With Russia the market focus country at the Fair, Russian publishers will be at Earls Court in force and there will be many associated literary and cultural events.

For publishers interested in tackling this market for the first time, what are the possibilities? First, it's worth remembering that the present Russian publishing industry is relatively young – until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, publishing was entirely state-controlled. There were a limited number of publishing houses, most with a monopoly in publishing in a particular subject area. There was state censorship and the works of many western writers – George Orwell and John le Carré among them – were banned. The importation of western books took place via a state monopoly, Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, with priority given to scientific and technical works; this meant that western academic publishers came earliest to the market. All rights business had to pass through the state copyright agency, VAAP, and rights payments were made on the basis of rates set down by the state, relating to the category and length of the book rather than the size of print run.

Following the radical political and economic changes, it became possible to set up private publishing houses and hundreds sprang up almost overnight, many of which did not survive. The new publishers initially concentrated primarily on mass market titles as those provided a quicker return on investment. It was often quite difficult to determine the profile of a new publisher as their range of publications were so diverse – in effect, "anything that sells". In the early 1990s translations of western books dominated the market, including the works of many hitherto banned authors, and also books on topics, and produced in styles, new to the market – for example, Dorling Kindersley's highly illustrated and well-designed titles proved very popular. Coffee table books on lifestyle topics found a market amongst newly wealthy Russians in a market that had hitherto depended on publishers maintaining low book prices through state subsidies.

The former state publishers either went out of business or privatised, with the result that it became harder to place rights in specialised titles. However, completely new markets emerged for books on topics such as computing and western business methods, and indeed on the history and politics of the former eastern bloc.

What is the situation now? From the late 1990s onwards there was something of a reaction against so many translations of western trade titles and more promotion of domestic authors, some of whom have been successfully published in the west, in particular crime writers such as Boris Akunin. Statistics show that there are nearly 6,000 active publishers in Russia, but of these only 100 produce approximately 46% of publishing output. Publishers are mainly concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg and broad distribution throughout this vast market remains a problem.

Ten publishers currently each produce more than 1,000 titles per year. AST and Eksmo are the largest of these and both also own distribution networks and chains of bookstores. Other key players are Olma, Ripol Classik and Rosman, the publishers of the Russian editions of Harry Potter; Rosman also produces an excellent line of children's books by domestic authors. Egmont is also active in the children's book market. On the academic and professional front, key players are Binom, Geotar, Infra-M, Unity-Dana, Ves Mir, Alpina and Olympus Business.

The sale of rights is a key strategy for reaching the Russian market, both for reasons of language and because book prices in Russia still remain very low by comparison with the west – this can sometimes make costing for co-editions difficult.

On the copyright front, Russia is a signatory to all three major international conventions (Berne, the Universal Copyright Convention and the WIPO Copyright Treaty) and the period of copyright protection is now comparable to that in the European Union and the United States, i.e. the life of the author plus 70 years. However, Russia's accession to Berne in 1995 contained a proviso that foreign works first published before 27th May 1973 (the date of the Soviet Union's accession to UCC) would remain in the public domain and could be published without permission or payment – the source of some controversy even amongst Russian intellectual property lawyers.

The market is also subject to substantial piracy of music, audiovisual works and computer software as well as books, and this impacts on domestic as well as on foreign publishers. Piracy is increasingly taking place online.

For a general overview of the market, the UK Publishers Association produced an updated survey of the Russian Book Market in November 2010; this is available free of charge to PA members or can be purchased by non-members at a price of £100 (print) or £85 (download). (Contact Mandy Knight, mknight@publishers.org.uk)

Western publishers seeking to do rights business with Russia for the first time may need to consider whether they wish to work direct or via one of the subagents specialising in the market. The Andrew Nurnberg Agency has long had an office in Moscow (contact Ludmilla Sushkova, sushkova@awax.ru); other subagents representing western titles include Alexander Khorzenevski (alex@akagency@gmail.com) and Synopsis (contact Natalia Sanina, Nat@synopsis-agency.ru). All tend to concentrate on trade titles.

Many Russian publishers work directly with western partners and regularly visit international book fairs such as London, Bologna, BookExpo America and Frankfurt. There are several book fairs in Russia itself; the St Petersburg Fair in April, the Moscow International Book Fair in early September (the largest) and the slightly oddly named Non/Fiction Book Fair in Moscow in early December (upmarket fiction and non-fiction). All are open to the public, who can purchase books at a discount, but these fairs can also provide opportunities to meet Russian publishers on their home ground.

What are Russian publishers looking for? Certainly western bestsellers that may appeal to their market, but also literary fiction for adults and children, biographies and autobiographies (if the personalities concerned are known in Russia), popular history, illustrated books on leisure topics, self-help titles and popular business books, as well as more specialised academic and professional titles. ELT publishers, who came early to the market, have tended to abandon licensing in terms of direct distribution of original editions.

Are there particular points that need to be borne in mind when working with Russian publishers? This has sometimes been a volatile market, so as with any potential new licensee it is always wise to take up references with other western publishers who have done business with them in the past. As mentioned earlier, book prices remain low (the average price could be equivalent to between US$2 and US$6 – Russian publishers do tend to think in dollars), and print runs can be modest (3,000-5,000 copies with no guarantee of repeat printings). When asking Russian publishers for data in order to calculate licence terms, they will often quote what they call the "publisher's price". This is not a fixed or recommended retail price, but rather an average price quoted to wholesalers, which could be considerably lower than the range of prices at which that book might be sold to end users in different bookshops. If royalties are to be calculated on that price, the royalty percentage should be raised accordingly to compensate for the discount. Advances are by negotiation. There may still be cases where the total royalty from a modest print run might lend itself better to a lump sum payment for an agreed number of copies.

Russian publishers are still subjected to considerable bureaucracy and some (fortunately not all) may require licence contracts to be signed in both English and Russian. All will find it easier to remit payments (advances, lump sums and ongoing royalties) if they receive a stamped and signed invoice for the amount due. Sales statements and accounting can be intermittent, so regular reminders are helpful. Some publishers seem to require additional paperwork such as signed certificates that payment has been received by the western licensor.

A key point to bear in mind is that in 2004 Russia imposed a rate of 18% VAT on royalties remitted abroad. Different Russian publishers seem to deal with this in different ways, but it behoves the western licensor to word licence contracts in such a way that they do not lose an 18% VAT deduction from amounts due to them – the Russian publisher should fulfil that commitment over and above the contracted payments.

The question of the territory to be granted to a Russian licensee needs to be carefully considered. Some publishers may be happy to grant world rights in the Russian language, but it may be worth questioning licensees on what channels they realistically have outside Russia itself, where even internal distribution can be problematic. Some of the larger publishers do have channels to many of the former Soviet Republics (in particular Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States), where there are still significant Russian populations.

Russian publishers are increasingly seeking to acquire ebook rights as part of their translation licences. Before agreeing to include those additional rights, care should be taken to establish the following: whether they already have an ebook programme in place; whether they are supplying direct or via third party retailers; if they are including ebooks in aggregated collections (all of which would affect the financial model); what the end user is permitted to do; and whether the ebooks are DRM-protected.

Most Russian publishers would admit that their market was particularly hard hit by the economic recession and it is certainly the case that some have delayed publication of licensed editions or even cancelled contracts altogether. However, the UK Publishers Association's delegation to Moscow in December 2010 saw signs of recovery and optimism for the future. This is not a market to be ignored, and this year's London Book Fair will provide ample opportunity to make contact with Russian partners.

Lynette Owen is Copyright Director of Pearson Education Ltd; she is a regular visitor to Russia, having first visited the Soviet Union in 1977.