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Russia: Publishers Say Business Looking Better And Better

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russians are reading more and buying better books. At least that's the opinion of participants at a book fair in Moscow this week. Publishers say that after years of preferring "how to" manuals and trashy romances, Russians are reawakening to the pleasures of good literature. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini attended the fair and sampled opinions of participants.

Moscow, 1 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Publishers attending a book fair in Moscow this week say low-brow fiction appears finally to be going out of fashion among Russian readers.

They say that after years of consuming garish detective stories and romances, readers are finally returning to more serious literature. This is making publishing such books profitable again.

Aleksey Panokin is the advertising director of Russia's second-biggest publishing house "Azbuka." He was present at the book fair and says demand for serious works is growing:

"We used to publish fantasy books, detectives, but we always planned to publish valuable, intellectual, simply 'good' literature. Little by little we could afford to do it. In the beginning, it was unprofitable, but gradually it became clear these books were becoming more and more popular -- classics, intellectual literature, literature for educated people ... And now that's almost all we publish."

In the immediate years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, readers bought up books by important migr writers and other works that had been banned in the past. But over time, mimicking a trend seen in other -- including Western -- markets, the book trade became dominated by pulp and "how-to" manuals.

Panokin says there are a couple of reasons for this. First, during Soviet times Russians simply didn't have access to good but unpretentious detective novels and romances.

Second, he says economics played a role. His publishing company started turning out cheap pulp for as little as one or two dollars a book. That was all some people could afford.

Now, Azbuka is coming out with 15 to 20 new titles a month in its relatively inexpensive "classics" collection. Featured are new editions of books by writers such as Romanian-born sociologist of religion Mircea Eliade, South American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and U.S. science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury.

Fair participants say that the Russian publishing business is doing well. This year the number of new titles will for the first time reach levels not seen since Soviet days.

About 120 million books will be printed this year, an increase of about 10 percent from last year.

The publication "Knizhnoe Obozrenye" focuses on the business and cultural aspects of book publishing.

Editor Alexander Gavrilov agrees that the industry is recovering but attributes the increase to improvements in publishing and marketing books rather than a resurgence in serious reading:

"The growth of [the number of books in] circulation does not reflect a growing interest in reading, or a return of that interest. The growth of printing means that Russian book people learned to publish and sell books."

Gavrilov says readers are simply offered a better choice of books and are therefore buying more of them. He points to the success of big bookstores that opened recently in several large cities. Gavrilov points out, for example, that inhabitants of Voronezh in central Russia or Novosibirsk now have a choice on offer.

"It's not about a return of interest for reading, it's [the] return of the possibility of reading. People during all that time where they didn't have the possibility [to buy books] got very frustrated and are now buying in enormous quantities that are surpassing [projected sales]."

But he says in spite of these encouraging signs, the distribution network remains "medieval." About 85 percent of all book sales are concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg. Consumers in outlying towns often have to buy books from lone salesmen who come to Moscow periodically, fill big bags with books and then travel the country. Most of these titles are pulp because it sells better.

One of the major success stories in the publishing world, and a indicator of positive trends, is the small publishing house "Amphora," in Saint Petersburg. It was created two years ago by 35-year-old Vadim Nazarov.

Nazarov started out by publishing "samizdat" literature in the late 1980s and then launched one of Russia's first private book businesses, making Josef Brodsky available for the first time in the Soviet Union. Brodsky quickly became a best-seller, with a print run of 100,000 and long lines of buyers.

In two years with Amphora, Nazarov has more than doubled the number of titles to 360 from 140 last year. The company specializes in publishing series of important authors packaged in colorful and attractive editions.

Amphora's book list features Czech writer Milan Kundera and French writer Marcel Proust along with "new age" Russian writer Pavel Krusanov.

Nazarov says he remembers with nostalgia the early Perestroika-era passion for books, but he says, unlike other industries, the publishing industry is only getting better. He says the market is now big enough for both "intellectual literature" and the running best-seller for years: "How to Make Your Own Vodka."

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