It doesn't seem so long ago that we used to gawp at the occasional postage stamps that would appear on a letter from the USSR: oversized, bright images extolling the successes of Communist endeavour. Soviet books in contrast were distinctly drab affairs whose covers would have appealed to few in the West other than the likes of J D Salinger – strictly no images.
It is just over 20 years since publishing in that country changed, literally, overnight. Until then, all publishers were state-owned, each allocated a specific annual tonnage of paper, which the publishing directors would then divide amongst the titles they had chosen to appear during the year. Consumer demand was irrelevant, not least because there was no profit incentive in a prevailing command economy. Editors, eager to advance their careers, would give preference to books of which their Party bosses would approve. A collection of speeches by General Secretary Brezhnev would have a print run of 250,000, while the first edition of The Master and Margarita – much anticipated by those who knew of its existence – was limited to 30,000. Even then, in order to minimise its impact, half the print run of Bulgakov's classic work was sent for export (and valuable foreign currency) while much of the rest was scattered throughout the provinces. Moscow's biggest bookshop, Dom Knigi, had a queue around the block on the day it was released and the shop's director had to come out and ask the majority to leave.
Of course, before the USSR joined the Geneva Convention in 1973, information about international authors published there was scant. When news reached Michael Bond that A Bear Called Paddington had appeared there, he asked a Russian-speaking friend to make some investigations on her next visit to Moscow. She tracked down the publishing house, met the editor and was astonished to learn how big a print run they had produced. "Do you mean to say," she asked the editor, "that there are 300,000 Russians who want to read this book?" The editor replied, deadpan: "No, there are many more, but they will have to share."
Limited print runs, drab covers and poor quality paper aside, there was – and there remains to this day – a love of reading, a passion for literature. Every school child will be able to recite stanzas from Eugene Onegin; every third person on the Metro will have their head in a book. Whether you are a university professor or a factory worker, your home will have a bookcase. The book itself, not just its contents, is revered.
It was against this background that I made my first foray into the Russian publishing world. For all the obvious reasons, we couldn't place too many authors there, but we were proud to bring Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill and other fine authors to the attention of the Russian public. Given its own tradition in science fiction, it was more than satisfying to place, as the very first foreign work the USSR bought after joining the Copyright Convention, Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama.
Sometime in the early 1980s, the directors of VAAP (the Soviet State Copyright Agency that had been established to control all publishing activity into and out of the country) expressed their disappointment that I had been placing western authors in their country, but never any of their authors in the West. I explained, truthfully, that I had simply not discovered an author whom I thought would have a market. Yet when, a few years later, Mikhail Gorbachev had broken fresh political ground, I called VAAP and asked if they would contact Andrei Gromyko on my behalf. Here, I argued, was a man who had been Foreign Minister for 37 years, had served every leader from Stalin to Gorbachev, and was a household name throughout the world.
To my amazement, I was not only told that he would be willing, but within a few months thereafter I received a huge box containing a 1,500-page manuscript. I pounced upon it and read it through from beginning to end, a task that took well over two weeks. Here was a memoir that was to take us into the world of government, foreign policy, political intrigue and human relationships over one of the most secretive periods of history.
Except that it didn't. Why was there nothing on Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968? And if we read that our author had breakfast with Alec Douglas-Home, would it not have been helpful for the hapless reader to learn what was discussed, or even what they ate? I should say that I had already sold this book blind in more than 20 countries and realised what a disappointment the anodyne text would be to the various publishers. I immediately despatched a telex to VAAP (this was in the days before fax machines) simply saying that I needed to discuss the manuscript as a matter of urgency.
The scene of my meeting in Moscow was surreal: seven clearly worried officials sat along one length of a boardroom table while I faced them from the other. They had all read the manuscript and all agreed with my assessment. Yet, for them, there was but one question: "Who's going to tell him?" As soon as I said, "I will", all seven men suddenly looked as if they had avoided a fate worse than death. One wasted no time and scurried off to make the date: "Tomorrow morning at 9:30 in the Kremlin," came the message, "but you have only 30 minutes as Andrei Andreyevich will chair the Presidium at 10:00 am".
In person, Mr Gromyko seemed a kindly man, who was unaware that his text did not pass muster. He furiously scribbled notes with a thick blue pencil, apparently taking on board all that I suggested. I noticed that we were approaching 10:00 am and then that we were well past it. Twenty minutes later, I pictured the members of the Presidium waiting patiently upstairs, but Mr Gromyko was clearly more interested in attending to his future bestseller. We agreed he would write a further 150 pages and that we would be free to edit the original text to make one regular full-length volume (in Russia, it was published in two volumes). Alas, when we did finally receive the new material, it was more of the same. He had tried his best, and I am sure that he wasn't deliberately holding back, yet it then occurred to me that anyone who had managed to stay ahead of the game and survive for so many years at top level in the USSR would have done so only by keeping his head down. It was not for nothing that he was known abroad as "Mr Nyet".
I was determined to make good one day for what I had failed to deliver on this occasion, so while Mr Gorbachev was becoming the darling of world leaders – in Margaret Thatcher's words, "I spotted him because I was searching for someone like him" – I personally became fascinated by another man. Boris Yeltsin, despite his stereotypical Soviet career, had appeared on the scene with a host of daring new ideas. This, I decided, was my man; and I flew to Moscow, virtually door-stopping him to gain his agreement that we represent him. He not only agreed but, as he was still relatively unknown, accepted my request that he make a promotion tour in Europe. His only requirement was that I arrange for him to meet some political leaders, in particular the British PM.
During an otherwise perfectly regular exchange of views at Number 10, Boris Nikolayevich suddenly asked the PM if she would agree to a commercial treaty between the UK and Russia, as opposed to one between the UK and USSR. This caught Mrs Thatcher off-balance; she looked down, briefly played with the clasp on her handbag, and then diplomatically suggested that such an idea might be considered in the fullness of time. Yeltsin was jubilant. As we stepped out of the front door into Downing Street, he took me by the arm and said: "She didn't say no!" I had had no idea before the meeting that this would be on the agenda, but it became clear that, for him, this had been the primary purpose of the visit. By the time he landed in Moscow, he had concluded, and announced, that the British Prime Minister had accepted the proposal.
In the autumn of the following year, the USSR collapsed, ushering in a new dawn in publishing. Without further funding, most State-owned publishing houses collapsed or else transformed themselves into quasi-autonomous companies. In their wake a slew of private publishing houses sprang up to cater to a huge reading public, avid to read anything and everything that had never been published in Russian before – from George Orwell to Jackie Collins. Amidst the "shock therapy" of economic reform, the country lost its reliable state-run distribution system, with the result that new titles were not reaching bookshops but were sold off trestle tables in the street.
Some publishers were bright, intelligent entrepreneurs, very often serious readers themselves, while others were simply in it to make what they thought would be a quick buck. These soon realised that there were no big riches in publishing and that they would earn more by selling refrigerators or cigarettes. In those early days, piracy was rife, as were intimidation, corruption, poor translations, lurid jacket designs and low quality paper in the books themselves.
Yet for anyone who was aware of the sanctity of the written word within Russia, there was hope, and for those who hoped, there was a future. We established Moscow's first private literary agency in March 1993. By sheer coincidence, and not inappropriately, the first contract we concluded was for Geoffrey Hosking's History of the Soviet Union, acquired by Vladimir Grigoriev, then Publishing Director of Vagrius Publishers.
Today, 20 years on from the demise of the USSR, the changes are evident: all genres of literature, high-brow and low-brow, are available. International and Russian authors sit side by side on the shelves. Publishers are finally beginning to invest in marketing campaigns and author promotion tours. The most pressing problem is distribution – there are fewer booksellers, given the level of high street rents, and publishers are not being paid by some of the leading distributors whose own finances are precarious. For us agents, there are myriad problems: wresting accurate royalty reports and prompt accounting from publishers is just one of them. The dominance of two massive publishing corporations, which have both the financial as well as distribution muscle, makes life difficult for those smaller houses that do not possess this. Borrowing runs at interest rates not far short of 20% p.a.
The feeding frenzy of all that was foreign has abated, and Russian writers are again at the fore. Some of these will be showcased at LBF, courtesy of the British Council and the Russian sponsors who are prepared to invest in translations, not only of the texts themselves, but also of outlines and sample chapters, which will enable British editors to make considered decisions based on their own reading, rather than having to rely on readers' reports and their instinct. Until now, few contemporary Russian authors have made their way into English homes. Whether this will now change will become apparent within the next few years.
Andrew Nurnberg is Managing Director of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. www.andrewnurnberg.com