Translations account for about 12% of all titles published in Russia in 2010. Here, as in other corners of the world, American and British blockbusters are translated and almost guaranteed top slots on the bestseller list. Names like J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, Nora Roberts, Stephenie Meyer, and John Grisham are no strangers in Russia.
At Alexander Korzhenevski Agency, the first three months of 2011 saw several big deals, including Rango: The Movie Storybook, Real-Time Marketing and PR, Architect, and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. The latter is very special to agency owner and founder Alexander Korzhenevski because it was the first time he had an auction for a short story anthology. "If the first three months is any indication, we are definitely looking at more deals for print and digital rights as well as higher advances this year," he says. Currently, 70% of his business comes from American publishers and literary agencies, and his focus is on selling British and American titles to Russia.
Over the past three to five years, Korzhenevski has seen "the average advances and royalties going up even as print runs are coming down. The global economic crisis does not help, of course, and we are doing fewer deals compared to 2007 or 2008. Some midsize publishers now buy just a few titles per year, while some do not buy anything new at all. However, I'm confident that things will change for the better soon." Among the big titles signed by his agency were Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife; Robert McCammon's The Five; a Wiley textbook, Business Model Generation, and another Wiley title, House and Philosophy; and Eric Mayost's Spectacular Hair. "House and Philosophy generated huge royalties, while the other four went through pretty intense auctions resulting in very good advances. We also handled sci-fi author Harry Harrison—whose contracts for all his works are renewed for Eksmo every three years—and Wiley author Joe Vitale." Based on these titles, one can say that AK Agency has three main segments: fiction (covering sci-fi, fantasy, and horror), business titles (mostly from Wiley), and highly illustrated crafts, cooking, and DIY titles. These segments contribute around 25%, 30%, and 25%, respectively, to the agency's overall business.
American detective novels do not fetch very high figures, he notes, because those by Russian authors have become much more popular in recent years. As for what kinds of titles are currently hot with Russian publishers, Korzhenevski says, "We are talking about polar opposites here. Books on vampires are hot. So are self-help books on happiness, well-being, and personal success—especially something like ‘How to make millions while doing nothing for five minutes a day.' "
For Andrew Nurnberg of the eponymous rights agency based in the U.K., "2010 was our best year to-date, both in the number of deals and monies earned for our clients. After a dip a few years ago, reflecting the preference for local authors, who are obviously much easier to promote, our sales of foreign fiction and nonfiction have increased dramatically." His Moscow branch, established in 1993 and headed by Ludmilla Sushkova, recently handled John Irving's Until I Find You (sold to Eksmo), Fannie Flagg's I Still Dream About You (Phantom), Chuck Palahniuk's complete works (AST), and Sam Kashner's Furious Love (Slovo). Sushkova has also sold a wide range of writing, from commercial fiction such as Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation and Simon Lelic's Rupture to literary fiction by Coe, Doctorow, Ishiguro, McEwan, and Murakami. "YA titles have also seen a big growth in demand," says Nurnberg, noting that some Russian publishers are catching up on various 20th-century classics that were not published during Soviet times. "Nonfiction has gained a greater following, and art books—some quite expensive—are enjoying good sales."
His London office, meanwhile, represents classic and contemporary Russian authors such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Vassily Grossman, Sergei Lukyanenko (Nightwatch fantasy series), and the first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. "It has been most rewarding to see Grossman's Life and Fate becoming a bestseller in various countries, and to know that BBC will dedicate two weeks of radio this coming autumn to the author's oeuvre."
As to what works in Russia, Nurnberg says, "We have sold an increasing number of nonfiction titles on philosophy, business, religion, and popular science, as well as anything and everything on self-improvement, over the past five years. In this respect, Russian publishers are now very much in line with what Western publishers are producing so successfully. We should bear in mind, of course, that Russia has its own authors in many of these fields." But fiction, which has been the most reliable of genres for many years, has seen a drop recently. "A major bookseller has just decided to systematically reduce its purchase of fiction, as well as the floor space devoted to it, by 15% starting next month due to lower demand from the reading public."
Russian publishers have had a big learning curve, notes Nurnberg, "because the Western way of remunerating authors was unheard of until the early 1990s. They now know that they need to produce payments and regular royalty statements to authors, but many of the reports we receive are still sorely lacking." On the other hand, the challenge in getting Russian authors "heard" outside of the borders, he says, "has a lot to do with providing quality reading material or outlines in good English. You can count on one hand the number of Russian-speaking editors in the English-language publishing community, and those that do not read Russian rely on readers' reports—but that is never the same to editors as reading the book themselves. So more exposure of Russian authors and, of course, one truly great success story outside of Russia will help bring their literature to the U.K. and other major territories."
For book scout Simone Garzella, keeping Centrepolygraph abreast of new books from the U.S., U.K., and Italy is a major part of his job. "In today's fast-paced book industry, it is crucial for foreign publishers to get information as early as possible on titles that are attracting more attention within the publishing circle. This way, the publisher can buy the rights before their domestic counterparts snatch them. I also keep Centrepolygraph informed of the latest bestsellers and titles that are getting more press coverage." Garzella also scouts for other publishers such as Arab Scientific Publishers (Lebanon), Constable & Robinson (U.K.), Euromedia (Czech Republic), Giunti (Italy), Murdoch Books (Australia), and Pensamento (Brazil), as well as a Hollywood production company looking for potential titles for screen adaptation.
One of the first projects Garzella brought to Centrepolygraph was Vicki Myron's Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat. "This book did very well in the U.S. and many other countries because people had already heard about the story of a cat that lived in a public library. But to turn it into a bestseller in Russia—as Centrepolygraph did—where people had no idea about the story was definitely a big challenge and an accomplishment," says Garzella, who started working with the Russian publishing house in September 2009. "I was more focused on nonfiction titles in the beginning. But now I'm seeing a growing interest from Russian readers in literary fiction. In general, according to feedback from Russian editors, U.K. books work better in Russia than U.S. titles. There is also a growing interest in YA titles, especially dystopias, postapocalyptic stories, and fantasy novels with crossover potentials. U.S. influence, both in the book and movie industries, clearly plays a major part in this."
Working closely with editors is a must for a scout, says Garzella, "because I must know if a particular book or author would fit into a publisher's portfolio, how translatable it is, and if foreign readers would understand or enjoy it. Being a scout is a little like being a translator—and I used to translate English novels into Italian—in that you need to know if a book can cross cultural barriers and would work for a specific country. So it is crucial to get as much information as possible on what a market likes and does not like, which topics are hot and which taboo." Not surprisingly, Garzella hopes that "someone would write a book on understanding a country by looking at books that their publishers are translating or not translating."
What does a publisher (or rights agency) need to look out for before signing on the dotted line? First and foremost, it is crucial to confirm and state clearly the territory covered in the contract. Is it for the Russian Federation only, or does it include the CIS? It is advisable to restrict the contract to Russian language only, and not to include CIS countries. But one for world Russian language rights is definitely feasible since there is a sizable market for Russian émigrés. Now that more Russian publishers are setting up editorial offices in Minsk, Belarus; Kiev, Ukraine; or Astana, Kazakhstan, a different contract should be made for each local language, such as Belarusian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, and so on.
Royalties, it should be noted, are based on what is called "publisher's price." Explains Nurnberg, "This is close to what is known as wholesale price in other markets. Anyone contemplating a contract in Russia should ask what the publisher's price is expected to be, and also what the publisher expects the average retail price to be. Since there is no fixed retail price, there would not be any firm answer, but you will at least get a ballpark figure." Retail prices are often set based on location and purchasing power. As a rule, the wealthier residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg may see pricier tags on their books, while those living in rural regions may see costly transportation fees reflected in the final selling price.
At present, rights contracts are usually in either U.S. dollars or euros. Check to see if the 18% VAT levied by the Russian government on noneducational books appears in the contract. It may become a cost transfer (if you will) and deducted from the rights fees later. As always, read the fine print, and the transaction should go smoother for all parties involved.