We spoke with the publisher and co-CEO of Hungary’s nearly four-year-old Libri Publishing House about the shrinking of his local market, why Hungarian readers don't love crime fiction, and the new novel he's recently acquired by a "genius" Hungarian author.
How is the Hungarian book market unique among others in Europe?
The most successful publishing groups are mostly owned by booksellers in Hungary. There are also agencies connected to publishers, and chosen ones who have VIP tickets to governmental sources. These are a few examples of how our market is different from most of the Western European markets. Let's not forget politics, and the many changes that are typical of the post-Socialist Bloc (and the publishers there), following the political transition in 1989. [During the transition] the least important [issue] was regulating the book market. So, since then, it's more of [an anything-goes atmosphere], which is typical in the post-Eastern Bloc. The market has also shrunk in the years since the global recession, and the awakening only started last year. It takes time to forget the old ways, and the changes are a much needed breath of fresh air. But it was also last year that the entire school-book business, [which makes up] a quarter of the whole market, was swallowed by the state. Now, the [school-book market] is completely under governmental control. Again.
What sort of books are succeeding right now in Hungary?
I would say that we are in the second wave of a younger generation here that is much more focused on marketing and PR. The old keywords--‘friendship,’ ‘power’ and ‘politics'--are being replaced. In the communist era the variety of books in print was very select, but 25 years later the bestsellers are pretty much the same titles as anywhere else. Only thrillers, crime fiction and comics are not really working, and the customers have no money for high quality picture books nowadays. The biggest hits are--if there is no Dan Brown-ish, Fifty Shades of Grey-ish global phenomenon--always written by domestic authors. Last year for us it was a memoir by Miklós Németh, former prime minister of Hungary; he was largely responsible for the political transition, and opening the borders to the West (Austria) in 1989. This book marks the first time, since 1989, that he shares his thoughts and remembrances and, of course, it works extremely well.
What are some books you recently acquired and what drew you to them?
Our company has been growing quickly in recent years, and we have five imprints; we are acquiring a wide range of books, around 400 new titles a year, both translated ones and Hungarian ones. [We have everything] from Disney sticker books to contemporary poetry. I myself am mainly responsible for fiction, literary and also commercial. We have successfully acquired the Hungarian rights to The Girls by Emma Cline, Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff, Prince Lestat by Anne Rice, and También esto pasará by Milena Busquets. The most recent acquisition I made was The Narrow Road to The Deep North, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2014, by Richard Flanagan. [I also acquired] a new novel by a genius Hungarian author, Vilmos Kondor, whose first book, Budapest Noir, was an enormous success in Hungary. (Budapest Noir has been sold to over 20 countries throughout the world.)
Is there any type of book you'd love to acquire that you haven't found yet?
I know it sounds romantic and daring, but I always try to find a book I enjoy. And of course, the biggest risk is always if I enjoy it too much... I usually have to analyze and consider hundreds of titles each year. Clichés are tiring for me, but the average reader [often] loves them. Along with my sense of what's good, I also work with the best editors and book professionals in Hungary, and great scouts beyond the borders. [This] helps to make sure we make the right decisions. What I haven’t found yet is a novel, set in current day Hungary (written by a Hungarian), that uses an authentic language of "coldness and beautiful emptiness." I've read only one book like this, but it was written in verse: Protocol by János Térey. The author is a young Hungarian poet who has been with us from the day we started this company.