By Daniel Kalder
Yesterday, we looked at the top publishers and booksellers in Russia. Today, we consider the books themselves — the top genres, authors, and how much they get paid. Again, our quartet of knowledgeable guides includes Julia Goumen, one half of Russia’s premier literary agency — Goumen & Smirnova; Alexander Ivanov, publisher of the legendary and highly influential Ad Marginem press; and Lev Danilkin, one of the top critics in Russia today, and yours truly, Daniel Kalder, a journalist formerly based in Moscow and author of Lost Cosmonauts (published in Russia in 2007).
Popular Genres: Dystopian Fiction, Coco Chanel, Tesla
Because life in the USSR was so boring, it was possible for many people to concentrate very hard on very big books, hence Russia’s reputation as a nation of serious readers. For instance, a friend of mine once went on holiday to the Black Sea and brought Hegel with her as a beach read. These days, she prefers to watch The Matrix and listen to Russian punk music.
“The most popular genres in fiction are detective novels and fantasy,” says Ivanov. The only bestseller whose name is likely to be familiar to non-Russians is Boris Akunin who has sold over 20 million books of his post modern historical detective fictions in his home country. Daria Dontsova, the author of a series of light, humorous “ironic detective” stories, has sold 50 million copies. But there are others who sell hundreds of thousands of each book they write, such as Dmitri Glukhovsky, whose dystopian science fiction series Moskva 2033 (published by Gollancz in UK) is now approaching total sales of one million copies. The romantic comedies of Elena Kolina are also top sellers. Sales of 50,000 and above constitute a bestseller; 100,000 and above constitute a mega bestseller.
Of course, very few authors enjoy that kind of success. “A writer with a solid backlist and name in the modern Russian landscape has the first printing of 7,000-10,000 copies,” says Goumen. “A writer with one or two books published will be offered the first printing of 3,000-5,000 copies. And a debut writer starts from 2,000 copies.”
The only “literary” authors who approach bestseller-hood are the metaphysical surrealist Viktor Pelevin (around 150,000 of his last novel were printed) and Ludmilla Ulitskaya, whose Daniel Stein, Interpreter was published in English by Overlook earlier this year. Goumen adds however that if a literary author wants to increase sales, there is a very simple step to be taken: “When a literary author takes on an anti-utopia…their printings soar up.”
As far as non-fiction goes, Ivanov mentions two popular genres: “There are popular books on self-healing and growing vegetables in the country but it is unlikely we can talk about the millions of copies, rather a few hundred thousand.”
Lev Danilkin meanwhile adds some delightful details: “In Russia, ‘paperized’ online diaries do well — publishers pick up popular bloggers and turn their work into books. Biography sells well — and not only those about Khodorkovsky or Stalin, but even the most bizarre people, such as Nebuchadnezzar or King Arthur. Then, there are strange mini-booms, which cannot be explained: books about Venice, books about Coco Chanel, books about the scientist Nikola Tesla. How to explain it, nobody knows, but the fact remains: you can see in one store — not even the biggest — around 30 different books about Chanel or a single shelf dedicated to books about Tesla.
Detective novels may be an extremely popular genre, but with the exception of Akunin, whose stories are set in past, there are no major homegrown talents. Danilkin offers an interesting explanation:
“The books by Dontsova are only nominally within the definition of ‘Detective.’ Yes, there is a crime and an investigation procedure, but people read them not because it is interesting to solve the equation and calculate the value of X, but rather as a comedy and a source of worldly wisdom, as a psychotherapeutic tool. The situation with detective stories in Russia is bad because, as a genre, it does not fit Russian reality. In the classical detective story it follows that, when the criminal is found, the violated world will return to harmony, and justice and law will be restored. In Russia, it is clear to everybody that the restoration of law is impossible, and that failure is not short lived, but systemic; thus detective stories here are poorly written.”
Authors, Agents and Advances
In Russia the relationship between author and publisher is much more direct than in the UK or US, and is very rarely mediated by an agent. Indeed, according to Julia Goumen:
“Goumen & Smirnova is still the one and only primary agency in Russia. There are of course agents who work as the representative of a writer, but I have never come across, nor have the publishers confirmed that there are agencies in Russia who represent a list of writers, like we do.”
Adds Ivanov: “there are very few agents, and Russian authors often hesitate to make use of their services, believing that talent must make its own path in the world.”
Does this have an effect on authors’ earning power, leaving them at the mercy of their publishers? Goumen thinks it does:
“It strikes me that advances vary if the author is being represented by an agency or deals with a publisher directly. This applies for debut authors on the one hand, but it surprises me that this happens even with authors with a substantial backlist. By our agency’s experience, we get an advance of $2,000-$3,000 for a debut author, about $5,000-$7,000 for authors with solid printings in the backlist. There are about a dozen literary names in Russia for whom we can set auctions between houses, and then figures can be different, but the general trend is that advances have been cut since the golden years of mid 2000s.”
Indeed, her figures are higher than those supplied by Ivanov, himself a publisher: “The usual advance for a beginner in literary fiction is $1,000-$2,000. For the second and third books, $3,000-$5,000.”
Meanwhile Danilkin suggests that some authors will start with an advance counted in three figures, or none at all:
“For a debut author the lack of an advance is rather typical — well, or perhaps a sum equivalent to $300-$1,000. The ‘average author’ has a chance of getting between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on whether his publisher believes that the financial crisis has already passed, or if he is inclined to think that we are only feeling the real crisis now.”
Meanwhile publishers sometimes resort to skullduggery to keep advances low. It is the custom in Russia to state the print run on the back page of a book. A few years ago I read a complaint from a controversial author named Edward Limonov that his publishers often faked this information to stiff him on his rightly earned monies.
Says Ivanov: “Yes, it’s a common thing in Russia: the publishers often place in their books a print run which is smaller than the reality, so that they can pay smaller royalties. Of course, in magazine publishing it’s the other way around: they claim a higher circulation so they can get more money from advertisers.”
Russians Invade West?
So, what are we to make of the sudden popularity of Russian firms at Western trade festivals (London this year, BookExpo America next year), and the sudden willingness to take a chance on Russian authors by major American houses such as FSG (Sorokin) and Penguin (Petrushevskaya)?
Alexander Ivanov, who published some of Sorokin‘s most controversial work in Russia, strikes a pessimistic note:
“I do not know why the Americans chose Sorokin. I do not think that it will be successful in the US market (too complicated and too exotic), but let’s see. I think that in Russia today, there is not a writer at the level of Franzen or Pamuk. The ‘Russian Romance,’ as a genre, is no longer written in Russian but in English, Turkish, Arabic. This literary technique is gone from Russia and there is now no ethical novel, a novel about the ‘national soul.'”
Goumen is a little more positive: “I believe that the keyword underlying the subtle interest growth with the US and UK publishers is ‘experience’ — the unique experience rendered in the texts by Russian writers. It is indeed the unique experience rendered in the modern Russian novel that is of interest for readers and publishers in the West. Unlike Western Europe, Russia has gone through turbulent years of dramatic political, cultural and social transformation in the past dozen years. It’s a very up-to-date, modern trend in the Russian literary landscape to react to and render this recent past’s troubled and often traumatic experience. An important note is that the Russian novel is still not about ‘what’ (the story and plot) yet ‘how’ (the style and approach). Thus, the turbulent experience together with the original approach to text, style and word make Russian novel unique and attractive to the Western reader. This experience applies both to novels about Russia as well as texts that narrate of the universal European trends.”
Interesting, and plausible. But then she adds a footnote:
“Also, novels and texts that have been recently translated in the US and which promise to be quite successful -– both saleswise and with the critics -– fall into general expectations of the West of how Russian life is. Sorokin’s anti-Putin satire in The Day of Oprichnik or Petrushevskaya’s transcendental noir in Scary Fairy Tales.”
Thus, in the West — and I think Goumen is right about this — Russian authors must be portrayed by their publishers as either heroic dissidents or cartographers of a nightmarish hell-world if they hope to shift any copies, no matter how much has changed since the 20th century. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn casts a long shadow yet.
Update: Article was corrected to reflect the change of the author of Daniel Stein, Interpreter from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to Ludmilla Ulitskaya, we regret the earlier error.