is coming to an end, and this year I visited the main Hebrew Book Week fairground twice. The first time, like last year, I simply collected catalogs and got a feel for the books being pushed. The second time I came with a concrete list and specifically bought the books on it. Even when the best 2-for-1 deals were against me, I stuck to my list - even if I didn't "save" as much money, I saved precious shelf space and time. In the end, I left with 16 books overall - significantly less than last year, but still a very respectable amount of books.

But what struck me most about this year was the fact that I saw through a lot of the glamour. The recent debate in Israel over price-setting by the large bookstore chains (a ridiculously heavy topic in its own right, one I've been struggling to untangle for quite some time) sparked something in me. My love affair with both of the large bookstore chains in Israel ended a long time ago, but now I started to feel a bit of the familiar animosity towards the larger publishers, something that had until that point been limited to the Anglo publishing world.

My solution was to try to keep an open mind, and more importantly, avoid falling into the publisher's traps. I came with specific requests, and made sure to avoid adding additional books to my list just because "they seemed good". If there's one thing I've learned from four years of attending HBW, it's that I tend not to read the books I bought just to fill a specific deal. They sit on the shelf and gather dust. Most publishers were accommodating - even books that hardly sold could be found among their stacks of bestsellers. Others were not - one of the largest publishers in Israel actually laughed at the fact that I expected the books on my list to be available. Needless to say, I did not purchase anything from them this year.

It's not even that I favored smaller publishers. The majority of my purchases came from well-established publishers. Many were actually best-seller type books. But even among the heaps of bestsellers, I discovered a relatively smaller publisher (though by no means tiny) that publishes a respectable amount of world literature of a non-pop variety.* And so I came away from HBW this year with books originally in Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan, French, Russian, Japanese, Polish and German.

But like I said, the glamour is fading. The booksellers this year tried so hard to convince me to buy books I didn't want. Deals changed from day to day (something which actually would have changed which books I was planning on buying, or which books I would have researched). I realized just how few books many of the larger publishers actually bring with them. It wasn't disappointing, exactly, but I realized that I wasn't actually saving as much money as I might have been had I been buying more unnecessary books. Both of my visits did, however, remind me why I wait for this week all year.

It's still a wonderfully diverse experience. It's easy to find most aspects of Israeli society at HBW, all mingling together for one simple, pure purpose. It's great to have a stranger next to me point and say, "That's not as good as his other book", easily assuming that I had read that previous novel. It's fascinating to find those publishers who stand at their own booths (rather than hiring simple booksellers) and share blurbs about the trade with anyone who knows what to ask. It's fun to find smaller publishers, where the time, devotion and care each customer receives is unlike anywhere else. Simply put, there may come a year where I will attend HBW and not purchase a single book. Unlikely, perhaps, but the simple joy of attending far outweighs any of the technical bookselling faults.

*It was also at this booth that I had the loveliest moment of the day, when the bookseller saw the two books I had chosen (thus fulfilling the 1+1 deal). I asked if she had any other recommendations. "No," she said, "you've got two excellent books right there."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

HBW vs. BEA, or, Am I missing something?

Every year around the end of May, the book blogging world is abuzz with news about BEA: bloggers reporting that they're attending, bloggers reporting that they aren't, literary magazines condemning or praising the events, librarians excited, booksellers eager, publishers nervous... everyone is talking about this one single event: Book Expo America.

But for me, the end of May symbolizes the start of June, and thus the approaching Hebrew Book Week (HBW). Suddenly I realize that the publishers are getting ready. Suddenly I realize that it's been a while since I last purchased a book. Suddenly it's time to do my homework and figure out what I'm going to buy this year.

For the past three years, it's been difficult not to compare the two book-related events in my mind. Though I've never attended BEA, I've been able to build a pretty good image of what it must look like, based in part on blog posts and summaries. Meanwhile, I attend HBW with the enthusiasm and obsessiveness only a rare few can match. The comparison is difficult to make - the book cultures in Israel and the U.S. are completely different - but also somewhat necessary. Here is the difference. Here is the true literary world.

HBW is for everyone. BEA isn't. It doesn't matter if almost anyone who really wants to go and can afford it can find a way in. It's exclusive. It's a localized, exclusive event for a very specific group of people. HBW is wonderful in its diversity - children, teens, adults, the elderly, the religious, the secular, the foreigners, the techies, the nerds, the intellectuals, the bored... There is no clear definition of an HBW attendee because it's just an Israeli. While the prospect of attending BEA is mildly appealing (if only for the free books), the impression I get of the environment and the vibe is of a lot of industry insiders. Which isn't a bad thing. It's just not for me. HBW is.

I'm not trying to take away from the BEA experience by saying this, but the diversity thing has always been my problem with it. It's a publisher event in one location for one group of people. Part of the experience demands of the reader to a) live nearby or spend money to get into town, b) pay for registering, and c) be part of the culture BEA wants to maintain (one that supports publishers through indirect advertising). Not all of this is bad, but it's the complete opposite of HBW. Instead of bringing books to everyone, BEA wants everyone who helps publishers to come to them. Something about that rubs me the wrong way.

I've never been to BEA, but a lot of you have. Obviously there may be many things I'm missing. My impressions from HBW have always been positive, of this grand event that does something completely normal (bookselling), but in a way that not only profits all the publishers (small and large alike), but also consumers. It's an experience anyone and everyone can take part in (and close to half of the country does, so what does that say?) and it really is just fun. In my mind, HBW wins every year hands down but who knows? Maybe I'm missing something.

June 25th: You are now leaving HBW... see you next year!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Five conversations with booksellers at HBW, part 3

Parts 1 and 2.

But what of the smaller publishers? Was I only talking to the publishers who felt safe at Hebrew Book Week, those who knew they'd sell well no matter what? Did I forget those smaller booths, tucked away between the giants?

Nope. I didn't forget them.

Babel
Babel books
Babel is one of those publishers I only recently really discovered, once I noticed that they were Wolf Hall's publisher in Israel. I knew of them beforehand (my high school writing teacher published a poetry collection with them), but I'd never really paid attention. Suddenly, I became interested. Then I read Michel Houellebecq's Le Carte et le Territoire (not yet translated into English, but it's awesome). Suddenly I realized that maybe I should be paying them a little more mind.

It's somewhat cheap to include the Babel bookseller, because the conversation we had was exclusive. And pretentious. I pointed towards the books I'd liked, discussed Houellebecq's literary status, raved about Wolf Hall, dismissed The Patience Stone (one of those books I really disliked) and asked for advice regarding a few others. After a few moments, a middle-aged woman standing at the booth beside me turned and asked, "Excuse me, but did I hear you say earlier that you liked Wolf Hall?"

"Best book I've read in the last year, hands down," I told her. Together, the bookseller and I began to tell the woman about the brilliant storytelling, the wonderful characterization, the clever writing... As I turned to leave, the bookseller gave me a funny sort of look. "You're doing a lot of my job, you know?"

Graph
The kids at the Graph booth seemed genuinely pleased to see me. The younger, who was maybe ten or eleven, immediately said hello and stared up at me. The older, who was in his late teens (my guess would place him at sixteen or seventeen) likewise followed my movements closely. Despite publishing the translations of Rick Riordan's books, Graph is still relatively small, best known for its focus on sci-fi and fantasy.

Percy Jackson, on sale at Graph
I won't pretend that we had the most mind-blowing or witty conversation. It was mostly about the books on display, a few words about the popularity of Rick Riordan with kids and about the book I ultimately bought. What's worth noting is the use of kids as booksellers, a fairly common phenomenon at HBW. The younger was mostly just grinning at potential customers, while the older was a genuine lover of books. He opened up to talking quickly and easier, and this being a smaller publisher, had less of an agenda. We talked about sci-fi's status in Israel's book culture (completely sidelined) and about some of the authors Graph publish. A recent survey found that only 5% of HBW attendees are aged 14-17, implying, perhaps, that Israeli kids and teens don't read. It's always nice to see evidence to the contrary.

Even Hoshen
"I remember you from last year," the bookseller at Even Hoshen admitted. She handed me my purchase (adding several bookmarks and stickers with the awesome motto "I'm a bibliophile and I even know what that means" once she noted my enthusiasm for them). "Do you work for the publishers?" I asked her. "I'm the selector," she explained. "I pick which books we publish."

The whole booth
If there's one Israeli publisher I always want to tip my hat to, it's Even Hoshen. Literally one of the smallest booths in HBW, this small publisher sticks to its point: books for bibliophiles. Lovely editions, dedication and care make them different from most publishers, who seek blockbuster, bestselling titles. Furthermore, their focus on poetry make them, again, somewhat less standard.

"So what's it like?" I asked. "You guys are so small... isn't it hard?" The selector nodded. "Yeah. Well, Tsomet Sfarim [Book Juncture] is owned by [two of the biggest publishing companies in Israel], Steimatzky [the largest bookstore chain in Israel] works with the other major publishers. They push sales for those publishers. It's not that they don't sell us, but they're a lot more likely to move us to the back room and we're never part of the sales and the deals." She shrugged and smiled. "But it's okay, we make do."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Five conversations with booksellers at HBW, part 2

For part 1, see here.

Am Oved
Years ago, at a bookstore, my father saw me eying an Am Oved (Working People) novel. "Take it," he told me. "It's Am Oved. It's bound to be good."

Red, black and yellow
On Am Oved's website, I once saw the description that this publishers strives to be like the Penguin of the Hebrew world - Am Oved titles have a distinct (often red) symbol on their spine, often in a prominent and obvious location on the front cover as well. One of Israel's largest publishers, well known for its quality, I was looking forward to hitting the stacks.

Once I grabbed the first choice (Dubravka Ugrešić's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender), I started scavenging for further books - the deal being 2 for 1 (plus an additional gift book, it turned out). The bookseller noticed my search and came over to help me. "What kind of book are you looking for?" he asked politely.

The new reds
"Something different. Something weird." He began to toss out recommendations, showing me books translated from various languages - Spanish, Chinese*, Polish, Greek... As I began to flip through them, a somewhat older woman came to stand next to the bookseller

"That one's excellent," she told me, pointing at one of the books. Casually, we struck up a conversation, discussing some of the books in that particular booth (mostly foreign literature, with very little translated from English). She was quick to realize that I wasn't looking for anything translated from English (obviously preferring the originals) and seemed eager to help in my search for the "weird" and "different" books. Turns out she's the foreign literature selector** for the publishers. Once I told her that translations pretty much fascinate the heck out of me, she said, rather sincerely, "Well... it doesn't pay very well..."

The two Bolaños
After a few more minutes of talking, she pointed at the original bookseller I'd spoken to. "This guy here, he's a translator. He'd recommend Bolaño, obviously--" The bookseller began to grin emphatically and tapped the two Bolaños in front of him. "I've actually read him," I admitted. "Well, have you read By Night in Chile?" he asked. I nodded. "I've read both." His eyes widened. "What?! Seriously? You're my hero!"

When I think of Am Oved's booths, I'm not thinking of the six books I purchased (while only paying for two and a half). I'm thinking of its staff and the wonderful book dialogue they encourage and engage in. Once again, the literary experience trumps the actual books acquired.

* Chinese is very rarely translated into Hebrew. Until recently, all translations of Chinese novels passed through English first, making them doubly translated. Even today, when you have a few translators out there, many Chinese books are translated to Hebrew through English. So are Icelandic books, as well as a few other languages...
** Is this the official English publishing phrase? Does this job fall under "editor" in the Anglo publishing world?

Five conversations with booksellers at HBW, part 1

If on Thursday I commented that Hebrew Book Week (HBW) is an event that's enjoyable even without purchasing books (enjoyable for the "literary experience"), my experience from last night stands on another end of the spectrum. For what now rests on my desk if not twelve books that I'm quite excited about? And a further eight or so that are officially "shared" and so will come to me after passing through yesterday's partner in book-purchasing crime?

It'll sound weird, but the fact is that buying books at HBW is actually completely in line with everything I've already said about the events. It's all about the experience. At every booth - whether this was a major publisher or one of the smallest - I struck up a conversation with the bookseller. Some were more forthcoming than others, yes, but at the end of the day, even the booksellers at the big publishers are readers. Once steered past the predictable titles, they offered some bizarre and awesome things.

Kineret, Zmora-Bitan
One of Israel's most prominent publishers (and part owners of its second largest bookstore chain, Tzomet Sfarim), it's not hard to find Kineret's representation at HBW. It's right there are the entrance, bold, bright and really big. So it was actually rather surprising to find myself entering a conversation with one of the booksellers - the big publishers typically just try to shove the new bestsellers down your throat and that's it.

I'd already determined that I was going to buy Sofi Oksanen's Purge (this was the deal-breaker review). As I scavenged around for the remaining books (3 for 100₪), one of the booksellers looked at me curiously. "Did you ask for Purge?" he asked. "Yeah," I responded. "I know it's supposed to be a difficult read, but I'm really curious..." I continued with my usual comment. He nodded. "Oh, it's brilliant. Really difficult, but brilliant. I have something to show you, though. If you think it's weird, then this book isn't for you." He pulled out his cell-phone and began to flip through his photos emphatically. Finally he showed me a photo of the author. "This is what she looks like."

I laughed. "If anything, that makes me want to read the book even more." The bookseller nodded, somewhat relieved, and turned to assist another reader. I meanwhile waited for my mother to finish picking her books. The bookseller suddenly reached over to the neighboring booth (still within the same publisher) and told the man next to me in a low voice, "Look, on the down-low, here's a brilliant book, not many people know about it, it wasn't a bestseller or anything, but it's really great." Nodding next to them I added, "Yeah, it's really interesting and I still think of it sometimes, a year and a half after reading it..." Excited, the bookseller turned back towards me. "Really? So, listen..." He looked around furtively. "This author has a great book sold over at another publisher. You have to read it." "So is that the secret?" I asked.

The bookseller grinned and nodded. "Yeah. But it's a really good book, who cares who's selling it?"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On not buying anything today at the wonderful HBW

"I'm a bibliophile / and I also know what that means" - Even Hoshen

Hebrew Book Week or HBW (Hebrew site) is... awesome. Once a year, for a week and a half, my book-loving self finally gets to drag the others around me into the insanity of book-buying. There's nothing quite like it. A normally literate but unenthusiastic country turns into a gushing bibliophile within a few hours. Advertisements for the two leading bookstore chains line the bus stops. Signs point to the nearest fairground. Almost everyone in the street carries a plastic bag from either the bookstores or the publishers.

Instead of buying books, I collected catalogs
I could ramble about the many practical and beautiful aspects to HBW (and I will), but I want to focus on today's visit and that one, glorious fact: I did not purchase a single book.

This is, of course, a bizarre and unheard of notion. What's the point, one might ask, of a week and a half of book fairs and sales (3 for the price of 2! Buy 1 get 2 free! Buy 2 get 2 free! All books half price!*) if I didn't buy anything now?

I recently read an article about HBW that asked how relevant it is now that the bookstores offer year-round sales and deals (in response to a statistic that showed that only** 44% of Israelis plan to attend the events). My answer is simple: you don't go to HBW just to get cheap books. You go for the experience. You go for the crick in your neck from bending down to stare at so many books. You go to chat up the teens and adults who try to push you the popular bestsellers but after a few moments break down and recommend the really good books. You go to see authors signing books one minute and patiently listening to their kids' excited gush about a book they just discovered the next. You go for the joy of finding like-minded folk - people who love books, love literature and love this culture of reading we're working so hard to maintain.
"Reserved for HBW 2011" ad as mentioned here

Only after all these do you actually go to buy books. The books are the cookies on top of the ice-cream sundae. And boy, do I want those cookies.

Today I walked around with a small notepad. Because I went with a friend, I didn't have quite as many opportunities to talk to authors and the booksellers*** but I managed to scribble down a long and thorough list of books that interest me. Do they all fall in line with the deals? Probably not. But I'll buy more books than I really want and at the end of the day, I'll probably find some gems hidden in the stacks of bestselling thrillers, religious texts and wonderfully nostalgic kids books.

Really heavy, but the back ache was worth it...
By not buying anything today, all I had "going for me" was the experience. And you know what? It was worth it. Even though I didn't get that author signature I was hoping for, even though I didn't make it to all the publisher booths (my friend isn't quite as obsessive as me and after a long day, grew rather tired), even though I didn't get into any in-depth conversations with booksellers, even though I didn't buy anything... there's no doubt about it. HBW isn't about the sales. It's about the literary experience. Isn't that just wonderful?


* Real sales
** "Only" being, of course, a relative term. I'm sure if 44% of Americans attended such events, it would be considered monumental. Israel prides itself in HBW's influence and wide-spread appeal - 44% attendance is a somewhat embarrassing decrease, apparently.
*** I don't like using the term "bookseller" because the association is of a seller in a bookstore, but that's the most accurate description of these guys. They're sellers... of books.

The start of a good week (and a half)

Yesterday marked the launch of one of my favorite yearly events - Hebrew Book Week. The morning opened with the now-familiar writers/poet takeover of Ha'aretz's news pages and continued onto... well, nothing. I didn't attend any events yesterday. But you know what one of the greatest things about Hebrew Book Week is? It lasts a week and a half.

So I turn to my shelves (reminded of a great ad I saw that showed packed bookshelves and a small gap, with a sign that read "Reserved for Hebrew Book Week!"), thinking about these past months. I've decreased my book-buying incredibly, only purchasing two books in eight months. Meanwhile, I've knocked several titles off my guilt list, making my shelves look a lot less threatening.

All that is going down the drain this week. And I'm so very excited.