Talk about transformation. In a span of 20 years, the Russian book market has made a 180-degree shift, from state-owned publishing and distribution to privately held (except for a few exceptions) and increasingly client driven. Every component of its book market was created overnight, after state-owned publishing and the infrastructure supporting distribution and retailing collapsed.
Such transformation has resulted in several characteristics unique to the market. For instance, one will find huge publishing conglomerates producing a staggering number of publications in a single day. Eksmo and AST, the two behemoths that control nearly 45% of the market, have published more than 600 titles per month in recent years—something that is unheard of in the rest of the world.
Big publishers have also integrated vertical chains that may include wholesaling, bricks-and-mortar bookselling, online retailing, and digital content aggregation. Growth in the e-book segment, meanwhile, has some branching out into digitization services and online distribution. These services are in turn offered to smaller publishers.
It is also worth noting that, for a country so vast, publishing and distribution are concentrated in two cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. One can easily meet 85% of the industry players just in Moscow and take an 80-minute plane ride or a three-and-a-half-hour fast train to St. Petersburg to see the rest. No multiple city–hopping itineraries required.
In Russia, a print run tends to cover the whole lifespan of a title and indicates the success of a title (or author). Publishers usually do not keep any inventory, preferring instead to push all onto shelves. Reprinting is a new concept now that print run has come down and publishing has become more demand-based.
Here is a country where cloth-bound children's books are more common than those in paperback. There lies the snob appeal, as paperbacks are perceived to cater for the lower-income brackets.
These unique characteristics have produced some challenges along with opportunities within the industry. And no one knows better, or can offer clearer observations, than the insiders.
Andrew Nurnberg, of the eponymous rights agency (the first to set up shop in Moscow), says, "Smaller publishers have been having a tough time trying to keep ahead of the game, not least because the large companies have deep pockets when it comes to author advances. Yet some of these publishers, by virtue of having a smaller output, have been able to invest time, energy, and marketing resources to good effect. For example, they have begun to invite international authors to Russia for promotional tours. The quality of their translations is improving, as are jacket designs and overall production. But the Russian publishing industry is suffering from poor distribution—in fact, some distributors even got into financial difficulties—as well as from high production costs and low retail prices. Russian readers, however, have been privileged to be able to buy cheap books, and it is a true pleasure to see bookshops filled with readers purchasing five or six books at a time."
Sergey Kondratov, publishing veteran and chairman of Terra Publishing, laments the limited range of works by contemporary Russian authors and poets. He also says, "There are few professional houses capable of producing high-quality titles. Currently, many publishers are focusing on the children's segment, but many titles are hastily put together, duplicated and offered in dozens of versions, and there are few illustrated editions for teenage readers." (Incidentally, professionalism in publishing is the goal of the Printing Arts department of Moscow State University. The rector, Professor Alexander Tsyganenko, launched the country's first master's degree in publishing in partnership with Oxford Brookes University last year.)
E-books and online bookstores, Kondratov adds, "are the modern facets of the book industry, and both have been happening in Russia for quite some time. But despite this fervor for digital titles, libraries—no matter how technologically advanced—should continue to stock print books." Victor Fedorov, president of the Russian State Library—the third largest in the world with 43 million items—shares that sentiment. He and his team have continued to archive print titles and expand the collection while digitizing selected collections and working with Google Books.
Foreign publishers' reluctance to include digital rights in the contract is a problem faced by many, not least CEO Arkady Vitrouk of Azbooka-Atticus, where translations have enjoyed big success. "This arises primarily because foreign publishers find it very difficult to set the price for digital rights for our market. Consequently, many titles quickly became available in digital format through pirate Web sites after we release the print edition. It is ironic because this confirms that the demand for e-books is there, and unless we offer a reasonably priced supply, we cannot stop—or at least reduce—digital piracy." At the same time, he bemoans the low e-book prices in the Russian market. "In a way, it destroys good content. Pricing, I believe, should be commensurate with the quality of a book. There is a definite need for some adjustment in the e-book market."
In view of the need to close the loopholes, encourage reading, and promote Russian literature abroad, several organizations have been hard at work to push that agenda.
The most important and aggressive is the Federal Agency of Press and Mass Communications (FAPMC). It is responsible for implementing new technologies, promoting reading, and providing a regulatory framework for the industry. Its goals are also to promote Russian literature and forge closer links with the rest of the publishing world. Deputy head Vladimir Grigoriev, one of the founders of the prestigious Russian Big Book Prize, is a key driver in the campaign to put Russia on the global publishing map because, as he has said, "Russian literature should know no boundaries."
Next comes the Russian Book Union (RBU). It represents the whole book community, encompassing the publishing, printing, library, and educational sectors. Keeping its 200 full (and 1,500 associate) members abreast of developments pertinent to the industry is the organization's main focus. Less known but no less important is RBU's relief program to help provincial bookstores cope with high rents and competition from retail chains that are selling more profitable goods. Last year, RBU, with support from FAPMC, managed to persuade the customs department to maintain tax relief on imported paper meant for the book publishing industry.
Promotion of Russian literature abroad is not yet on RBU's agenda, but it is working on more events to promote cooperation between Russia and the international publishing community. "Since our national bestsellers hit millions of copies, while foreign titles make up less than 13% of all titles published in 2010, we fully expect to see increased rights activity with the West and Asia in the near future," adds v-p Alexandra Shipetina (also v-p of Centrepolygraph), who will be traveling to the Beijing International Book Fair this August with other RBU delegates, and working on events for the 2012 BookExpo America. Meanwhile, government funds for reading promotions and antipiracy campaigns are on their way to RBU.
The seven-year-old Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation is a privately funded organization aggressively promoting contemporary Russian literature and thought to the world. Irina Prokhorova, cofounder and chairperson of the expert board (as well as publisher/editor of NLO, or New Literary Observer), says, "Our Transcript program is an international grant competition, in which we provide translation support—in any foreign language—for Russian fiction and nonfiction titles." Among the 31 authors supported by Transcript last year were Victor Zhivov (Languages and Culture in Russia in the 18th Century), V. Voinovich (The Displaced Person), and Leo Klein (The Phenomenon of Soviet Archaeology). Transcript, launched two years ago with a budget of $400,000 annually, accepts applications year-round. So far, more than 530 have been processed, of which 102 have been granted. "Selections are made four times a year with the final decision based on four main criteria: total rights fee and translation cost, quality of translation, importance of the author or title, and publisher's reputation."
The foundation also established the NOSE (New Prose) literary prize in honor of 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol on the 200th anniversary of his birth. The abbreviation is also the name of Gogol's most famous novella. Last year's winner, Vladimir Sorokin (for Snowstorm), has long been considered a leading contemporary Russian writer. He has two other books available in English: The Queue and Ice.
As for the foundation's focus on the Krasnoyarsk region, Prokhorova explains, "This region is often called ‘miniature Russia,' because its economic, demographic, and sociocultural characteristics are highly representative of the whole country. Launching our activities there is in line with our regional/local approach. In the past three years, by leveraging our Krasnoyarsk know-how, we have rapidly expanded our activities to the Ural, far eastern, and central regions. We are set to introduce more contemporary Russian voices to readers around the world."
Another organization—a fixture at major book events—is Academia Rossica, which is focused on promoting cultural and intellectual links between Russia and the English-speaking world. "After three successful years of presenting Russian authors at the Books from Russia stand at London Book Fair and BEA, Academia Rossica and the Russian Federal Agency for Mass Communication have launched a two-year programme," says Academia director Svetlana Adjoubei, "promoting contemporary Russia literature in the English-speaking world. Beginning with the Russia Market Focus at the London Book Fair, the programme continues with the Global Market Forum: Russia at the 2012 Book Expo America." This programme is supported by the launch of the translation grants provided by the Russkiy Mir Foundation and coordinated by Academia Rossica.
"Our organization facilitates relationships between writers, literary agents, publishers and translators," Adjoubei continues. "The translation grant, for instance, is another way of encouraging publishers to translate Russian works. Information about Russian writers and agents, sample translations, and a selection of Russian titles in various languages will be available from the Russian stand.
"British and American readers mostly know 19th-century classic Russian writers, maybe a handful of those from the 20th century, but at most one or two contemporary writers. Our aim is to present the range of contemporary Russian literature, including detective stories, thrillers, sci-fi, biographies, and historical fiction. This is a unique opportunity for the English-speaking world to meet such bestselling novelists as Boris Akunin, Polina Dashkova, Dmitry Glukhovsky, Sergei Kostin, Sergey Lukyanenko, and Anna Storabinets who are shaping Russia's contemporary culture. We hope that our programme at the London Book Fair and BEA will be a springboard for contemporary Russian literature to reach a new level of popularity."
The government is also stepping up its efforts in copyright protection. One area of contention is the issue of public domain. One landmark case occurred last June when AST was ordered to compensate Terra Publishing 7.6 billion rubles ($250 million). The author at the center of the legal wrangle is a Russian household name: sci-fi novelist Alexander Belyaev. Though the author died in 1942, his works (under the Berne Convention's stipulation of life plus 70 years) have not entered the public domain. Terra obtained permission from the author's daughter to produce 630 sets of a six-volume deluxe edition priced at $3,800. AST, using post-Berne terms (life plus 50 years), published 30,000 copies of the author's collected works on the premise that the content is in the public domain. AST is appealing the judgment.
Challenges and loopholes aside, there is one message from many industry players for their overseas counterparts, either clearly communicated or subtly conveyed to PW during our visit for this report: given the new face of the Russian book industry, it is high time for the world to move on from Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, and Chekhov (no offense intended) to newer, fresher voices.
As such, visiting the St. Petersburg Book Fair (in April), Moscow Book Fair (August), and Non/Fiction Fair (December) or stopping at the Russian book stand at the 2011 London Book Fair or 2012 Book Expo America should be on the itinerary of any publisher or rights agency wanting a better understanding of the Russian publishing industry and its players.
Now let us start our journey to uncover new collaborators, authors, and opportunities in the largest country in the world.