Latvia has a long and proud domestic publishing tradition that reaches back 100 years, when the production of Latvian-language books played a key role in the independence struggle. Unfortunately, the sector was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, during which the number of books produced dropped by 40%. "That was a clear sign to us that if we wanted to survive and grow, we should go outside Latvia," says Girts Karlsons, sales director for Jelgavas Tipogrāfija, Latvia's largest and best-known printer.
Today, the company, based in the city of Jelgava, which has been an important printing center since the 18th century, derives 70% of its revenue from exports, with much of that coming from Scandinavian countries. In 2017, the company produced four million books, with total sales just under €10 million and an average production time of two weeks for both hardcover and paperback editions.
"The local market has now recovered and is stable, though it is not growing, so the share we can get outside of Latvia is really where our future development lies," Karlsons says. "This actually applies to pretty much any company in Latvia—if you want to be up-to-date with the newest technology, at some point the local market is simply not large enough."
Jelgavas Tipogrāfija aims to compete not with big foreign printers, which produce print runs in the tens of thousands, but with small to medium printers, where a print run ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 copies.
"All of our machines in the book production business are one to five years old, so we have current technology and can produce top quality books," Karlsons says. "We're also very strong on color management and product range. For the Latvian market, we had to make everything in-house, and we try to maintain that level of control. In many places in Europe, it's rare to have binding and printing in one factory. For us, it's the norm. At the moment, we have more than 35 different product options."
To market those options, sales representatives now speak a variety of languages, which Karlsons says is of crucial importance. "In the beginning, we worked only English," he says. "It was fine in Scandinavia but not in France or Germany. Then we realized we should hire native speakers and have people on our team who speak the customer's language. This is really important—we need to be conversant not just in the language but also in the business culture."
In the capital, Riga, the Drukātava printing house is a much younger business, having been established in 2005. It has proven adept at seeking out and exploiting new niches and markets, particularly in self-publishing, with its fast turnaround and small-scale, digital print runs. The company offers design and layout services as well. Exports account for about 85% of Drukātava's total sales, which reached about €1.2 million in 2017.
"It's not just the size of the local market but also what we call ‘capability to pay for services,'" says sales manager Atis Baumanis on the importance of competing in the Scandinavian market. "In Latvia, people who might be interested in publishing their own book often can't afford it. In Scandinavia, self-publishing is very popular, and lots of people are writing and wanting to publish their own books. We are here to help them."
Sweden is the top export market for Drukātava, accounting for approximately 60% of business, followed by Finland, Denmark, and Norway. "We focus on those markets largely because of logistics," Baumanis says. "To send small print runs of books beyond those markets is too expensive."
He acknowledged that there are many printers in Poland and throughout central and eastern Europe that can compete on cost but that don't have some of the Baltic printers' other advantages. "Communication is key for us—we want to be fast, accurate, and easy to work with," Baumanis says. "Quality and price might be the same as those of other printers, but clients will choose the printer with whom they get personal contact, special attention, and understanding. I think this is what matters."
Mike Collier is a British writer and journalist who has lived in Latvia since 2008.