Cooking up a storm while chattering about children's books on TV may sound like a strange match. But Vadim Meshcheryakov, who loves to cook, thinks his "A Book Kitchen" idea makes perfect sense. "Cooking takes place in a convivial atmosphere, where friendly chats are most conducive. You can talk about anything—including books—while dishing up some good stuff to eat."
Founder of the Moscow-based independent children's book publisher bearing his name, Meshcheryakov is premiering the program this fall with writers, illustrators, and other publishers of children's books. "One small but good TV channel—Mother and Child, or Rain—will broadcast the weekly program, and we have selected two suitable locations for filming—Moscow Bookshop on Vozdvizhenka Street and Anderson family cafe. The sole topic is children's books, as this segment has received little attention. I want to get children to read, and have parents as well as grandparents read alongside them. In other words, between cooking and promoting books, this program will offer something to every member of the family."
The goal of the program is to talk about the most interesting books and related events. "My intention is to choose the best—the most ‘delicious'—products from the children's book market and ‘serve' them to the audience. It would be a program that is useful for publishers seeking to create awareness for their publications while at the same time helping to promote the children's book industry and revive the tradition of family reading and discussion of books. To be able to do all this while cooking for a nice group of people would be such a great pleasure."
The children's book market in Russia, adds Meshcheryakov, is slowing down. "It is too early to determine the future market direction, reader expectation, or consumer preference. For now, our publishing house will focus on nonfiction, searching for good titles to translate and uncovering new talents domestically. We already have one bestselling nonfiction title for kids and teenagers—[the pseudonymous] Tom Tit's Scientific Amusements [a 100-year-old title originally published in France, with experiments still used in classrooms today, and widely translated]—and we plan to build on our reputation as a publisher of high-quality children's nonfiction books to push new titles and authors in this genre."
Tom Tit's title, one of Meshcheryakov's first publications, has been reprinted every year since 2005. Last year, it was the company's second bestselling title, with 10,000 copies in circulation. Other bestsellers were Maria Gracheva's two titles—Learn, Draw and Invent: The Coloring Book for Visionaries and Mischief-Makers and How to Save a Princess—at #1 and #3 slots, with 15,000 and 10,000 copies respectively. Next came Sofia Prokofieva's Astrel and the Forest Keeper with 8,000 copies. In total, Meshcheryakov published about 80 new titles in 2011, 15% of which were translations. Besides books, it also produces stationery items such as notepads, sketchbooks, and drawing blocks (under the brand Shy Fly), toy soldiers, and a children's magazine called Tararam.
The prices of children's books in Russia are as low as 70 rubles ($2.30) and can go as high as 3,000 rubles ($100). The average price, says Meshcheryakov, is somewhere between 300 and 600 rubles ($10 to $20): "Our full-color highly illustrated hardcover titles, for instance, retail at around 600 to 800 rubles—which is slightly above the average, but then there are not many books similar to ours in the Russian market. And if someone else publishes something as expensive to develop and produce, it often follows our price scale. So I can say that our publications are reasonably priced."
Three popular Meshcheryakov series—the Book with History, Reflections, and the Feather of the Firebird—do have better design as well as paper and printing quality than others in the market. "We have forged a reputation for reliable quality and strong commitment to children's books ever since we launched our first title. Readers are aware of the Meshcheryakov brand and know that our books are priced higher not because we want to exploit their love for our books, but simply because of the high cost of producing them."
Why are his books so popular? Meshcheryakov, a former banking executive and father of two girls, aged 13 and 4, says, "It has been seven years since I embarked on this journey, and I am still amazed at the books that we publish. And I want to continue to amaze our readers as well—maybe that is the secret."
Meanwhile, Meshcheryakov is working with the Moscow regional government on a series of inexpensive children's books for preschool and primary school children. "In total, there are 12 books—to be released one each month—of fairy tales with classic illustrations by famous Russian illustrators. The fifth book has just got off the press. Our goal is to make children's books as widely available as they used to be during the Soviet times, and to achieve that we have to drastically reduce the price." Negotiations are underway between Meshcheryakov and the government of Tatarstan for a similar program.
Selling rights to industry counterparts is another strategy of Meshcheryakov. This year, for instance, Eksmo (one of the biggest publishers in town) bought three nonfiction titles from Meshcheryakov. The 10,000 copies printed of each title sold very quickly. "It is difficult for us to do new editions of these titles since we invest so much on new titles and projects. So we suggested to Eksmo that they buy those three titles on history and astronomy, and Eksmo agreed since they know that these themes are very popular with Russian children right now."
As one of Russia's first dedicated children's publishers, Meshcheryakov has been known for striking out in new directions. One such venture is the Curiosity Shop of Children's Books. There are now 10 outlets in six Russian cities, namely Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara and Ryazan. "Each outlet—even those in Moscow—is different in terms of product range, pricing and promotional activities. We try to take into consideration reading preference, standard of living and other factors to find the right fit. Our shops outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, for instance, offer lower-priced merchandise because of lower rent and operating cost. Now that there is an obvious drop in the demand for children's books, we intend to expand the range of nonbook products and truly be a ‘curiosity shop for children.' Such nonbook items may be in the form of stationery, arts and crafts, or edutainment games. The possibilities are endless."
But hiring the right people with the right aptitude for the job is not easy, admits Meshcheryakov. "We go all out to hire people who love children and children's books—something that cannot be taught, unlike training a person to use the cash register or make orders. We do compile a list of required and recommended reading to help our shop assistants in their tasks, and so far I can say that we have the right people in all our shops."