Back in 1990, there were nearly 8,500 bookshops in Russia. By 2009, however, the number had plunged to no more than 2,500, according to the Russian Book Union. Even Top Kniga, Russia’s largest book chain, had shrunk from 700 to 450 stores, and is now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy yet again.
For founder and director Boris Kupriyanov of the indie bookstore Falanster, fresh from his trip to select 5,000 titles for Waterstones’ Russian Bookshop at its flagship London Piccadilly store, the drop in bookstore numbers is worrying (Waterstones is now owned by the Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, who has commissioned Kupriyanov to stock the Piccadilly shop). “During Soviet times,” says Kupriyanov, “there were often five or six neighborhood bookshops in every district. The last time I checked, even Kiev and Belgrade had more bookshops than Moscow. And the situation in our small cities and countryside is now much worse. Often, cities with around 300,000 people would have one so-called ‘bookshop’ that offers only stationery items.”
Rising book prices and major book publishers’ monopolistic tendencies are also worrying. In Russia, high markups on cover prices are standard retail practice, as is steep discounting. For instance, a retailer will add 50% to the cover price even after receiving a hefty discount, in the range of 40%–60%, from the publisher. Says Kupriyanov: “Falanster gets a 50% discount from many medium-size publishers, and we sell at cover price so that everybody can afford the books. Yet we can still make a living out of it. We also stock books from various publishers, big and small, with each publisher accounting for only a small percentage of our selection, often not more than 6%. But big bookstores may take more than 25% of their stock from a major publisher. So, should the publisher decide to stop supplying, jack up its prices, or dump its books through other distribution channels, the bookstore would face problems.”
Rent is another issue for anybody in the business. “It is impossible to get rent reduction or support from the government, unlike in France, Germany, Italy, or Denmark, where rent is heavily discounted in order to support the book retail trade and promote reading,” says Kupriyanov. “We really need to change the status quo in order to get this industry moving forward.”
For managing director Nadezhda Mikhailova of Moskovskii Dom Knigi (Moscow House of Books), advancing technology, specifically e-books, poses a great challenge. “This is unstoppable,” she says. “But I do not see print disappearing totally because there are a lot of unresolved issues with e-books, the biggest being piracy. E-books may eventually reduce the number of print titles in the market, especially for fiction. But as a retailer, I can offer products such as teaching materials and children’s books that are not easily replaced by e-books. I can also work on improving our service. Our goal is to create readers out of those who have never read a book—and there are many of them out there. Making reading interesting for children and adults alike should be the goal for all booksellers.”
There is also a pressing need to change people’s perception of a bookstore. Adds Mikhailova, “A bookstore is not just a retail outlet. It is a sociocultural center. A customer comes here not only to buy books but also to read, relax, and learn. At the same time, we need to make sure our staff is properly trained to help any customer. Informed assistance in book buying is especially important because books are intellectual products.”
As for changes in the post-Soviet retail scene and in reading habits and purchasing preferences, Boris Esenkin, president of Biblio-Globus, says, “Popular language-learning titles used to be French, German, and English. Today, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean titles are the big sellers. It reflects the shift of global business to Asia.”
On the other hand, Esenkin notes, computing titles move much slower now due to the abundance of online resources: “Architecture, design, lifestyle, health, culinary, and travel books are in demand, as are children’s products such as preschool materials, English-language learning kits, games, and other educational offerings. Also, bestsellers today have interesting and fashionable titles and cover designs, and book signings at bookstores are deemed essential in creating buzz and demand. The impact of advertising, especially with movie tie-ins, is huge, showing the close connection between books and television/cinema. Editors and publishers are getting more savvy in designing and promoting their titles.”
With its 55th anniversary coming up in August, Biblio-Globus carries on the tradition of bookselling as before, operating not just as a retail store but also as a book club that brings people of various interests, professions, and nationalities under one roof. Located near Lubyanka subway station in Moscow and in walking distance from Red Square, the store has several clubs (such as the Kids Club and the Philosophy Club) for members to exchange ideas and discuss books; stages for author/media presentations; reading areas; a cafe; and even a literary and music room. “In our latest reincarnation to suit the 21st century, we are an information and cultural center where one can meet interesting people, read books, and have coffee,” says Esenkin. The shop’s relaxed atmosphere and interesting mix of products have made it a Moscow must-visit by most travel guides.
Known as Knizhnyi Mir before it became Biblio-Globus in 1992 (both meaning “book world”), the store boasts the largest number of publications sold in a retail outlet in a day and is considered a superbrand in Russia. An average of 10,000 visitors throng its three floors daily to check out its stock of more than 250,000 titles.
In 2011, Biblio-Globus handled roughly 3% and 15% of the total retail volume in Russia and Moscow, respectively. So it is not surprising that it has received the Presidential Commendation for its contribution to the development of the Russian book trade. Beyond Russia, orders for Russian books can be made through its Web site (biblio-globus.ru).
“On average, we have 60 authors visiting our store per month, and on a sale day, when everything is 25% off, we can expect around 16,000 visitors,” adds Esenkin, whose team randomly selects a sale day and informs its 300,000 Biblio-Globus cardholders a day or two in advance by SMS. Last year, a franchise store was opened in Chelyabinsk in the Urals. The new outlet allows visitors to view real-time videos of author visits and presentations being held at the Moscow store.
Gripes about the publishing industry’s decline notwithstanding, Esenkin believes that “Russian readers are still there. They are just buying less, simply because of financial pressures and the undeniable lure of free and cheap downloads. For the latter, we need to educate everybody about piracy in order to arrest the problem.”
St. Petersburg-based Bookvoed (“Alphabet Eater”) has been striving to help revive the reading habit. Last May, it joined hands with the Russian Book Union in a campaign to raise awareness in the city. “We started by collecting signatures, 300,000 in total, to draw attention to the issue,” says general director Denis Kotov. “We organized flash mobs, presentations, and press conferences. Libraries and Moscow House of Books soon joined our effort, and it caught our government’s attention. Now, we have a nationwide program aimed at improving literacy and promoting reading.”
The book chain is also involved in a citywide program, Successful Reading, and a national competition, Live Classics, to get children reading. Book clubs at 53 of its outlets (13 in the regions) held 1,300 events last year—a 9.2% increase over the previous year—that were attended by more than 50,000 people. “We also organized a poetry festival and supported several music events. Our list of nonprofit activities is long and varied.” Then there is ARTBookvoed, where participants pay to learn decoupage, batik printing, glass staining, and other forms of decoration and crafts.
Kotov is seeing increased interest in business, personal development, and spiritual titles. Fiction and children’s books remain as popular as ever. “Surviving in today’s economic conditions means being innovative and active online. The bankruptcy of Top Kniga in Russia and Borders in the U.S. serve as good case studies,” adds Kotov, who finds the collaboration among publishers to develop reading programs and find common technological solutions a very healthy sign for the Russian book industry.
Meanwhile, its I-VED e-reader, the first from a Russian book chain, seeks to combine the culture of reading with digital devices. “It is linked to our store Web site to provide the latest information on literary events. Now our customers can purchase e-books or print titles directly, recommend them to friends and offer reviews all in one place.”
Kotov is also working on increasing efficiency by auditing his staff’s performance: “The objective is to improve our service quality and raise staff awareness of our activities. We want customers to view us as book experts with reliable information.” With an ambitious goal of achieving 20% growth over the next 12 months, he is looking at expanding the store’s nonbook products, further enhancing the I-VED interface, and creating a CRM system to automate core business processes and better service customer demands.
Here is an indie bookshop that was just a heartbeat away from being shuttered by the government. There were charges of distributing pornographic material in 2007 and police raids a year later—which uncovered no wrongdoing. Not to mention the arson attack that burned down the store and most of its stock back in 2005. But Boris Kupriyanov (also director of the Moscow Open Book Festival since its 2009 launch) has continued to provide space for indie publishers and sell cheaper than anywhere else for the benefit of his store’s loyal (read: cultish) readers.
Established in 2002, the Falanster minichain is known as a gathering spot for the city’s intellectuals (and, some insist, radicals), offering a wide selection of art, culture, philosophy, politics, and other humanities titles. There is intellectual fiction aplenty, but no pulp fiction or travel guides. The store PW visited near Tverskaya train station is only 90 square meters (“like St. Mark’s in New York in terms of size,” says Kupriyanov), but stocked with nearly 25,000 titles, all shelved spine out and mostly one copy per title. “Each of our three stores, in Moscow, selects its own titles based on customer interest and demand. We have very specific ideas on what we want to stock, and there is little space for mass market titles,” adds Kupriyanov, whose team works directly with distributors and wholesalers (“big publishing companies give discounts only for a complete line of books,” he says).
Another Falanster store, Ciolkovsky, is much bigger, at 300 square meters, and is more relaxed in its book selection. “This mid-range store, located near Red Square, is an experiment, as there are very few bookstores of this size in Russia,” says Kupriyanov; most big city bookstores are multilevel emporiums. “It is new, but I am confident it will be a success in the near future.” The Falanster stores are definitely very successful, with daily sales exceeding 100,000 rubles ($3,800) at each outlet. “Per-square-meter per day, we are making nearly as much as the big bookstores you find in Moscow—and that is gratifying.” Having a loyal customer base that visits the outlets nearly every day does help. So too is that almost 70% of walk-in visitors do not leave without buying a book. Evening events such as talks, lectures, poetry readings, and musical performances also help to pull in customers wanting something different and more stimulating than just rows and rows of books.
Moscow House of Books
With 40 bookstores scattered all over the capital, Moscow House of Books is Russia’s largest retail chain located in one city. Some of its stores are specialty outlets, sporting names such as House of Foreign Books, House of Medical Books, and House of Technical Books.
Moscow House of Books’ main store (in operation since 1967 as an independent company) stretches 100 meters along Novy Arbat Street. When the store was established in 1998 by the municipal government, managing director Nadezhda Mikhailova implemented various programs to reconstruct and renovate the premises, expand product selection to include stationery and audio-visual products, strengthen staff training, and introduce new transaction and stock-tracking software. Much was done to modernize it to meet European standards. Today, the Novy Arbat store is among the largest in the country with around 4,500 square meters of floor space and 210,000 titles. More than 70,000 people visit the chain every day.
Last year, sales through its Web site increased 5.3%. But the overall retail sales of 7,630,000 copies were down 8% from the previous year. That’s a universal problem caused by the convergence of several factors: a depressed economy (“when people would rather save money for essential goods than buy books”), the rise of e-books and rampant piracy on the Web (“where downloads are usually free and legality often ignored”), and the lack of interest in reading (“because of the vast number of resources available other than books”).
As for what sells, Mikhailova finds that educational materials and children’s books are doing well. Last year, sales of these two categories at the chain went up 8.5% and 6% respectively. Parents, it seems, still insist on seeing the physical book before making any purchase. “The best technology still cannot replicate teaching materials and full-color children’s books in e-book format.”
To promote reading and book buying, the chain’s 2,000-strong team organizes more than 100 events annually. “We have book and stationery fairs, and theme-based events such as Russian Detective Stories Week and Russian Science Fiction Week. Our annual children’s festival, Growing with the Book, for instance, has become so popular that it is a must-attend event every spring. We also have popular authors coming to our store regularly to conduct readings, autograph books, and take questions from visitors.” Recent months saw the book chain hosting Dina Rubina, Vladimir Posner, Leonid Parfenov, Eduard Uspensky, Janusz Leon Wisniewski, Victor Erofeev, Cornelia Funke, and Neil Gaiman. Immediate plans are to improve warehousing and inventory processes, besides developing new forms of collaboration with publishers and wholesalers.