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Russia: Book Publishing Industry Adapts To Change

By Eden Doniger

Prague, 13 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's venerable book publishing industry is writing a new chapter in its long history as it adapts to the country's ongoing financial crisis and to the frequently changing tastes of the book-buying public.

Since the transformation toward a free-market economy began early this decade, Russia's book publishers have had to cope with diminished financial resources and unfettered competition, notably by companies printing detective and romance novels, self-help books and other western-style "mass" literature.

Before the collapse of communism, Russian publishing houses -- relying on the popularity and significance of classic literature to their readers -- could plan print runs of about 50,000 copies of novels by such classic Russian authors as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy, or even works by state-approved Western authors, such as novelist William Faulkner.

Since 1991, however, beautifully bound editions of Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamozov" have often collected dust on publishers' shelves while booksellers on street corners earned money selling cheap American or French romance novels or Russian "detective" novels -- thrillers that often depict the bloody adventures of Russian gangsters.

Has this explosion of book genres and publishers been a positive change for Russian readers and Russian literature?

Aleksandr Sokolov -- a Russian living in the U.S. -- is the director of M.I.P. Company, a publisher of non-mainstream Russian books headquartered in the northern state of Minnesota. One of M.I.P.'s recent projects is a controversial new biography of Russia's beloved Pushkin.

Sokolov sees the growth of popular novels in pragmatic terms. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, he said the "main problem in Russia is the crippled market. Many people are starving. Who would care about literature in such a situation?"

But others say that after an initial fascination with once-banned books, Russian readers appear to be returning to traditional fare.

Igor Zakharov -- the book columnist for the English-language Moscow Times newspaper -- says reading the classics has become more fashionable in Russia over the last few years. He attributes this trend to the changing face of the reading population -- less rebellious than at the beginning of the 1990s -- and also to a milder appetite for "taboo" western-style literature. The novelty of such books is beginning to wear off.

Although mass literature continues to dominate the Russian publishing industry, its authors and characters are also becoming increasingly Russian. At first, these books were imported from the west and translated into Russian, but soon they were being written by Russians themselves. A leading example is Aleksandra Marinina, who has published about nine million copies of her 18 detective novels since 1994.

And it's not only Russian writers of popular literature who are being published. Some companies started taking financial risks a few years ago by widely publishing new Russian writing, like the Siberian wilderness stories of Viktor Astafiev and the avant-garde stories of Viktor Pelevin. The books were snatched off the shelves, another signal that Russian readers may be turning away from so-called "pulp" fiction and returning to more serious literature.

The Russian publishing industry has also rebounded over the last few years by spreading their operations into the provinces -- Chelyabinsk and Voronezh, for example -- and into former Soviet republics, such as Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. Successful publishing houses in these regions have created a wider distribution network and less Moscow-centric thinking.

Some publishers -- such as Vagryus in Moscow -- have been printing the work of new writers at the same time it appears in literary journals, like Znamya and Novy Mir. These publishers do not want to fall behind the literary journals in the talent search. And in the mid-1990s, publishers began to advertise books on television, recognizing the need to appeal to a wider audience.

In their efforts to reconnect with and satisfy the regular Russian reader, however, publishers may be neglecting academic and educational literature.

Professor Vladimir Zakharov -- dean of the Philological Faculty at Petrozavodsk University in the northwestern Russian republic of Karelia -- is editor-in-chief of an academic journal dedicated to Dostoevsky. Zakharov tells RFE/RL that most Russian universities do not have book stores, connections with other university presses or any kind of network to distribute serious literature within the academic community.

Zakharov says that if a professor or student does not live near large cities like Moscow or Saint Petersburg -- or does not have access to the Internet -- necessary materials are largely inaccessible.

Reflecting on the larger picture, Zakharov thinks Russian publishing is in a bad state.

"The situation with publishing and the book market, especially of serious authors, is catastrophic. I think it has never been this bad."

Zakharov said Russians have become "day-to-day" consumers and can't afford to save money for book buying like they once could.

Looking beyond the Russian Federation's borders, the global book publishing industry is also feeling the effects of Russia loosening control of its book market.

Large publishing houses like Myezhdunarodnie Kniga and Nauka once controlled the entire industry, dictating how often and in what quantities foreign booksellers could buy Russian books. Today, these former monopolies are overshadowed by many publishers, each specializing in different types of books. In contrast to Soviet times, foreign booksellers can acquire most any Russian book and do so relatively quickly.

Dean Hunt is manager of Slavic distribution for Schoenhof's Foreign Books in the eastern U.S. state of Massachusetts. Schoenhof's has been supplying Russian books to American readers for more than 40 years. In a recent interview, he told RFE/RL that "the Russian publishing world is not dying or sick. It's just finding a new footing. Based on what we've been able to procure these past four years, you can see it's in a state of flux, but the quality is increasing."

Hunt said the quality of printing by Russian publishers in particular has improved. Although some books still have newspaper-print quality, Hunt said some publishers have made great investments and are turning out books printed on high-quality paper and with flashy book jackets, a recent innovation in Russia. Hunt said Russian publishers "are now realizing that covers can sell books." Hunt said he's seeing some changes for the worse, though. He said foreign booksellers often cannot reorder copies of a particular edition, either because the publisher has gone out of business or because the book's print run was too small due to lack of funds or lack of trust in the market. Hunt said foreign booksellers like himself are forced to find another publisher printing the desired edition, causing delays and frustration.

Hunt said, "Russia's general economic health determines the direction its publishing can take. For example, the price of paper was skyrocketing as of a few years ago. The price of paper determines the size of a print run. ... The word you always hear in this business -- as my Russian supplier says -- is vyzhivanie (survival)."

Hunt says Russian publishing is a "volatile business that is growing up awkwardly."

Despite opposition from the Communist-dominated State Duma, the Russian government recently decided to renew the State Support of Mass Media and Book Publishing Law, which provides tax and customs duties exemptions to mass media sources and publishers. The law is now due to expire on January 1, 2002.

If the law had been terminated, many publishers who depend on printing facilities in Germany, Finland, Austria, Italy and even Singapore say they would have gone bankrupt due to customs charges, while those who print in Russia would have been hurt by added taxes on paper and supplies.

The Russian media law doesn't help everyone equally. Small, academic publishers -- such as the Dostoevsky magazine edited by Professor Zakharov -- do not reap all the benefits of state aid that the larger publications do. Zakharov says his journal has not received government aid for four years and wholly depends on its subscribers to keep it alive:

"If you do not work for a university press or a big publisher, this law doesn't help you much. ... Sooner or later things should change, but right now this is a very hard time for serious educational publications."

Indeed, some of them have fallen through the cracks, but largely they too have managed to maintain solid ground and persevere through their country's economic instability.

This year marks the 200th birthday of Pushkin, fondly remembered as the father of classic Russian literature, and the 100th birthday of Vladimir Nabokov, revered as the father of contemporary Russian literature.

With the legacy of two of its most celebrated writers escorting Russian literature into the next millennium, Russia's book publishing industry is likely to find a way to persevere through these present hard times.