London Book Fair Market Focus- Russia

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On a mild March evening members of The Society of Young Publishers met at Pushkin House, Bloomsbury Square to drink a glass of wine and to discuss the accelerated development the Russian publishing market. It was fascinating and one of those times where you are alerted to the fact that you know nothing about much, including Russian literature and the incredible path it has taken over the last 20 years. 
Five guest speakers came along:

Andrew Nurnberg : Founder of Andrew Nurnberg Associates
Lynette Owen: Copyright Director of Pearson Education Ltd.
Amy Webster: International Key Accounts Manager at the London Book Fair

Zinovy Zinik: Russian-born novelist and writer of the soon to be launched History Thieves  
Rosamund Bartlett: translator, lecturer and writer of Chekhov: Scenes from a Life

Amy Webster led the discussion by first explaining that the London Book Fair has held a market focus for the past 8 years and focuses on emerging economies,  increasing trade links and international relations. This year the focus is of course Russia and 2012 will be focused on China, a powerful presence on the international market. Call me ignorant but I did wonder why they had chosen Russia, as the only literature I was aware of were the classics, but that was my error and their exact reason for choosing such a creative country. The London Book Fair is helping to launch 50 publishers, and 40 Russian authors onto the centre-stage of the Western market. Russian literature currently gets the least British investment and yet has so many talented authors, so the book fair seems the perfect place to showcase these talents and open up the minds of our sometimes culturally complacent audience. The long standing tradition of highly recognised works of literature has now been handed down to a fresher, energetic market and I for one will be milling around the London Book Fair and exploring the vibrant marketplace.

Although I thought I knew about the Soviet Union and its subsequent collapse in 1991, I had never considered the impact liberation had on literature and other modes of creative output. Andrew Nurnberg gave fantastic accounts of his experiences not only with the Russian government but also with the big cheeses that now run the ever-expanding industry. The State ran publishing houses that didn't agree to advances based on copies sold but on the thickness of the book: the more you wrote the more money you made. Not a great model for those that were unable to write what they wanted. Print runs were and still are limited as resources will always be expensive, but they are no longer controlled by the State. The collapse opened up the floodgates and allowed new waves of writers, publishers, editors and designers to roll around Moscow and St. Petersburg, free from censorship and finally able to publish materials they knew people would buy and cherish. However, the initial surge of interest in the industry soon subsided as people realised publishing is not the industry where you sit on mountains of gold. Only a few were left to construct the marketplace and build committees, setting the path for future generations - these people of course made mountains of gold (and will quite happily pay extortionate amounts of money to entice a best-selling yet loyal author away from their local independent publisher). 

Although China is currently the biggest fish in the water, releasing  210,000 titles a year, Russia is catching up, producing no fewer than 100,000 new titles - it would seem the race is on!

There is a big problem with piracy in Russia, a threat that was touched on at the SYP Question Time. Although it doesn't seem to be a big deal over here, in Russia it is very common and mostly free, people don't want to profit from scanning in books, they just want to share the novels. A very noble thought, but not a structure the publishing industry can hope to cling to.

Lynette Owen discussed the decline in educational book sales after the Soviet collapse. The immediate reaction of many people in Russia after 1991 was to buy exciting books that 
they had never before been able to read - much like a child in a sweet shop, they went nuts for fiction and abandoned their long love affair with academic books, and the industry felt this change in tides. New publishing houses didn't want to produce books that would require specialist staff and result in a slow return on investments, they wanted to produce best-sellers and fast. The international market also felt the pinch as the Russian market clamped down and revelled in its own local writers. 
Now however, the tides are changing again. Russia is opening its doors to the world's trade and is beginning to pick up an interest in non-fiction textbooks, particularly economics, business management and surprisingly, self-help guides.
Further more, the luck has changed for British publishers and authors as Russia has finally updated its copyright clause. Moving from the Life+ 25 years to the more widely accepted Life+ 75 years Russia is now playing fairly.

Rosamund Bartlett gave us a fantastic insight into the mind of Anton Chekhov who has been an invaluable influence on her academic career. From a Russian degree at the University of Durham to becoming a lecturer and teaching Chekhov to her students, Rosamund explained that she came to see Chekhov not just as a Russian writer but as a great writer. Among her vast publications include the translated letters of Chekhov, his stories and a biography of both Chekhov and Tolstoy, both of which I will definitely be reading. Not only that but she told us the wonderful story of the fall and rise of Chekhov's home in Yalta. 
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yalta was absorbed by the Ukrainian boundaries, and the once government-funded house and museum came under disrepair as the Ukrainian government turned its back on the cornerstone of Russian literature. Writing his biography, she visited the house and was devastated to see it had fallen from glory, the modest house now resembled a mouldy hazard. Campaigning to save Chekhov's house has been the ambition of Rosamund for years.  By hosting fund-raisers such as Chekhov Anniversary Readings at Hampstead Heath and by finally receiving backing from the Ukrainian government, Rosamund Bartlett has been able to see Chekhov's house slowly but surely return to the author's home.

Our last and by no means least, guest speaker was Zinovy Zinik, who raised the unexpected topic of emigration. He suggested that emigration can be used as a literary device for authors, explaining that you can only truly write about your homeland once you have left it behind. The past becomes the novel and you as the author are able to view your past with refreshed eyes. Zinovy explained that he sees himself as a Soviet citizen, yet as he left in the 1970's, trading a one-way ticket for his Soviet passport, he can no longer return to his country has it technically no longer exists. Just as, he explained he considers himself Jewish, having moved to Israel, he does not attend a synagogue or consider himself a Jew. Even more fascinating was his suggestion that identity is often a fictitious product of our minds. Our past is wrongly imposed on us as strangers ask where we originate from and what profession we trade in. Further questions were raised of Russian authors who had fled the Soviet control, are they still free to write about their homeland after so much has changed? Are they aware of the newly liberated and culturally conscientious society? Or are they burdened by their memories of Russia's past and unable to move on? Zinovy's new book The History Thieves concentrates on the assumed identities of individuals and how they make connections with the rational and irrational, reality and imaginary. Zinovy argues that fabricated memories occur when our present selves look back on our past, often in a nostalgic light recreating the past as we wish to remember it. Another book I shall have to read soon!

Well that's it for another SYP event, the countdown to the London Book Fair begins!

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