The current crop of Russian publishers is collectively on the young side, many of them born shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Then, teething problems were many and the growth path rocky at times. But today these publishers produce nearly 120,000 new titles per year, placing Russia firmly in the #4 slot in global ranking (after China, U.S., and U.K.) in terms of output.
No one sums up the industry today better than Natasha Perova, publisher and founder of GLAS: "Pulp fiction triumphs over literary fiction—in Russia and elsewhere. Tolstoy and Dostoyevski would have a tough time getting published today—they might not even win the Booker or other major prizes. While the current Russian publishing scene is a far cry from what it used to be during the Soviet era, it is nowhere as developed as in the West. The distribution system, for instance, collapsed with the demise of state-owned publishing, and it hasn't been restored to this day.
"Back in the early 1990s, after censorship was lifted, people rushed to catch up with world literature, resulting in a frenzy of translation and also publication of banned titles. Unfortunately, new writers had little chance of being noticed in this influx. But since the 2000s, Russians have started to take more interest in internal affairs, and the wild capitalism ride offers a lot of content for fiction. The time has finally come for new voices to be heard. Those writing in the early 1990s have managed to get their works published in the early 2000s and are gradually becoming known here and abroad."
Let's get a closer look at the industry through the operations of 14 publishers (in alphabetical order).
The third largest publisher in Russia with around 5% of the market, Azbooka-Atticus holds exclusive rights to such authors as Janus Leon Wisniewski, Milan Kundera, Richard Yates, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Marc Levy, Cecelia Ahern, Ben Elton, Lemony Snicket, Tove Jansson, and many others. It publishes about 1,200 titles per year, and in 2010 translations accounted for nearly 44% of its catalogue.
The high percentage of translations, explains Maxim Kryutchenko, founder of Azbooka, is because "we are eager to provide Russian readers with a wide range of foreign titles. When this company was founded, the intention was to get Russian readers acquainted with world literature, both classic and contemporary. But through the years, we also have built up a strong Russian literature base—again both classic and contemporary. There are several contemporary Russian authors whom we are honored to represent and publish, and we use every opportunity to produce more originals. For instance, we have sold millions of copies of works by Sergey Dovlatov, Joseph Brodsky, and Vladimir Nabokov—authors who have been translated into English and are doing very well in other countries. But it is quite difficult to uncover new Russian authors with high overseas potential."
CEO Arkady Vitrouk shares Kryu-tchenko's opinion of contemporary originals: "Russians are only now beginning to review what happened during the perestroika period—a painful time for many—and the emotions and sentiments in books on this period may not carry easily across borders. Selling them, much as I would like to, will be difficult." Vitrouk is busy promoting several authors including Yevgeny Grishkovetz. "His titles invariably sell more than 100,000 copies each, and they have been translated into German, French, and Norwegian. Japanese and English are next, I hope." At the upcoming London Book Fair, he will present Leonid Parfenov, a television personality and author of a series of books on the Soviet Union, and Denis Osokin, who is famed for short stories. "One of Osokin's stories, ‘Silent Souls,' was made into a movie that was subsequently nominated for the Grand Prix at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. Academia Rossica is set to show the movie prior to the book fair."
In the children's segment, Azbooka-Atticus boasts names like writer Anton Soya (famed for Emo Boy), illustrator Anton Lomayev, and paper engineer Nikolai Nemzer. The present children's book segment in Russia, says Vitrouk, "can be summarized in one word: proliferation. Basically, every Russian publisher—and that includes us—produces some children's titles. Although the segment has not grown that much, the supply has certainly broadened a lot. Now one can find children's books for any taste, from Soviet classics to avant-garde European picture books, creative pop-ups and novelty titles. At the same time, consumers are becoming more picky, paying more attention to the content before making the purchase."
From its humble beginning as a bookshop in 1990, AST has produced nearly 33,000 titles within the span of 22 years. It often vies with Eksmo for top billing as Russia's biggest publisher. Around 30% of its list is translated, and it reads like a who's who of the fiction world: Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Nicholas Sparks, Paulo Coelho, and Wilbur Smith. Homegrown talents are not few either, and these include Boris Akunin, Pavel Basinsky, Edward Radzinsky, Sergei Lukyanenko, Dmitry Glukhovsky, and Polina Dashkova. On the children's side, various licenses have resulted in a range of merchandise from Disney, Sanrio, Fox, Warner Brothers, Hasbro, Mattel, DC Comics, and others.
According to president Oleg Bartenev, "There is an urgent need to work with our foreign publishing partners to obtain digital rights for titles licensed to us. This is one way to reduce piracy of e-titles. Given that around 30% of published titles will migrate to e-book format, it is critical to close loopholes that allow piracy to happen. For AST, the plan is to retain our market share—currently estimated at 20% of the industry—in the traditional format while using more sophisticated designs and printing methods to discourage illegal scanning of our titles."
Given that AST prints at least 60% of its titles at two wholly owned facilities, the plan is definitely achievable. "At the same time," Bartenev continues, "content and design for print books must go a notch—or a few notches—higher to compete with other media out there. Take fashion magazines as an example. They didn't die because of sophisticated televisions or the availability of fashion channels. They get more design based and content oriented to compete. For the book industry, I would cite Dorling Kindersley, one of our publishing partners, for setting the standards in merging content and creativity." For the foreseeable future, AST (derived from the first letter of three of the directors' names: Andrei, Sergei, Tatiana; Oleg and Igoz are the other directors) aims to cover every book segment. Its 800 editors, divided into 40 teams, also work with big magazine brands such as National Geographic and DeAgostini.
With more than 330 stores within its Bukva chain ("with plans to add 50 shops annually"), AST has also made huge injections (to the tune of $50 million) into ailing retail giant Top Kniga. "They account for 40% of our sales, and we simply cannot afford to see such a vast distribution network collapse. It would be catastrophic for the whole Russian book industry." Bartenev is also trying to read further into the nation's changing demographics. "The 1 to 10 age group is estimated to be thrice the size of the 17 to 25 group. There is going to be tremendous pressure on kindergartens and primary schools, and this represents a big opportunity for the children's book and merchandise segment. But instilling the reading habit in the young would require nationwide support and promotional effort—something the Russian Book Union and various governmental agencies are undertaking."
This has been the Russian home of Harlequin for the past 16 months. The popularity of such Harlequin authors as Nora Roberts, Tess Gerritsen, and Debbie Macomber is making Centrepolygraph's latest publishing program a runaway success. At least 172 Harlequin titles have been translated since the deal was sealed by v-p Alexandra Shipetina. "Laying the groundwork was tedious as we had to relook at our whole operation prior to signing the agreement," she says. "We expanded our sales channels, put in a new editorial team, created a special Web site to promote the line, and ramped up our marketing team for this." Recently, the contract was amended to cover digital rights, and her team are now busy working with LitRes, Russia's biggest digital bookstore and content aggregator, to have the titles converted into e-books and prepared for downloads.
"Names like Nora Roberts are highly recognizable and enthusiastically accepted by the market," says Shipetina, "but it needs more time to know new authors such as Macomber, for whom we have to make additional promotional effort and learn to be patient. We are translating one author at a time while planning a focused marketing campaign to promote each one." And to ensure the widest and most cost-effective distribution of Harlequin titles, the company has inked an exclusive deal with Russian Post to make use of its 39,000-odd sales offices and 80 regional hubs to reach readers in every corner of the nation.
Ranked #12 in the industry in terms of output in 2010, the company was founded by chairman Dmitry Shipetin in 1990. It remains until today a general trade publisher specializing in fiction, memoirs, history, popular medicine, and self-help, and it has not been tempted to enter the children's, educational, or business segments. With translations currently accounting for around 25% of its catalogue, Centrepolygraph is known in Russia for introducing such authors as Peter James, Ann Granger, James Hadley Chase, and Vicki Myron. "I'm proud to say that we started Russians reading translated thrillers and detective stories, and now romance. We were also the first to translate titles on famous politicians—local and foreign—such as Jung Chang's work on Mao Zedong. As for original titles, we developed two unique series of autobiographies—totaling 500 titles—of Russian and German soldiers of WWII," says Shipetin, whose company is also famous for another original series of more than 100 autobiographies in the history of Russia during the Communist revolution and the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century.
Asked to recommend authors that may appeal to foreign publishers, Shipetin reels off several names, including nonfiction author Valery Sinelnikov, whose You Must Love Your Illness has six million copies in print, and fantasy authors Dmitry Khvan, Roman Haer, and Igor Chuzin, whose works are published in the series Our People Out There. "Contemporary Russian authors remain largely unknown to foreign publishers and readers, and we hope this situation will change soon."