On April 11 and 12, the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association hosted a professional conference in Tbilisi that gathered agents, booksellers, and publishers from across the Black Sea region and the Caucasus. It included representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and Georgia. The event covered a range of topics, from the emerging role of literary agents in the region and the evolution of bookselling during the pandemic to the growth of independent publishers and challenges to freedom of speech.
The conference was planned long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, but the war was a main topic of conversation. Georgia, which has had 20% of its territory occupied by Russia since a war in 2008, has played an active role in warning the world about Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions. As such, numerous Ukrainians participated by video in the conference, including journalist Bohdana Neborak, who spoke of the many writers murdered by the Soviet Union; Oksana Khmelyovska, cofounder of news service Chytomo, who offered an overview of the Ukrainian book market; Yuliia Kozlovets, director of the Kyiv Book Arsenal literary festival, which typically takes place in May but is canceled due to the war; and author Andrey Kurkov, who spoke about the conflict and noted that the war was itself a “battle between the old and new ways of thinking.”
Beyond the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, what emerged over the conference’s two-day run is that the issues publishers face in the this seemingly remote part of the world are much the same as anywhere else: inflation, supply chain problems, limited printing capacity, low profit margins, and the internet as competition for reading time. Perhaps unique to this region are its complex history and languages. Some countries’ publishing industries work in languages spoken by relatively small populations, such as those of Armenia and Georgia, which have populations of just three million each. In these modest-size markets, print runs average 500 or 1,000 copies per title, and getting books translated into other languages can be difficult as well. For example, there is a limited but growing number of works of contemporary Georgian literature translated into English, including a smattering of novels and the anthologies Contemporary Georgian Stories, published by Dalkey Archive, and The Book of Tbilisi, published by Comma Press and edited by Gvantsa Jobava, the principle organizer of the conference.
Manol Peykov, publisher of Janet 45 Publishing House in Sofia, Bulgaria, launched a new literary agency during the London Book Fair to try and facilitate more translations into and from Bulgarian, a language spoken by seven million people. “Still,” he said during the conference, “I question why it is we always have to look to the West—to English publishers and Germans—and why we can’t look to each other. Why don’t we try and work together more often and translate books to and from each other’s languages.”
Azerbaijan’s publishers struggle with supplying books to its population of 10 million who speak multiple languages. “We sell books in Azerbaijani, Turkish, Russian, English, German, and French,” said Nigar Kocharli, CEO and founder of Ali and Nino Bookstores, a chain of 11 stores in and around Baku. Kocharli, who runs a publishing house of the same name, noted that books are relatively expensive, meaning sustaining her business has always been a challenge. To supplement income from books, she relies on profitable sidelines, such as Legos.
Rüyam Yilmaz, owner of Gergedan Kitaveni Bookstore, one of the oldest bookstores in Istanbul, said that Turkey’s rising inflation rate has meant fewer sales overall for the store in the past year. “The price of books has doubled,” Yilmaz said. “Readers may want to buy books, but now they only window-shop and then order off the internet where they are cheaper.” She said she feels that publishers are unsympathetic to booksellers’ plight. “Unfortunately, publishers also want to make the same profit and so are reducing the discount they will give to us.”
In Romania, which has a population of 20 million, book sales are concentrated in the capital city of Bucharest, said Dan Croitoru, the editorial director of Polirom. Overall, literary education in Romania is lacking, as the government stopped buying new books for schools in 2012. “The result is that far too many Romanian high school students failed their final exams over the past several years,” Croitoru said. Another result of the lack of support for books is a rise in piracy. “Nearly every book published in Romania is also available online for free,” he added.
With representatives from several post-Soviet states at the conference, freedom of speech was a major topic, as well. Among those present was Shahbaz Khuduoglu, CEO and founder of Qanun Publishing House in Azerbaijan, who spent time in prison as a result of his work as a journalist and publisher. Many at the conference expressed concern about their freedom to publish and said they had been involved in at least one legal battle with authorities over their right to publish or sell books. Many also knew of writers and publishers who had been put out of work, exiled, jailed, attacked, or even killed as a result of their work.
The conference was planned to mark the end of Tbilisi’s yearlong turn as UNESCO’S World Book Capital 2021—which transfers to Guadalajara, Mexico, for 2022 and then Accra, Ghana, for 2023. In addition to numerous representatives from UNESCO and prior World Book Capitals, members of the International Publishers Association were also on hand.
Gvantsa Jobova, deputy chairwoman of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association, best summed up the spirit of the conference and its context: “It gives hope that in spite of the complicated geopolitical location, despite the conflicts and war experience, which is the part of both the past and the present, development and progress is possible through hard work, even in these conditions. This is why we strive to teach each other, share our ways and methods that have been successful or unsuccessful in our professional activities, which have pushed back the publishing industries in our countries or, conversely, moved them forward.”
Jobova added, “We can support each other in protecting the freedom of speech, expression, or copyright, which is so relevant in our region—and despite the fact that we speak small languages, with mutual support we can achieve the translation and publication of our literature in large languages. We can, because this region is the bearer of the greatest cultural history, where literature has always played a leading role. We can, because what is being created in this region today is real. It is real, because stories are not made up here; writers and readers live from story to story here.”
History, Jobova said, is “a living experience, which needs to be shared and understood by the rest of the world, now more than ever.”