The rights industry in Russia has grown much more professional in the past five years, according to Julia Goumen of Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency. “The interaction between publishers and agencies, as well as scouts, has improved tremendously as our publishing industry becomes better connected to the international book community. Previously, it could take up to a year for new trends, big titles, or major events to reach Russia. These days, Russian publishers are often among the first to acquire rights to major works of fiction.”
Yulia Dobrovolskaya, CEO of Elkost Literary Agency, shares Goumen’s sentiments. “When it comes to major foreign bestsellers, there is hardly any gap between their release in Russia and in the rest of Europe. However, this sometimes occurs at the expense of translation quality. I would therefore recommend stipulating translation quality assurance in the contracts with Russian publishers.”
Auctions, as Goumen points out, are new to Russia’s rights industry. “Although there are only three or four big publishing groups operating at international standards and fewer than a dozen small and medium-size publishers, we find that many of our best titles are being licensed through auctions. I hope the interest in auctions will survive the current publishing crisis.”
Meanwhile, piracy is receiving closer attention as publishers increasingly see e-publishing as a crucial part of their business. Says Goumen, “Our agency is also venturing into the e-book world with the launch of our online bookstore, ru-reader.ru. And if everything goes well, we shall soon start publishing e-books using FBReader.” Dobrovolskaya acknowledges that digital piracy is rampant, with pirated versions uploaded to torrent sites way ahead of print editions, but she does not think there is great cause for concern for foreign publishers. “Titles with quality and of interest to readers will sell well in spite of piracy.”
Dobrovolskaya also cautions that the country’s book distribution system is unlike any other in the world. “Publishers do not control the retail price of their own books because they sell lock, stock, and barrel to distributors, and the retail price often ends up at least twice or thrice what publishers charge. However, royalties are based on publishers’ price. Furthermore, since publishers do not control the stock, they cannot guarantee that copies will be removed from the shelves when their rights license expires. In fact, any title printed and sold could remain on the shelves forever. It is therefore advisable for foreign publishers to ensure that royalties are paid based on printed quantity rather than sold copies.”
Shrinking print runs, says managing director Vladimir Popov of FTM Agency, is one obvious trend that affects the rights business. “The average run used to be 10,000 copies five years ago. Today, it is more likely to be just 3,000. Since royalties are based on print quantities at publishers’ price—an unfair practice that I doubt will change anytime soon—it reduces the collectible amount per title. Then there is the fast-growing number of e-books and multimedia products in the market. This in turn has created a new breed of copyright users: content providers such as LitRes and Ozon.ru that have the capabilities to digitize print editions into e-books as well as to sell them.”
Those dealing with Russia need to throw out preconceived ideas about publishing and rights selling. “This is a vast country that is made up of regions with unequal economic development, and hence different purchasing power. So books published in the two publishing hubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg may not reach many in the outlying regions. It is simply not economically feasible, as the high transportation costs render the books beyond most readers’ reach,” says Popov. Given this scenario, it' would be logical for books to be published and printed locally in the regions. But local publishing houses are unable to compete with big companies in terms of advances and royalties. “They mostly resort to publishing titles that reside in the public domain or those written by lesser known local authors. Moreover, provincial publishers do not want exclusive rights to foreign works because of the limited distribution within their geographic areas.”
Big publishing houses, meanwhile, have no use for exclusive rights to world classics as these have long been translated into Russian and reprinted regularly. Continues Popov, “If they do acquire exclusive rights to such works, it is often a strategic move against the competition. Hemingway is a good example. We controlled the Russian translation rights for more than 20 Hemingway titles, and we usually granted nonexclusive rights to several dozen publishers in various regions of Russia. The titles were thus widely distributed and sold in huge quantities. But when Astrel, an AST imprint, acquired exclusive Russian rights to the Hemingway titles in 2006, both distribution and quantity shrank dramatically. “The Old Man and the Sea,” for instance, went from 138,000 copies in 2004 to only 30,000 copies in 2010. This goes to show that sometimes it is better to let an agent grant nonexclusive rights to a number of publishers, especially when it concerns translated classics that have been around for ages.”
As to what sells, Dobrovolskaya says, “Russians are indifferent to Middle Eastern or African authors—often regarded as fashionable by European readers—because they are not interested to know the situation and problems of these regions. Neither are they interested in books on politics except for biographies and memoirs of popular or scandalous political or business leaders. Russian trade publishers tend to shy away from titles on social conflicts and categorically refuse to buy those on medical issues such as Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or Gulf War syndrome.” Books with positive tones are preferred, especially those presenting a rich and bountiful life outside of Russia. The same goes for travelogues. Then, “crime and detective stories must be intellectual, while pure action stories sell poorly.” Visiting Russian book fairs is a great way to obtain local knowledge of the book market, she adds. “Our book fairs have improved a lot and the annual Non/Fiction Fair is the most interesting. Anyone wishing to sell rights to Russia should brave the harsh Moscow winter to attend it.”
Meanwhile, Goumen finds breaking into the U.S. market hard simply because Russian titles and authors are not on most American readers’ radar. “Take Anna Arutunyan’s latest nonfiction, ‘The Putin Mystique.’” she says. “Originally written in English by a bilingual American journalist, it investigates Russia’s political and social foundations that nurture its current authoritarian style. It explains what is happening in Russia these days and what its future holds. The title was introduced at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair, and contracts were subsequently signed for 11 languages, with several editions out before the election. But we have yet to secure an American deal. The explanation given is that American readers are far less interested in Russia than they are in, say, China or the Middle East.” The fact that American publishers, unlike their European counterparts, require a complete manuscript in English, not just a sample chapter, to consider a title adds to the challenge. “It is a financial risk that has impeded collaboration between U.S. publishers and international agents like us.”
Let’s look at specific agencies in more detail.
Banke, Goumen & Smirnova (BGS)
Previously known as Goumen & Smirnova, the agency brought on board a new partner, Natasha Banke (previously of the Swedish-Russian agency OKNO), soon after the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair. Banke will continue representing Scandinavian authors and publishers in Russia. “We are Russia’s sole international primary agency—and that is the big difference between us and other agencies. We began working with Russian authors from scratch about five years ago, reading their manuscripts and finding them Russian publishers, and then promoting their titles domestically and, for those with international appeal, overseas,” says Julia Goumen, who started her career as a foreign rights manager at an indie house in St. Petersburg before founding the agency six years ago. (Natalia Smirnova, who’d worked with her at the indie house, joined her two years later.)
“We handle more than 30 authors, and every year at least one of them is certain to be on the shortlist of major Russian literary awards.” The agency’s authors include Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (“The Time: Night,” “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby”), Andrei Rubanov (three of whose 10 titles were nominated for the 2011 National Bestseller Prize), Marina Stepnova (“The Women of Lazarus”), Vladimir Lorchenkov (winner of the Debut and other Russian literary prizes), and Anna Starobinets (a fast-rising young author). Stepnova, lauded as Russia’s biggest literary discovery in 2011, already has her book snapped up by Random House Germany and Bonniers in Sweden, and film rights are being negotiated. “Each of these titles is a runaway success in Russia and has much to offer to other parts of the world—from the viewpoint of the story, the voice it speaks, or the experience it provides to the reader.”
BGS has in recent months sold Mikhail Shishkin’s “The Letterbook” (winner of the 2011 Big Book Award) to publishers in 23 countries, including Quercus (a deal made by Seamus Murphy), Random House Mondadori, Querido, and Arab Scientific Publishers. Other bestsellers include Anna Arutunyan’s “The Putin Mystique” (sold to 11 countries) and Yana Vagner’s “Vongozero” (a postapocalyptic literary thriller set in Moscow). BGS has secured the TV/film license for Vongozero and sold the translation rights to Scandinavia. It has also added Russian classic writers Petr Vail and Alexander Genis to its growing list of authors and will be introducing their works at the upcoming London Book Fair.
Among the agencies and publishers that BGS represents in Russia are Akashic Books, McClelland & Stewart, Black and White Publishing, the Bukowski Agency, and Cooke International.
One of Elkost’s biggest projects last year involved Ludmilla Ulitskaya’s latest novel, “The Green Tent” (or “Imago,” as it is known outside of Russia). Rights have been sold to nine countries, including France (Gallimard), Germany (Hanser), Italy (Bompiani), and the Netherlands (De Geus). “We also provided support and assistance to Ulitskaya’s publishers worldwide whenever a backlist title is released. For instance, last year, “Daniel Stein, Interpreter” was launched by Overlook Press in the U.S., Duckworth in the U.K., and Scribe in Australia,” says CEO Yulia Dobrovolskaya. Her team also dedicated considerable time and effort to promote Mariam Petrosyan’s “The House That...” (2010 Russian Literary Award winner for best novel), which has been sold to six countries, including Italy, Norway, and Poland. Other big names that Elkost represents include Sasha Sokolov (“A School for Fools”), Yuri Buida (“The Prussian Bride”), 2002 Russian Booker Prize winner Oleg Pavlov (the Russian Trilogy), as well as the literary estates of Ilya Ehrenburg (“Life of the Automobile”), semiotician Yuri Lotman, and psychologist Alexander N. Luria.
As for nonfiction, Elkost has recently sold Elena Rzhevskaya’s touching WWII story “Memories of a War-time Interpreter,” political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s “I Will Fight for Freedom” (now a bestseller in Germany, where it is published by Knaus as “Letters from Prison”) and Ivan Chistyakov’s “Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard.” Dobrovolskaya adds, “We handle several Russian children’s authors as well, particularly bestselling author Grigory Oster, whose titles have already been widely translated.” Ten years ago, she had tried selling popular children’s series, including Geronimo Stilton, to Russian publishers, but the market was not ready then.
“We handle Russian rights for several Italian and Spanish authors such as Umberto Eco, Almudena Grandes, Paolo Giordano, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Quim Monzo. In 2011, Eco’s fiction and nonfiction titles were at the top of our list. We organized an auction to find the best publisher for his titles. We also sold two titles by Grandes—‘The Ages of Lulu’ and ‘Cardboard Castle’—and we have full confidence in her potential in Russia.”
Dobrovolskaya and her team close an average of 50 deals each year, which adds around five to 10 new titles to its catalogue.
Established in 1990, FTM was the first homegrown literary agency and remains the largest agency in terms of contracts signed (more than 3,000 annually) and authors it represents. Its catalogue of Russian works and translations lists more than 6,000 titles.
The 18-member FTM team, which includes lawyers and accountants, handles the estates of many 20th-century classical authors, including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Andrei Platonov, and Alexei Tolstoy. It deals not only with literary works but also dramas, working with Russian theaters (200-plus contracts per year) and overseas theaters (no less than 20 annual productions). “Besides writers and playwrights, we also represent Russian translators of classical literature from Ovid, Aesop, Dumas, Dante, Shakespeare, Twain, Hemingway, Updike, and other writers,” says managing director Vladimir Popov. Among the many deals closed in 2011 were 50 contracts for Pasternak, 48 for Alexander Volkov, 26 for Platonov, and nine for Varlam Shalamov.
In the children’s segment, FTM works with Russian authors like Pavel Bazhov, Korney Chukovsky, Volkov, and Sergei Kozlov, as well as translators of the Brothers Grimm, Saint-Exupery, and “The Arabian Nights.” Overall, more than 2,000 contracts have been signed to publish Russian translations of works by such authors as Bradbury, Hemingway, Dreiser, Arthur Hailey, and Margaret Mitchell. “In 2011, we collected and paid out $3 million in royalties, which is a huge sum considering that a black-and-white book usually retails at less than $4.” Not surprisingly, Popov has one person on his team dealing exclusively with royalties.
“The year we launched our agency, I appealed to several major foreign publishers and agencies to let us represent their interests in Russia—as Andrew Nurnberg Associates did. Given the political and economic chaos facing Russia at that time, it was perfectly understandable for publishers to choose a known entity such as Andrew Nurnberg. But my offer still stands today. After all, we do control the rights to many Russian translations of works from around the world,” adds Popov, who has started working on a major project that will be unveiled at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair.
Vladimir Sorokin was among Galina Dursthoff’s top authors last year. His book “The Blizzard” (second runnerup and big winner at the 2011 Big Book Award and NOSE Literary Prize respectively) has been sold to 12 publishers, including Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Then there is “Prisoner of Putin,” the first autobiography of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, co-written with journalist Natalia Gevorkyan, sold to six publishers including Denoel (France) and DVA (Germany). Another big title is “Time: Second Hand” by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for “Voices from Chernobyl.” (Both Khodorkovsky’s and Alexievich’s books have yet to have an American or British publisher at the time of writing.) Aside from Sorokin and Alexievich, Dursthoff counts Daniil Kharms (“Collected Works”), Yuri Mamleyev (“After the End”) and Oksana Zabuzhko (“Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex”) among the biggest names that she has represented in recent years.
Dursthoff, working with several overseas sub-agents, represents more than 50 authors and closes about 70 deals per year. A former Moscow-based editor, she moved to Germany in 1990 and worked as a journalist for “Deutsche Welle,” writing book reviews and interviewing Russian authors and publishers, until she established her literary agency nine years later. “I visit Moscow and St. Petersburg several times a year and attend various book fairs in Russia and Europe. For other times, there is e-mail, Skype- and Facebook to maintain contact with friends, authors, and publishers. Living and working in Germany, in my experience, makes it so much easier to keep abreast of current trends in the overseas publishing industry—and that is very important for a literary agent.”
Now that Russia is undergoing major political changes—evidenced by massive demonstrations in recent months—nonfiction, specifically current affairs and politics, is growing and fiction writers are incorporating social and political realities into their works, according to Dursthoff. “Titles by some of my authors clearly reflect these changes: Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya” and Valery Panyushkin’s “Twelve Who Don’t Agree: The Battle for Freedom in Putin’s Russia” are excellent nonfiction examples. For fiction, there are Natalia Klyucharova’s “A Train Named Russia,” Sergei Lebedev’s take on Stalin’s legacy in “Buried in Oblivion,” and journalist Oleg Kashin’s “Forward, Russia!” a satire on Russian politics and business.