From the list of activities it has held or participated in within Moscow, in the regions or even outside of Russia, one would think that the Alliance of Independent Booksellers and Publishers is an old and established organization. Nothing is further from the truth.
The alliance, formally launched at the 2011 Non/Fiction Book Fair, is a barely six-month-old "self-organized initiative without proper funding, office or manager," according to Mikhail Kotomin, co-owner/publisher of Ad Marginem and one of the alliance's founders. "Even though we sometimes have no definite action plans and some members are not as active as we would like them to be, all Alliance members understand that something has to be done. You can say that the alliance is like the Occupy movement in that it is aimed at finding alternatives for the book industry in Russia through actions."
Those "alternatives" have found the alliance and its members appearing in many unusual activities. There was "Chuvstvo snega" (Sense of Snow) in February with a polar theme, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Paulsen Publishing, an indie house specializing in topics pertaining to northern Russian territories. There were polar tents for exhibitors and attendees, special polar-themed activities and adventures, and even lectures on mulled wine. In March, over a period of six days, the Alliance exhibited at "Knigi Rossii" (Books of Russia), an event attended by 40,000 people that offered a glimpse of the wide range of indie titles available and provided Alliance members with much needed exposure.
Last month, the alliance held a one-day fair called "Zelenaja lampa" (Green Lamp) at the soon-to-be-renovated library of the Moscow Polytechnic Museum (whose reading room is illuminated by green lamps). "We also sent representatives to the Budapest Book Fair in April with an extensive selection of Russian books on Hungarian history, art, and science. The books were later donated to the Hungarian National Library. Prior to that, in February, our delegation went to Lithuania's Vilnius Book Fair, where we participated in several planned events and sold a lot of Russian books," says Nikolai Okhotin, founder and owner of the book distribution company Berrounz (Slow Books), who sits on the Alliance's executive committee.
A few of the alliance's prominent representatives—namely Boris Kupriyanov of Falanster/Ciolkovsky, a mini–book chain; Alexander Ivanov of Ad Marginem; and Natasha Perova of Glas New Russian Writing—are scheduled to participate in this week's BookExpo America's cultural program. There will be two alliance booths at the Knizhny Arsenal in Kiev, Ukraine, in October as well as participation in the Voronezh Literary Festival, Perm Book Fair, Moscow International Open Book Festival, and Samara Book Festival. In addition, the success of its Moscow Polytechnic Museum event has prompted a second outing to be planned for September.
Chaired by Kupriyanov (who was commissioned to select titles for Waterstone's Russian Bookstore in Piccadilly, London, earlier this year), the alliance was jointly founded by publishing houses Ad Marginem, Text, Samokat, and OGI-BSG, and, of course, Falanster/Ciolkovsky and Berrounz, which also form its executive committee. Its current 70-odd members come from different corners of Russia, including Rubezh Publishing House from Vladivostok (some 9,000 kilometers from Moscow), which has recently expanded into the retail trade after the city's last bookstore closed down; V pereplete, a small bookstore in Penza, Central Russia; and Fabrika komiksov, a graphic novel publisher from Ekaterinburg, the fourth largest city in Russia and the capital of the Ural region.
The alliance represents indie companies that cannot afford to be at every book fair or festival. "These companies get promoted each time the alliance participates in cultural events or roundtables. This will increase its members' sales in the long run. At the very least, indie publishers will have their titles sold at all alliance member bookstores, and similarly our collective presence will get indie bookstores more access to publishers and a wider range of publications. Being a part of a bigger group has advantages over going it alone, especially where indie companies are concerned," adds Okhotin, who regards the alliance as a way to regain the human and social dimensions of the book publishing industry. "The focus is not to market books or promote the informative value of books. Instead, we are looking at books—and all activities surrounding publishing and distribution—as a part of the cultural landscape that forms a civil society."
The main idea of the alliance, says Kotomin, is to "show the public that there is another side of the book industry that has little to do with mass market publishing, impersonal book chains, and pop culture authors. The collapse of big book chains such as Top Kniga and problems at some major publishers are evidence of the unsustainability of current publishing and distribution practices. In this sense, I see the alliance as a kind of think tank that works for the future of the Russian book industry by discussing hot topics and finding new ways of collaboration, or as a horizontally integrated group of like-minded companies. Our aim is to inform the public about the availability of a large number of quality books that they may not find in book emporiums or major book chains but are available through online bookstores such as Ozon.ru or at our fairs. The latter is the main reason we organize events at different venues almost every month."
With Kupriyanov sitting in as a member of the Committee for the Renovation of Moscow Libraries, the alliance hopes for continued dialogue with the Moscow authorities. "We want to open a direct line connecting indie publishers to libraries, and this renovation project could very well present us with direct access to libraries throughout Russia," says Kotomin, adding, "By purchasing several hundreds of copies of indie titles for libraries, the federal government would greatly promote and support independent publishing."
Right now, the alliance is tackling the lack of organized and verified information in the indie publishing and bookselling industry. "Each player has its own information and know-how, but there is no sharing among peers. The alliance Web site, which we hope to launch this autumn, will provide know-how, industry news, a database with reviews and recommendations, as well as a directory of publishers, stores, and distributors. It will combine and unify all sorts of information that will help increase our members' overall sales by an estimated 10% to 15%," adds Okhotin, who wants to see the organized information helping indie books go beyond the two publishing hubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg. "We are also looking into providing legal support to our members, as indie players tend to have limited funds to pay for lawyers. Then there is the idea of creating an insurance fund that will guarantee some kind of compensation to an alliance member in cases such as unfair trading."
Coming up, the alliance committee plans to establish a special group of experts to help indie companies develop and deliver e-books to customers. Then there is the plan to set up a book award similar to the Independent Booksellers Choice Awards in the U.S. Meanwhile, exchange programs have been launched to invite book people from other Russian regions to Moscow publishing houses and bookstores to learn and obtain work experience. The executive committee currently takes care of all expenses. But in the future, the alliance plans to charge a small membership fee—not exceeding $500 per year—in addition to soliciting donations.
Many problems in the Russian book market today, says Okhotin, are consequences of a purely pragmatic attitude. "We want to change the present mass market way of promoting reading or organizing libraries, bookstores, or fairs so that we can bring in a much wider range of publications and authors. Readers will benefit from this, as there will be more variety of books and increased freedom of choice and thought."
The present Russian book market, dominated by several large players, limits readers' choice, he adds. "Readers should know about other players—small and independent ones. Using an analogy, having two or three big restaurants would be insufficient to cater for millions of people, as there would be limited menus and restricted choices." However, Okhotin concedes that no one can resolve the current challenges except the indie publishers and booksellers themselves. "We need to be more cooperative, open, trusting and fair with one another. This would develop the right mindset for indies to go forward and cave a better future within the Russian book market."