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What We Read This Year: Israeli Publishing Year in Review (2020)

What We Read This Year: Israeli Publishing Year in Review (2020)

The National Library of Israel Presents the Israeli Publishing Statistics for the Past Year – "The Year of COVID-19" (2020)

 

Highlights of the 2020 report:

  • A decrease of two thousand books in publishing figures in 2020, in comparison with 2019
  • Poetry books outnumbered original books of prose for the first time
  • Most of the original Hebrew literature published in 2020 dealt with family relationships, while another 10% of books published were suspense novels, espionage books and thrillers
  • The non-fiction genre was the hardest-hit during the year of COVID-19, with a decrease of 33% in books dedicated to Jewish studies
  • Around seventy children's books and books of prose and poetry dealing with COVID-19 were published in 2020
  • 2020 saw an increase of 73% in electronic books

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

2020 was an unusual year in many respects, with the Israeli publishing industry among those heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone involved in the field experienced the unique challenges of this strange year – authors, researchers, designers and dozens of other professionals who make their living contributing to the publication of books. Many of these people were severely impacted for the worse.

Indeed, the most obvious representation of the damage sustained by the publishing industry can be seen in the substantial decrease in the number of books published. During 2020, only 6,487 books were registered with the National Library of Israel, a major drop from the 8,225 books published during the previous year.

Languages

92.4% of the books catalogued at the National Library in the past year were published in Hebrew. Other languages of note include: English (3.6%), Arabic (3.3%), Russian (0.4%), with 0.3% being published in additional languages.

In 2020 there was a significant increase in the relative share of prose and poetry books – with this genre accounting for 28% of all books published during the year. We also saw an increase in the relative share of instructional books, hobby books and self-help books (6%), despite the overall drop in publishing figures.

Translated Books – By Language

87% of books published in Israel in 2020 were original literature, written mainly in Hebrew. This is a high figure in comparison with previous years (85% on average). Out of all translated books published in Israel in 2020, most of the translations were from English (74%, up from 67% in 2019), followed by French (6%), German and Spanish (3%), as well as 26 other languages.

Prose and Poetry

As mentioned above, the publishing industry was not spared by the COVID-19 pandemic, though the prose and poetry genre was barely affected. In fact, there was even a slight increase in the amount of books published in this genre in comparison with the previous year – in 2020, 1,813 books were published, while only 1,730 books were published in 2019. Of these, 1,685 prose and poetry books were published in Hebrew, with 1,408 being original Hebrew literature. The rest were translations from other languages. In addition, 76 books were published in Arabic, 34 in English and 18 were released in other languages.

Among works of original Hebrew literature, the share of poetry books rose to 45%, with prose at 42% and short stories representing 9% of the literature published in 2020.

Non-Fiction

The non-fiction genre was the most hard-hit publishing genre affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was likely due to the permanent or temporary closure of many research institutions, the lack of access to printed sources of information, various constraints related to changes in research methodology as well as apprehension on the part of publishing houses related to economic concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.

The field of Jewish studies was the most severely impacted. Only 1,660 books in this field were registered with the National Library of Israel in 2020, representing a drop of 33% in comparison with 2019.

Arabic Books

During Hebrew Book Week we also mark the release of publications in Israel's second official language, Arabic. 214 books were published in 2020 in Arabic, a figure which is in line with previous years, and which even represents a slight relative increase in comparison with other languages.

Most of the Arabic books published in Israel are reading books and poetry books for both children and adults. At least 83 books for children and young adults were released in Arabic as well as 75 poetry and prose books. Some might be surprised to learn that one of the books translated into Arabic in 2020 was an edition of the Book of Psalms, سفر المزامير, الراعي الملك, published by a Nazareth-based Christian publishing house.

Books on COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic had a very significant impact on the Israeli publishing industry, affecting writing, printing, marketing, distribution and sales. While the processes involved in writing and publishing can be lengthy, many people were still able to publish books dealing directly with the pandemic during 2020 itself. At least 69 printed books dealing primarily with the coronavirus crisis were published in 2020. 25 of these were children's books, 25 were books dealing with Jewish and halakhic aspects of the coronavirus, 8 were poetry and prose books and one children's book in Arabic was also published.

What was written in these books? The Jewish books can be divided into two categories: Most of the books focus on the implementation of Halakha under coronavirus conditions, dealing for example with questions relating to balcony minyans, the use of the mikveh during the pandemic, the prioritization of halakhic issues while medical resources are limited and more. The second category includes books that compiled prayers intended to counter the spread of plagues, with most of these being based on prayers used during historical pandemics.

Children's books dealing with COVID-19 were already being published during the early days of the pandemic, with the primary goal of easing children's fears concerning the new threat. Some of these books described, for example, a situation in which a classmate contracts the virus; others contained explanations of the necessity of masks or of how to deal with social distancing. Later on, books were published in which a central plot takes place against a backdrop of a "coronavirus routine".

A number of prose books dealing with COVID-19 were also published during 2020, as well as "quarantine diaries" documenting the lives of their authors during this unusual past year.

We at the National Library of Israel expect to see a significant increase in the coming years in prose books, research studies and biographies dealing with this unique and complex period.

Publishing Houses and Book Marketing During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic led to major changes in the activity of publishing houses in Israel, heavily impacting the way in which books were sold and marketed. The closure of book stores and libraries and the spike in online book sales affected retailers, authors and publishing firms.

With the forced closure of book stores across the country, platforms selling and distributing books online thrived. Many authors who were able to complete writing were forced to delay distribution of their books to 2021. On the other hand, the major commercial publishing firms were able to maintain publishing figures similar to previous years, though even these companies saw a certain decrease in overall figures.

Unsurprisingly, the smaller publishing houses and research institutions were the most heavily impacted by the pandemic. Many private individuals, significantly more than in previous years, sought to raise money to publish and distribute their own books using crowd-funding options. Most of these individuals uploaded their books to online digital platforms.

According to the Director General of the National Library of Israel, Oren Weinberg, the productive relationship maintained by the National Library and the various publishing firms in Israel allows the Library to consistently improve its ability to study, assess and enable access to the information provided by these firms.

"By analyzing the changes and trends in the realm of book publishing, we can trace different patterns in Israeli culture and society, especially those which emerge in unusual years, such as 'The Year of COVID-19'. For example, this year we can see a very large increase in the publishing figures of the prose and poetry genres as well as dramatic increases in the numbers of digital and audio books, alongside a drop in non-fiction books. These phenomena, as well as societal and technological trends such as easier access to printing resources, the influence of streaming platforms, the internet and television as forces shaping identity and culture, the price of books – all of these represent fertile ground for research and study, underlining and emphasizing the fascinating information which can be found in the annual book report", Weinberg said.