A sight to behold! Bookworms will never be sated from gazing upon a pile of newly published books still smelling of fresh newsprint, displayed on a book stall. All they want is to leaf through, make their choice, and pay. Prices of books for leisure reading vary from 30-40 shekel (about $10) but can also climb up to 70 ($20), depending on the book, author, bookshop. Dozens of new books pop up on the shelves before every yom tov. Multiply the number by hundreds and perhaps thousands of copies for each book and you'll discover a market that turns over many millions. Are the prices of books justified? How many copies does an average book sell? And the number one question: where do all these big profits go? To the bookstore, the distributor, publisher or author?
We aren't the ones who asked the questions: you, the readers are. Two weeks or so following a yom tov, say the authors, the public begins showing honest concern, each in his own way. "So how many books did you manage to sell?" Or "How much do you earn on each book?" "Tell me, can one make a living from this?"
We inquired of chareidi authors: How many copies have to be sold in order to make a profit? Do only best seller authors make a decent living from writing? Do all the rest suffice with a small sum for each copy sold, at best?
Chaim Walder, whose books invariably top the best seller lists, says, "Yes, one can definitely make a living from publishing, but in order to profit from writing a book, one must sell 5-6 thousand copies. 2000 sold will cover the publishing costs, while 4,000 sold will provide a minimal profit. If you've sold 6,000, you've earned a nice sum on which you can subsist on condition that you publish at least one title a year. The problem is that few books sell more than a thousand copies, which is why most authors don't attempt to rely on writing for a living."
Walder says that 60 shekel for a book is not a high price, especially if you take into account the following facts: a distributor always takes 50%. Why half? "Because he does the work and collects the money. He also pays the store."
From the remaining 50%, the publisher gets ten shekel and the writer is left with a mere five per book! Sometimes the writer is also the publisher, like in my case. My books sell for a relatively low price. I am not interested in earning a big profit; I prefer that people read my books and not only buy them.
"In contrast to writers who think that libraries hurt their sales, I think the very opposite. I even donate some books to libraries. I believe that most people buy books for gifts. If they read a library book and enjoy it, they will buy it. Incidentally, a book is a truly fine gift. It is an entire world. Even during an economic slump, the book market is not necessarily affected and can even flourish. People may not buy a new refrigerator or car, but they will allow themselves the treat of a new book."
The author Ruth Keppler thinks that the situation is not all that bad, and not just because of her last best seller called Onochi Mevakesh, that sold very quickly. "What is a successful book? First of all you have to sell the first thousand. A good book can reach the first thousand pretty quickly, especially in a good time like before yom tovim. Sometimes a distributor will buy an entire print run. In this case the per book profit is low. Alternately, one can invest and pay for all the expenses. In this way the author can get half of the sales."
Keppler says that a lot of books start out as serials in a periodical. "The author is paid for each chapter as it is published. Then the entire book is printed and there are profits from that. Even an average author can get NIS 11 per book. I think that you can make a living from writing, but you have to be prepared to sit and write every day. It is not that easy."
"You cannot marry off kids from publishing books, if someone is dreaming about a new and lucrative career," says the author and journalist Yehudit Freund. "It seems to me that many people see writing books as an easy and available means to making a living, because it seems that all you need is a little idea and a fast keyboard!
"The market is flooded with books. Hundreds of titles come out every year and they are all targeted at a very limited audience with limited means."
Yehudit Freund says that the flood of books results in many authors, even good ones, struggling to sell commercial quantities of a book. "It used to be that a standard print run was 1,000 copies. But now more and more books are being published in editions of only 500 copies and even less. The author makes very little, but the beginning author looks at it as pure new money - and now then can say they are writers."
Veteran writer Sarah Kisner sums it up: "Writers are not having an easy time, but they can make a respectable income. An average writer can sell 1,500-2,000 books. Generally publishers are reasonable and many, after recovering their investment, will give the author nearly half of the income. The costs are very high at every stage. Even a modest ad that appears in a few papers just to let everyone know about the new book can be a significant expense. Then the books reach the stores and people go to borrow them from libraries."