Poland’s Beata Stasińska: ‘The Courage To Make Decisions’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The publisher of Poland’s edition of ‘The Black Book of Women,’ related to this week’s protests, Beata Stasińska talks of ‘the inscrutable fate of books.’
Polish Publisher Beata Stasińska holds Christine Ockrent's 'Czarna księga kobiet,' 'The Black Book of Women.' Image: Provided by the publisher

Polish Publisher Beata Stasińska holds Christine Ockrent’s ‘Czarna księga kobiet,’ ‘The Black Book of Women.’ Image: Provided by the publisher

In our series with specialists (analysts, visionaries, and players) who will tackle issues in the seven pivotal publishing markets of Frankfurt Book Fair’s and Publishing Perspectives’ conference, we hear now from the publisher Beata Stasińska, who speaks on October 18 at Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club as the Polish market’s analyst in The Markets: Global Publishing Summit

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘And the Ability To Wait’

300 The Markets logoMonday (October 3), many streets in Poland were filled with citizens dressed in black to protest a proposed bill that would totally ban abortions in the country. Joanna Berendt reports for The New York Times that as many as 24,000 Polish women and men took part in the strike in Warsaw, alone.

Poland’s existing abortion regulations are reported to be among Europe’s most restrictive already, Berendt writes, allowing for abortion only in the case of “severe fetal anomaly, a threat to the mother’s health and life, or a pregnancy from rape or sexual abuse.” The proposed bill would criminalize all abortions outright.

Related to what’s being called Monday’s “Black Protest” is a book, Czarna księga kobiet, or The Black Book of Women by Christina Ockrent. Originally published in 2006 in France as Le livre noir de la condition des femmes, this book is a collection of observations and articles on the status and treatment of the world’s women. The publisher of its Polish edition is Warsaw’s W.A.B, a company co-founded 25 years ago by Beata Stasińska, who speaks in the role of Poland’s analyst on October 18 at Frankfurt Book Fair’s The Markets: Global Publishing Summit.

The Black Book of Women, in light of this week’s events in Poland, seems emblematic of the acute social awareness Stasińska brings to her work. Her work in Polish-French relations has been honored by France’s National Order of Merit, and in Poland, she’s the recipient of the CultureCreator Prize from Polityka. Even in her 20s, she was editing an underground newspaper, Wola.

As we approach Frankfurt, many have the freedom of expression—of publication—on their minds. And Stasińska’s comments about what makes a publisher are important to the moment, and nourishing.

She says to Publishing Perspectives:

Beata Stasińska

Beata Stasińska

“The golden rule for a publisher is to have the courage to make choices and the ability to wait; high quality accommodated with some profit. This allows you to build up a list that will provide a strong base for your publishing house for years to come.

“I was never interested in making an instant profit from commercial successes that had no future, unless they provided me with the opportunity to publish some good literature as well.

“A valuable literary legacy–that’s what a publisher should leave behind.

“When we think about the challenges to be faced by those trying to establish the book market, whether in Poland or in the rest of the world, we often forget that it doesn’t matter how new technologies are influencing the market, but the question of the mystery of human talent and the inscrutable fate of books still remain vital.

“That is why, after being a publisher for all those years, I have now decided to set up a literary and script writing agency.”

And with that, let’s turn now to Beata Stasińska’s comments on her country’s struggling publishing market.

Three Points of Concern

“With a population of 38 million and 5 million students,” Stasińska says, “Poland should be an important country for the European book market.  The answer to the question of when it could become one depends on the key players in the book industry, and on political decisions.

1. The level of book readership in Poland is low. “The library system is slowly undergoing modernization as a result of public pressure,” Stasińska says to Publishing Perspectives. “The number of independent bookstores has decreased. A state-funded readership program started two years ago.

“There is no evidence to say that the reduction in book readership is a direct result of the Internet.  On average, 60 percent of Poles read fewer than one book per year.”

2. Pricing problems are prevalent. “By contrast with the law that in France is known as the Lang Law,” she says, “Poland has no legal provision covering more than one single regulation for setting the value of new books at fixed prices.

“Polish publishing associations are weak and have no power to prevent bookstore chains from reducing prices.”

3. Economic pacing. “The book market has a low turnover which, excluding the income of educational publishers, does not exceed 1.5 billion. The educational sector is the strongest on the market.”

‘Small Bookshops Have Virtually Disappeared’

Publishing Perspectives: What kind of political changes or other changes do you think are needed to make Poland a major player in Europe’s book market?

“Some 78 percent of the Polish population has never bought a single book. This is one of the legacies of the feudal-peasant model of society that existed until 1945.”Beata Stasińska

Beata Stasińska: The book market in Poland is relatively young‒it only started operating within a free market economy in 1989, following the collapse of Communism.

It has never been and it is not now subject to any regulations or business agreements. The only legal framework for it is the Commercial Code, which is very difficult to enforce. The book has been a victim of Poland’s infatuation with a neo-liberal model for the economy. No Polish government has yet regarded the book market as a part of the cultural sector.

The market players have focused on specific interests and short-term profits. At the same time, the network of libraries has decreased and their collections have been impoverished as local politicians have cut the amount of money spent on new library acquisitions.

Small, independent bookshops have virtually disappeared, and the propagation of information in the media about newcomers has been subjected to some marketing rules. The Polish education system is very good at putting the students off reading. What’s more, if it weren’t for Internet bookstores and piracy on an enormous scale, gaining access to books would be extremely difficult.

When the neo-liberal government introduced a 5-percent VAT on books, which triggered the current price war, the National Library issued a warning of a further decline in readership in Poland.

“Today, largely thanks to a literacy campaign and public education introduced by the Communists, the problem is no longer to do with reading skills, but creating and maintaining the habit of reading.”Beata Stasińska

According to recent surveys, 40 percent of Poles read one book per year, and 11 percent read 7 books or more. Sixteen percent of households have no books at all. Interest in reading is directly linked with social background and financial status.

Some 78 percent of the population has never bought a single book. This is one of the legacies of the feudal-peasant model of society that existed until 1945. In the early 20th century, up to 80 percent of the population was illiterate.

Today, largely thanks to a literacy campaign and public education introduced by the Communists, the problem is no longer to do with reading skills, but creating and maintaining the habit of reading. This plays a key role in the battle for customers and informed public.

The first steps were made thanks to the activities of informal public movements, followed by a government program aimed at the development of reading, which started two years ago. That is the basis for market development and a necessary condition for increasing the number of customers.

The second issue is a destructive market price war. The customer can buy the same  new title at the same time at several different prices, which reduces confidence in both the publisher and the author.

A fixed book price agreement, which is now under debate in Poland, will be one of the instruments to regulate our book market. The idea of replicating the French Lang Law seems insufficient and risky.

The law should be comprehensive, regulating more than one issue, and should cover books and readership, as well as bookstores and libraries. It’s important to reconcile and take into account the interests of all the relevant parties: publishers, librarians, wholesalers, booksellers and authors. Otherwise, the Polish book market will simply drift from crisis to crisis for the next decade.

PP: Which players on the Polish market need to make the most changes in order for things to get better?

“Publishers publishing books for children and young people have a very special task…the potential to help increase the number of readers in the future.”Beata Stasińska

BS: Growth in reading and access to books is the basis for the development of the book market in Poland. Whether it succeeds or not will depend on common agreement between all the relevant players.

So far a number of professional organizations have been involved in the Polish book industry, but they seem to have competing interests and to be unable to establish a common program. In fact, taking action in order to gain benefits for all is not generally a Polish strong point. For this reason we have to rely on the political will of the next ruling party and on a gradual change of awareness.

In my opinion, publishers publishing books for children and young people have a very special task to perform, because the books they produce could have the potential to help increase the number of readers in the future. This unambiguous priority would not have arisen on the Polish market if not for the success of books such as the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, or the pioneering work of small publishers—being more successful outside Poland as a result of insufficient understanding from big competitors on the market.

A separate issue is the evolving distribution model. The overall situation on the market is determined by the two largest bookshop chains, EMPIK and Matras (delays in payments).

At the same time there has been growth in online sales (19 percent) and supermarket sales (20 percent) over the last 4 years. In such a precarious situation, Amazon has been holding back its entry into the Polish market.

An optimistic sign however is an increase in library purchases, although in Poland they still account for far less than 15 percent of the market.  Let’s hope this will be followed by an increase in borrowing, and then the Polish publishers might eventually stop regarding libraries as a threat.

PP: How likely in your opinion is it that these changes will be made? Could they happen in five years? Or 10?

“In this crisis situation we can expect further changes in ownership…A couple of years ago Hachette, Bertelsmann and Weltbild withdrew from Poland.”Beata Stasińska

BS: I’m fully aware that similar problems have been experienced in many countries where the book markets are more developed and stable. Bearing this in mind, I’d predict that getting out of the current situation is likely to take from 10 to 15 years, and it will only happen under one condition: with support from the state, local authorities, commercial and public organizations. Unfortunately, in the present political situation in Poland, there’s a huge question mark over the whole matter.

Talks about introducing new legislation were suspended at the end of 2015 as a result of the change of government and eh new authorities’ ideas for the development of reading are as yet unclear. In this crisis situation we can expect further changes in ownership, more mergers and evidence of market concentration. A couple of years ago Hachette, Bertelsmann and Weltbild withdrew from Poland.

I find the weakening position of the educational publishing sector quite interesting. Other publishers have been subjected to its dictate for the last two decades.

PP: Is it at all possible that the Internet might actually help  to increase reading? In some areas, there’s been a major increase in reading on mobile devices, for example, thanks to the Net.

“As a natural site for self-publishing, the Internet does not compete with traditional forms of an author’s presence on the market” in Poland. Beata Stasińska

BS: The Internet is a tool, not a goal. It is useful and indispensable, but it’s only a tool.

How this tool is going to be used depends on its user’s cultural sophistication or language skills. It is a well-known fact that the more sentient Internet users read and buy more books, in both print and electronic form. However, the research also shows that many Internet users can apply a resource of no more than 800 words and they become tired of reading a text that’s longer than one and a half pages. These people will have trouble finding well-paid jobs, and are unlikely to become avid readers.

The Internet is starting to fill the gap left by the current crisis of the traditional media, because it provides a new alternative source of information about books, and sometimes it helps to circulate literary texts or comments about the books that people have read.

As a natural site for self-publishing, the Internet does not compete with traditional forms of an author’s presence on the market.  E-publishing is a sphere that’s barely recognized by Polish publishers, and this situation will probably stay the same for as long as it doesn’t gain more than 3 percent of the market.

Undoubtedly, the Internet will be, and has already been, used in Poland as a marketing tool. But everything starts with the question: what? instead of: how?

PP: What is your position in the market? In other words, what gives you your good perspective on what the market is facing in terms of the work you do and your experience?

“My 25 years in publishing have taught me that abandoning the rules of marketing does not always lead to something new and creative.” Beata Stasińska

BS: Twenty-five years ago I co-founded W.A.B., one of Poland’s most interesting literary publishing houses, where I was responsible for the publishing program and for selling foreign rights.

W.A.B. has published a very interesting range of Polish authors, and has sold the foreign rights to 500 titles.

It’s now part of Publishing Group Foksal, and it has always had a reputation for taking the risk of publishing unknown authors, both Polish and foreign‒often with success.

My 25 years in publishing have taught me that abandoning the rules of marketing does not always lead to something new and creative. Listening to the needs of readers according to daily sales results will soon be replaced by computers with well-designed algorithms. No publisher would be expected to seek out clones of Stephen King or Helen Fielding.

Beata Stasińska

Beata Stasińska

In addition to our Markets white paper, you can read our series of interviews and information in relation to The Markets: Global Publishing Summit (18 October 2016) from Publishing Perspectives and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The Markets logo

This year’s program will showcase the following seven markets:

  1. Brazil
  2. Flanders & The Netherlands (Guest of Honor)
  3. Philippines
  4. Poland
  5. Spain
  6. United Arab Emirates
  7. United Kingdom

The Markets’ programming highlights each of these seven publishing territories from three perspectives: analysis, vision, and industry players. The day is devised to provide attendees not only with information and insights into the most important features of each industry market, but also with extensive networking opportunities during the event.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.