Publishers in the Baltics: Differing Expectations for a Pandemic Recovery

In News by Eugene Gerden

While a Latvian publisher seems encouraged, a counterpart in Estonia is less upbeat. And Russia’s LitRes is eyeing the region for its digital-sales potential in ebooks and audio.

In Riga during the Latvian lockdown period, a shot from May 14. Image – iStockphoto: Askolds

Editor’s note: The Baltic nations’ comparative success in containment and mitigation of COVID-19 has come with the retail shutdowns seen in most of publishing’s world markets. Today (October 6), the 6:23 a.m. ET update (1023 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees Latvia (population 1.9 million) with 2,194 cases and 40 deaths. In Estonia (population 1.4 million), there are 3,659 cases reported, with 67 fatalities. And in Lithuania (population 2.8 million), Johns Hopkins has registered 5,366 cases and 99 deaths. —Porter Anderson

By Eugene Gerden

An Upbeat Assessment in Latvia
With the opening of Frankfurter Buchmesse’s digital evocation opening in about a week, publishers in the Baltics say they feel optimistic that they’re seeing recovery from the economic impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

The book markets of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, they say, are seeing resumed growth of sales and levels of book production.

Olegs Mihalevics

Olegs Mihalevics is the chair of Apgads Kontinents in Riga, one of Latvia’s publishing houses. In comments to Publishing Perspectives, Mihalevics says that most books in the region still are sold in traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores. That, of course, means that sales sharply declined during the period of March to June when the most stringent efforts were levied by the Baltic governments to contain the spread of the virus.

Recovery from the shuttering of physical points of sale began in the summer.

“Since June,” Mihalevics says, “consumer traffic in the book stores of Latvia has been steadily growing.

“In June itself, book sales increased by 10 percent compared to June 2019. One of the reasons for this was unusually cold temperatures, along with public events being restricted throughout the Baltics.

“At the moment, the market continues an active recovery, parallel to our regional economics. Doctors and teachers—who form the majority of book buyers in our region—have begun to receive increased wages, a good sign for us, with consumers showing more confidence.

“We’re cautiously hopeful that we’ll see a nearly complete recovery of the market and even its growth by the end of the current year.”

Less Rosy Views From Others in Publishing

Mihalevics’ optimism isn’t necessarily matched in the viewpoints of his colleagues.

Valentina Kashina

Valentina Kashina, the director of KPD in Tallinn, tells Publishing Perspectives that she doesn’t share Mihalevics’ assessment that the regional markets will see a recovery by January.

“At present our major sales indicators show sales decreasing, not rising,” Kashina says.

“In the first half of the year, we moved ahead with our output, despite the quarantine restrictions we were under here in Estonia. Our books were published in accordance with the annual plan, but their circulation figures fell by 25 to 30 percent.

“That meant that our sales were at about 70 percent of what they were at the same time last year.”

Russia’s LitRes Looks for Digital Expansion in the Baltics

Publishing players in the region say they’d like to believe that in this quarter, ebook sales could offset the drops they’ve seen in print.

And there are signs of ebook sales almost doubling the in the region while stores were shuttered. Still, the share of digital formats remains very small in the overall markets’ sales, and comments about hopes for a digital boost may be more wishful thinking than reality.

Seen from the standpoint of investment, an announcement that Russia’s ebook and audiobook retailer LitRes wants to move into Estonia may be behind some observers’ hopes for digital traction.

Sergey Anuriev

Sergey Anuriev, LitRes’ general director, says, “Last November, the company became the majority shareholder of the Estonian ebook wholesale platform Eesti Digiraamatute Keskus (EDRK).

“We expect to see the subscription ebook service, MyBook—part of the LitRes group—start operating in Estonia during this fourth quarter.

“At the moment,” Anuriev says, “according to EDRK’s estimates, the share of ebooks in the Estonian book market is at around 3 percent and could grow to 4 percent by the end of the year. In the next three to four years, we’d like to see that get to 10 percent. In Estonia, the annual sales of ebooks is estimated at €1 million (US$1.2 million).”

LitRes also has ambitions of expansion into Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland, Anuriev says, making Estonia a kind of test market at the moment.

And any other hopeful comments you hear from Baltic publishers at the moment involve anticipated government support.

Several  months ago, representatives of the Latvian Association of Book Publishers called on Riga to reduce VAT on all types of books from the current 12 percent to 5 percent. Publishers say this could help stabilize the market if the government comes through.

May 6 in Vilnius during reopening. Image – iStockphoto: Michele Ursi

More from Publishing Perspectives on Estonia is here, more from us on Latvia is here, more from us on Lithuania is here, more on Russia’s LitRes is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Eugene Gerden

Eugene Gerden is an international freelance writer who specializes in covering global book publishing and bookselling industry.