A Good Book is a Joy
To say that the sky above Moscow was foreboding that day is an understatement. The windows of heaven were repeatedly flung wide open, and it seemed that the relentless drizzle was never going to come to an end. Flows of water streamed down the road, yet some people remained undeterred and struggled through the wind and rain to make it to Pavilion No.75 of VDNKh of the XXVIII Moscow International Book Fair, Russia’s oldest book fair which, this year, attracted over 400 publishers from about thirty countries. While the endless queues that we recall from the 1970/80s were not replicated, there was no doubting the tremendous feeling of joy and anticipation that visitors and exhibitors from near and far felt as they descended on the fair. This feeling intensified as we entered the pavilion. The atmosphere was electric as volunteers in bright costumes cosplaying book characters circulated the room and writers stood high on publishers’ platforms describing their latest creations and the inspiration underpinning their writing… The stands presented the best of belles-lettres, children’s books, educational materials, popular science, reference books and encyclopedias.
We struck up conversation with one of the visitors as soon as we entered the huge pavilion. The man introduced himself as Ivan Yakovlevich but refused to tell us his last name, insisting he was first of all the Readers there (yes, with a capital R). He came to VDNKh in spite of the weather to fill his library with new books and to learn if there were any new publications planned for his favorite book series Military Adventures, which is published by Veche Publishers. It turned out our new friend valued those books primarily because of the careful selection (“They don’t publish junk”) and the publisher’s ability to rescue some good authors’ names from oblivion. “Almost complete works of Bryantsev!” Ivan Yakovlevich informed us excitedly: “And nobody else published Shpanov in one series. Besides, the new-generation writers create rather interesting texts, you can tell they know what they’re doing. Examples? You’re welcome — the excellent novel series by Sergei Mikhenkov has been admired by many.”
After such a glowing review, we couldn’t miss the presentation of Military Adventures and it lived up to expectations. Well recognized and aspiring authors presented their new books. We also learned about some future projects, like the upcoming two-volume book by Georg Born, who died during the repression period. These books are going to consist of almost everything this unusual writer, an individual who experienced fascism and its lust for power first hand, knew.
Having first launched in 1991 and, therefore, witnessed first hand the ups and downs of life in Russia, Veche Publishers predominantly describe themselves as publishers of historical books. Since their early days, the team has actively strived to preserve the relics of Russian culture, and to provide a bright and comprehensive picture of the history of Russia. Veche has published over 100 million copies so far, which includes 12,000 names and 50 different series. They now publish about 800 books on an annual basis.
We tracked down the group’s Editor in Chief, Sergei Dmitriev, an honored cultural worker of the Russian Federation to learn more about the current state of the book industry and the challenges publishers face. Quite naturally, our first question was about the book fair we were at…
Sergei Nikolaevich, how successful has the Moscow International Book Fair been this year?
All in all, it’s been very good. Despite the smaller scale and the reduction in participants, this fair has proven that Muscovites love reading, meeting authors, browsing through books on the publishers’ stands, and searching for something to satisfy their curiosity. We did a couple of presentations on the Veche stand, and I can tell you they aroused a lot of interest. Just take the celebration of 300 published volumes in the popular series Military Adventures, or the Taboo Subjects of History project managed by researcher and traveler Andrey Sklyarov, or the publication of the book USSR and China Fighting Together Against the Japanese Aggression devoted to the 70th anniversary of victory over the militarist Japan, in cooperation with China as examples. I hope the readers’ interest in new books will inspire us to do even more.
Russia’s Year of Literature is almost over. What has stood out for you this year in terms of reading and demand for books?
Unfortunately, book sales in Russia keep falling. Slightly over 500 million books were published in 2014. This represented a significant reduction on the highest rate of 1.8 billion books that was once published for the whole Soviet Union. What does 500 million books actually look like? It equates to 3.5 books per capita of Russian population. Meanwhile, the index reaches 6 or 7 in some countries… We stopped being the world’s highest reading population a long time ago.
Why did it happen? Of course, it’s mostly the result of fundamental changes to our way of life. For example, the emergence of computers, the Internet and other forms of leisure have transformed Russia from a reading nation into something completely different. A recent survey revealed that Russian people spend on average four hours a day watching TV, 1.5 hours on the Internet, nine minutes reading books and eight minutes reading magazines. And there’s more: there’s traveling, meeting friends, and other ways to entertain oneself. Therefore, books as a focus of attention and interest have receded into the background.
A huge role in this tragedy can be attributed to the collapse of the book distribution system that once covered the whole of the Soviet Union. At one point, even the most remote villages had access to books but, sadly, this is no longer the case. Many villages have no bookstores at all, which leaves 35 million people with no access to books at all. Small towns with a population under 50,000 don’t have any real bookstores either; their access to books is limited to those sold in small shops or departments in shopping malls—another 25-30 million people are cut off from books. It turns out that almost half of the Russian population doesn’t have permanent and unrestricted access to books! People often come to Moscow and St. Petersburg to buy books in the same way that they once traveled to these major cities to buy sausages! Yes, we also have online bookstores and the Books by Post service, but these services only account for 15-20 % of the market, and the books sold via these channels are relatively expensive because they incorporate delivery costs. As for the libraries, they have been underfunded for many years and, quite simply, they cannot provide people with access to the latest books and publications.
Selling books in non-specialized stores, like supermarkets, is becoming increasingly common; however, these channels typically only sell books for the masses, which hardly enhances society on a cultural level. It seems that the only way out of this crisis is to increase the number of bookstores that are available to millions of readers. Traditional bookstores are the primary channel for readers to browse and flip through different books. But sadly hundreds of bookstores and publishing houses have gone bankrupt and closed recently. That is why Russia is finding itself in the midst of a reading crisis. As reported by the Federal Agency of Press and Mass Communications, even well-to-do Moscow has only 10.0 bookstores per million people, and St. Petersburg has 32.7. This is significantly lower than other areas of the world; for example, there are 46.8 bookstores per million people in Great Britain, 55.7 in Canada and 69.8 in Finland. The library statistics are even more abysmal: There are 0.4 libraries per 10,000 people in Moscow and 0.5 in St. Petersburg. This is drastically lower than the 4.8 libraries per million people in Great Britain, 4.9 in Canada and 11.4 in Finland. At this rate, it isn’t hard to imagine a Russia with no bookstores at all; a country with no reading, hence no culture, science, or imaginative or critical thinking…
What should the government do to help publishers and book distributors?
Russian authorities are guided by “monetary inertia” and fail to understand the social importance of publishing and distributing books, especially in light of the minuscule size of the industry in Russia, which is currently valued at 70-80 million rubles per year at the most. By the way, books currently account for just 0.1 % of the average Russian’s living expenses! Any major hypermarket, like Lenta, yields several times as much, let alone X5 Retail Group or Magnit. Looks like we need a series of government measures to change the existing situation. I believe we should:
1. Apply a zero VAT rate to book publishing and retailing industries.
2. Recognize book retailing as a culture-promoting industry and grant considerable rental benefits to bookstores at all levels, including municipal.
3. Make the promotion of libraries and book retailing a permanent priority of regional cultural development, just as proposed in the Cultural Map of Russia project elaborated by the Russian Book Union. There are so many disputes now around granting 25 billion rubles to Russian Railways in order to keep EMUs in regions. Meanwhile, books are of at least the same importance for the development of the country and could, therefore, really benefit from small grants and benefits.
4. Boost financing of libraries so that they can buy new books and transform from archaic, empty buildings into modern and popular cultural oases.
5. Assign national status to the Reading Support Program developed by the Russian Book Union with all that it entails, including popularization of books and reading by all possible means (we need to start at least by broadcasting TV shows devoted to books on governmental channels!).
6. Develop a set of measures to support youth creativity, individual writers and literary figures, literature associations, etc.
In a nutshell, the government should treat access to books as a high priority in the same way it once was in the Soviet era. The government needs to recognize that books and reading represent an important element of the intellectual development of society.
What is your publishing house doing to change the situation for the better?
Veche Publishers are trying to resist the negative market trends by publishing a wide array of high-quality books that are desired and waited for, inter alia, in our popular book series Siberiade, The Great 100, Military Secrets of the 20th Century, etc. Each year, we publish a catalog of our books for libraries and distribute it throughout the country. We have observed some positive results from this. As the bookstore market shrank several years ago, we started to think about selling books through kiosk networks, not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but on a regional basis too. We have performed some multi-volume projects (30-50 volumes) for kiosks, such as People’s Novel, Mystery Man, or The Great Mysteries. 20th Century and Collection of Historical Novels. We also launched some new virtual kiosk-oriented projects in February to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Victory and the Year of Literature: Names of the Great Victory (memoirs of military leaders in two volumes), Complete Works of Valentin Pikul (in 28 volumes), Collection of Military Adventures (in 40 volumes) and Mysterious Places of the World (in 30 volumes). I hope they will find their readers, and the Year of Literature will make us all contemplate the important role books play in Russia. Moreover, I hope these publications will revive the Russian population’s interest in reading.
What areas of book publishing do you think are the most promising?
Of course, apart from preserving the stuff that’s in the highest demand, such as history-related books, we also find it appropriate to focus on the development and promotion of e-books, which could represent a viable replacement to offline books. However, e-books should be distributed legally, without copyright violations. We are now focusing on this type of activity and offer our readers over 1,000 e-books. We hope that Russia is still motivated to rejoin the list of the top reading countries in the world and that our publishing house will make a significant contribution to the achievement of this goal.
Book publishing doesn’t only bring joy to those who do it, there is a good deal of problems, too just as there is with any other business. Still, there is a feeling that Russian books will always bring joy to book lovers.
Following our interview with Sergei Dmitriev, we wanted to introduce you to the Siberiade book series he mentioned (talking about books and having no chance to read them is the same as smelling delicious food but having no opportunity to sample it). The series is unique. It tells the story of the vast and affluent Siberian region that was discovered at different stages of history. Over 100 volumes have been published so far, including the first two books of a saga by Alexander Yarushkin and Leonid Shuvalov, The Symbol of Faith and Righteous Justice.
Here’s how the author describes the inspiration behind the book.
“The novel is dear to us because it was our first experience of making something big that incorporated numerous plotlines and characters. One of our readers once said he had counted more than 200 characters! We officially started work on the novel in the late 1980s; however, we explored a lot of archival documents prior to that. Some characters are purely fictional; others are based on real-life people, like my grandparents. There was no means by which a non-union member could publish such a big novel. Publishers would just tell us we were not measuring up, or accuse us of presenting the Bolshevik revolutionaries too positively or negatively.
“Then came the turbulent 1990s, we didn’t have a chance… Leonid left for Sevastopol, I was in Oklahoma, and the typescript got lost. Thankfully, it was later found, and I began to polish the novel using my personal and writing experience. I completed the first chapter and sent it to Veche. They liked it. I refined the second one, and they published that too. People like it. Eventually, it was nominated for an award by the Union of Writers.
“The novel was supposed to be a saga about the lives of the main characters from 1905 (the first two books describe this turbulent period) to 1917–1918 in Siberia (these are the three or four books I’m working on now). Leonid is busy with his own project, the marvelous Green Pyramid Gallery in Sevastopol. We’re still friends, and we see each other from time to time.”
It seems that Yarushkin and Shuvalov’s hard work has paid off. Their books were not only warmly welcomed by the connoisseurs of good literature, but they were also nominated for the prestigious literary award To the Glory of Motherland. Happy reading!
Отрывок из романа «Суд праведный» доступен к прочтению на сайте издательства: http://www.aypublishinghouse.com/sud_chapter.html