Russian Booksellers Bracing for Challenging Holiday Season

In News by Eugene Gerden

As Russia’s coronavirus numbers hit record levels, booksellers are taking a protracted hit, not eased by rumors of new lockdowns and surging statistics.

In Moscow’s metro, September 20. Image – iStockphoto: Yury Karamanenko

By Eugene Gerden
With Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Footfall Was Down by 90 Percent in the Spring
Russian book retailers say they continue to see deepening losses in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, amid reduced consumer’ traffic and fears of new lockdown measures in the country.

As recently as a week ago, Charles Maynes at Voice of America wrote of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to calm jitters around rumors of a second wave and lockdown, even as record infection and death numbers have been registered. In the most recent 24-hour period report, the Worldometer tracking system has cited 20,582 new cases and 378 deaths in Russia’s population of 144 million. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center ranks Russia as the fourth most heavily infected market in the world (after the United States, India, and Brazil), with a total 1,720,063 cases and 29,654 deaths.

Stepan Kravchenko at Bloomberg reports today (November 6) that 55,671 fatalities have been associated with the pathogen now between April and September, and this is more than double the toll previously reported. The new figures, from Rosstat, are seen as more accurate than earlier numbers because they’re based on death certificates.

Mitigation and containment measures have so far resulted in closures of some local presses and bookselling operations. One is Respublica, a Russian book chain that has recently  announced bankruptcy. A spokesman of the company tells Publishing Perspectives that the coronavirus has caused irreparable damage to the financial condition of the company.

“By the end of March,” a statement provided by the company reads, “the traffic decline at some our outlets reached 90 percent. Most of our stores were closed until June 1, however all of our usual, ongoing expenses remained as losses accumulated.”

Most analysts reached for comment say that they believe this may be just the beginning. They say the potential is high for more bankruptcies—including among larger bookselling companies. So far, small- and medium-size bookstores and chains have been the most vulnerable.

One of the largest fixtures in the market, the bookstore chain Chitai-Gorod, has been the subject of media reports. It’s thought that the company is likely to close some of its stores to try to stem the damage to the wider system. As yet, however, no actual plans for a response have been announced and reports of the precarious position of the chain.

According to book sellers, among the major barriers, which prevent the recovery of the market are citizens’ fears for visiting crowded places and a drop in the population’s income. In addition, books have never been in the list of essential goods in Russia, which means that a significant part of customers prefer to save on their purchases amid the times of the pandemic.

80 Percent of Usual Traffic

Industry agencies report that at least 20 percent of normal traffic–by comparison to the same time period in 2019–remains missing.  And in addition to large chains, independent booksellers say they’re struggling.

Mikhail Ivanov, founder of the St. Petersburg-based Subscription Editions bookstore tells Publishing Perspectives, “Most domestic bookstores, both large and small, now are working to pay taxes and employees.”

Ivanov says it’s impossible to know how 2020 will end for his and other companies, and fears of holiday business not materializing are shared by many in the business.

“According to our usual expectations,” he says, “December can guarantee domestic bookstores at least two months’ revenue. But taking everything into account this year, that outcome isn’t something we can feel sure of.”

A similar position is taken by Lyubov Paskhina, director of the independent Writers’ Bookstore, who says that the pandemic has resulted in a significant decline in the turnover of the store and in the number of its visitors.

In general, according to a recent report prepared by Evotor, one of Russia’s research companies that looks at the book publishing market, the decline of revenue of bookstores in Moscow this year was equivalent to 32 percent of that recorded at this point last year.

This, compared to overall economic-decline figures of 22 percent, shows the depths of the downturn in the book business.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Russian market is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Eugene Gerden

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