Ukrainian Publishers Eye ‘Disastrous’ Industry Numbers From 2020

In News by Eugene Gerden

In the case of Ukraine’s Old Lion Publishing House, adapting to online retail made the difference between succeeding and going under during the pandemic’s impact in 2020.

Ukrainian publisher Mariana Savka in Lviv. Image: Old Lion Publishing House

Editor’s note: At this writing, the 8:22 a.m. ET (1222 GMT) update of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees 1,237,810 cases in Ukraine’s population of 44 million, with 23,307 fatalities. Disturbing news reports, such as this writeup by Daryna Krasnolutska and Kateryna Choursina for Bloomberg, indicate that no inoculations have begun in the country as yet, while Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine do have the Sputnik vaccine. —Porter Anderson


By Eugene Gerden

Alexander Aphonin: 31 Percent Decline in 2020
The Ukrainian book publishing market, awaiting results of its performance in 2020, has suffered like other markets under the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, complicated by an ongoing plethora of Russian-language books.

Alexander Aphonin, head of the Ukrainian Publishers & Booksellers Association, tells Publishing Perspectives that preliminary data indicates what he describes as a “diastrous year” for the market.

“The decline in book production in 2020,” Aphonin says, “was around 31 percent in terms of titles and 58 percent in terms of total circulation, compared to 2019.

“At the same time, the average circulation of publicly available literature on the market dropped sharply from 1,500 copies to 800 or900 copies.

“Online book sales that increased by 35 to 40 percent couldn’t cover more than 50 percent of the losses from physical sales,” he says. “In fact, 2020 can be compared to 1999, when the year’s book circulation in Ukraine was only 21 million copies, equivalent to  0.25 book per capita.”

State support for publishers—reportedly some 48 million hryvni (US$1.7 million) allocated for the purchase of books to replenish library stocks—did little to help the situation, Aphonin says, nor did an infusion of 82 million hryvni (US$2.9 million) of direct support to 98 publishers.

Competition With Russian Literature

In Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, near the Polish border. Image: Old Lion Publishing House

As many Publishing Perspectives readers know, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, spoken as a native language by nearly 67 percent of the 44-million-person population. Russian is said to be the native language of some 29 percent.

Many Russian-language books—which pose strong competition to Ukrainian publishers’ output—are said to be illegally in circulation, some of the printed inside Ukraine’s borders.

Aphonin says that in the last three years, the volume of such pirated copies of Russian books has ballooned to what’s thought to be close to 40 percent of the overall book publishing industry volume.

The association says that pirates normally use low-grade paper to produce its copies, which helps to keep counterfeit copies’ prices as much as 60 percent lower than standard books legally imported and as much as 40 percent lower than the cost of books published in-country by Ukrainian publishers.

Main distribution points for counterfeit Russian books in Ukraine are said to include book markets, chain supermarkets, and regional small independent bookstores.

Law enforcement officials provide little control, Aphonin says, and no prosecution of the pirates.

Marjana Savka: ‘We developed an Online Sales Channel’

Marjana Savka, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Lviv’s Old Lion Publishing House, tells Publishing Perspectives that 2020 was “a year of crisis management” for her company, which nevertheless managed to stay in business. As has been the case in many markets, e-commerce was the go-to adjustment for her press.

Marjana Savka

“We developed an online sales channel,” Savka says, “stepped up online promotion, found additional sales channels, and quickly leveled the situation. A very important factor was the assistance from the state. So we kept our positions.”

According to Savka, the situation with Russian books in Ukraine has been going on practically since the creation of the Ukrainian book market of independent Ukraine.

“The presence of such a large book market as Russia,” she says, “has always dampened the motivation of Ukrainian publishers.

“In every year since Ukraine’s independence” in 1991, “we’ve lost to Russian publishers both in sales and in obtaining licenses for world bestsellers. Only after 2014, when the ban on the import of Russian books into Ukraine came into force, were our publishers able to become owners of our own market. At that point, we saw a breakthrough: new publishers, genres, a lot of translated literature.”

A loophole in cross-border permitting, however, she says, undid the benefits seen at first.

“Very quickly, when the government issued permits for Russian that don’t contain anti-Ukraine content, the market became full of Russian products. Now we have both legally and illegally imported Russian content.

“The Ukrainian market should be protected at the legislative level.

“In my view,” Savka says, “a total ban on imports is too harsh. It could backfire by triggering new Russian subsidiaries registered here in Ukraine. I think it is worth thinking about other regulatory methods. It could be quotas on books by Russian producers at all bookstores.”:

Asked how long it might be before she thinks the Ukrainian market might be made “fully Ukrainian,” without undue Russian or other influence, she says that with the help of the state and cooperation of her fellow publishers, “This could be achieved within a few years.”

This video from Savka’s Old Lion Publishing House is about the press and its surroundings.


More from Publishing Perspectives on Ukraine and its publishing industry is here.

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.