June 6, 2003
Fewer Books but a Whole Lot More to Read About
By Denis Maternovsky
The number of books printed domestically has dropped and the range of titles has soared since the Soviet Union imploded 12 years ago, taking the state-owned publishing industry down with it.
And while the current incarnation of the country's book industry has its roots in the late 1980s, the publishing landscape looks significantly different.
Back then, the book industry lay firmly in the grip of 280 state publishing houses. Today, those that survived account for only 3 percent of book titles and one-tenth of all editions.
Their presence is drowned out by a staggering 20,000 startup publishing houses launched by entrepreneurs eager to grab a piece of the promising market after the state's monopoly status disappeared. The true number of publishers is not this high, says the Russian Book Chamber, an organization that tracks trends in the book market. It estimates that only about a quarter of them are active publishers.
While having 5,000 different publishers makes for healthy competition, many complain that the industry is too centralized, with the vast majority of publishing houses in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
And it's always been this way. Book publishing put down its roots in European Russia back in the tsarist era.
Over 80 percent of all the country's books are printed in Moscow, giving the city a preponderant influence that is seen as one of the major impediments to the book market's development.
Besides the regional imbalance, the market is dominated by five big publishing houses. AST, Eksmo-Press, Drofa, Olma-Press and Prosvesheniye print about one-third of all books. If that list is lengthened to include the five next biggest publishers, the top 10 together control 50 percent of the market.
But small and medium-sized publishing houses have a role to play when it comes to widening the spectrum of literature in print. Last year, they were responsible for running 70 percent of the total titles. This trend of small publishers contributing the bulk of titles while big companies contribute the bulk of copies is not unique to Russia. In the United States, for example, 78 percent of book titles come from the independent press, according to estimates from the California-based Publishers' Marketing Association, while 80 percent of book sales are controlled by five media conglomerates.
But Konstantin Milchin, a correspondent for Knizhnoye Obozreniye, or Book Review, a weekly journal released both in print and online, said small publishers everywhere risk being pushed out as corporations consolidate control over publishing worldwide.
Books that do not cater to the mass market but instead are targeted toward "a chosen few" bring in no more than a 4 percent profit, Milchin said.
Not all titles are successful -- some are complete flops -- and it is "large corporations that are more prepared to take such risks," he said.
Before censorship was abolished and the state lost its monopoly, book publishing was subject to the same central planning as steel production or any other aspect of the Soviet economy. "There existed a system of quotas for translations of foreign literature: one book from Angola, one book from Mongolia and so on," said Alexander Bogdanovsky, a translator who has worked for most of the major publishing houses over the course of his 30-year career. "Profit and effectiveness were the last things publishers took into account."
Nor was consumer demand considered. Publishing houses sold their books not directly but through distribution agencies like Soyuzkniga and Roskniga, which doled out books to the nation's bookstores based on government instructions, not reader preferences.
As private publishers entered the market over the course of the 1990s, they published literature that appealed to a broader range of interests.
While books' diversity increased, the number fell. From the Soviet-era high watermark of 2.3 billion editions printed in 1988, the total number of new books had fallen by almost half by 1992, to 1.3 billion. This decline in part reflects the fact that data for the 14 republics were no longer included with Russia's figure after they became independent.
Throughout most of the decade, the book market continued to shrink, with the number of new books plunging another 70 percent to hit an all-time low of 408 million in 1998, the year of the financial crisis. Four years later, though, in 2002, the book industry had recovered somewhat and was back to producing just fewer than 600 million copies.
Put another way, that is four books for every person. While respectable, Russia still lags far behind most Western European countries, which print between eight and 12 books per capita.
Domestic publishers have done much to improve the quality of the books they print and assimilate into the community of their global publishing peers.
Whereas it once took 1 1/2 to two years to publish a book, new technologies make it possible to complete a book project within a couple months, Bogdanovsky said. "Our publishers have learned a lot from their Western counterparts," he said.
Yet some distinguishing characteristics remain to set Russian publishing apart from Western publishing.
Chief among those are low retail prices, which come as a blessing for the buyer and a curse for publishers and writers because it squeezes their profit margins. On average, retail prices for books are as much as 10 times lower than in the West. Much of that has to do with production costs that are between 40 percent and 45 percent cheaper, since the country's vast forests make paper inexpensive. A popular paperback detective novel costs 40 rubles ($1.30), while in the United States it retails for $12.
In part, too, it is a question of mentality. The Soviet-era attitude that books must be given prices that make them affordable and accessible to everyone has permeated the industry.
According to some estimates, book sales in Russia totaled more than $1 billion last year. In the United States, meanwhile, the Association of American Publishers puts the comparable figure at $27 billion.
Books in Russia are often treated as prized possessions. They are rarely discarded, and friends circulate one copy of a popular book among themselves. Industry experts frequently cite this habit of "repeated readings" as a major market obstacle that publishers face.
The prevalence of hardcover editions here is also unique. "Of the 30 books we review, only five or six are paperbacks. Sometimes all we get are hardcover," Milchin said. "It's the opposite in the West."
For years, the book industry was exempt from value-added tax. When the 10 percent VAT on books was introduced last year, the number of titles published fell for the first time in a decade.
And in the first three months of this year, the number of copies printed dropped by 20 percent, the Russian Book Chamber said.
The tax hit small publishers especially hard. In order to compensate for the loss of income, they had to raise prices, which in turn cut into sales.
Book experts agree that though the new VAT for books is only half the 20 percent rate levied on other sectors of the economy, it is still too high, since in most European countries the tax is only half as much, at around 4 percent to 6 percent. Given these hurdles thrown at publishers, Milchin said he was heartened by the choice of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest of its kind in the world, to invite Russia to be the guest of honor this October.
"It may not mean that everything is going well for us," he said. "But there is no chance we could have pulled off something like this in the early 1990s. It means we have reached a certain level."