By Hannah Johnson and Edward Nawotka
As the Market Focus of this year’s London Book Fair, Russia was represented by a robust program of events featuring authors, publishers and industry experts — truly the elite of the Russian publishing industry. The London Book Fair began with an “Overview of the Russian Book Market” presented by representatives from Russia’s two largest publishers, AST, Eksmo and Azbooka-Atticus.
Yuri Deikalo from AST (one of Russia’s two largest publishers, the other being Eksmo) told the audience that the publishing industry in Russia has contracted in recent years. In 2010, AST saw no growth for the first time in its history. Oleg Novikov, Director General of Eksmo, attributed this tough market both to a decline in reading (39% of Russian adults don’t read books) as well as a lack of significant bestsellers over the last few years. Deikalo blamed digitization and piracy. Although e-books only represent $500,000 of the total publishing industry in Russian, Deikalo said that piracy is rampant and that big companies often support the practice. His solution was to cooperate with Eksmo to combat piracy, although he admitted that he didn’t know what such a cooperation might involve.
A third speaker, Arkady Vitruk of Azbooka-Atticus, said that many publishers in Russia and, in fact, all over Europe do not have clear strategies when it comes to buying and selling electronic rights. Many publishers are afraid to sell electronic rights abroad because they don’t want to sell them too cheaply. “I appeal to you to review your policies on electronic rights,” said Vitruk, because the livelihood of publishing depends on it. “Pirate sites prove demand [for e-books] is there.”
Vitruk was also adamant about international cooperation and partnerships. He said that because AST and Eksmo have such a dominant market share in Russia, it is hard for other publishers to compete domestically. Vitruk said his strategy is to find interesting writing and grow new authors, as well as to develop international relationships. Vitruk stressed that translation grants are available for international publishers who want to publish Russian books in other languages, and said that Russian literature is no longer “depressing” but lively and more worldly. “I hope that this year, Russia will become a true part of the international publishing community.”
A decidedly more upbeat picture of the Russian e-book market by Shashi Martynova, co-founder and Executive Director for Magic Bookroom and Editorial Policy and Format Supervisor for Livebook Publishing. Speaking as part of a panel covering “Digital Publishing Innovation in New Markets,” Martynova discussed the runaway success of Bookmate.ru, which she described as the “biggest legal e-book distributor in Russia.”
The site functions as a conventional e-bookstore — with 65,000 titles available from publishers or the public domain — but also offers users the opportunity to upload their own books and host them on the company’s servers. Among the publishers selling books on the site are the aforementioned Eksmo and AST, as well as Simposium, AdMarginem, Limbus Press, NLO, Litres, and Corpus. Bookmate.ru offers a 50/50 revenue share with the publishers.
Once a user has placed a book on their “bookshelf,” either through purchase or scanning, it can be shared among other Bookmate.ru users in your personal network and can be synchronized with devices including iPhones, HTC and Nokia devices. An iPad app will also be launched shortly. The service is 99 roubles per month (2.5 euros) — which, said Martynova is both “bold and extremely cheap.” She noted that “Just 20% of the users are in Moscow and the other 80% are Russian readers around the world. This is amazing, because everything outside Moscow is regarded as a kind of literary Siberia.”
As of yesterday, Bookmate.ru had recruited more than 147,000 readers who have uploaded more than one million titles. (Any books that are not already in the public domain or made legally available as e-books through partner publishers can only be read by the single user and not shared).
Reading as a “Legal Drug”
Martynova, who is known as one of the most enthusiastic advocates of reading in Russia said that Bookmate.ru is just one sign of the growing interest in e-books and proof that Russians — despite assertions to the contrary — remain passionate about reading.
“In Russia, we have an almost old fashioned approach to reading,” she said. “It is a very commonplace entertainment.” The economic recession, she said, made e-books even more attractive to readers because of their lower prices.
E-books, she said, will also help indoctrinate a younger generation of readers who can be persuaded to think of reading as “fashionable.”
“Often, when you talk about reading, you’re thinking of something that is intimate, extremely secluded and highbrow,” she said, “but we need to talk about reading as a ‘legal drug,’ something that is healthy, takes you to an alternate reality, is sometimes trippy and sometimes dizzy.” She added, “The message to youngsters is — ‘if you read, you’re trendy,’” adding, “That is all the propaganda you will need.”