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Russian Publishing Trends

TOL SPECIAL REPORT: Russia’s book people are chattering about marketing and the rise of pulp fiction, while some industry sectors pull in big profits. by Aleksandr Kolesnichenko, Vladimir Kozlov 29 October 2008 One of the summer’s biggest events on the Russian book scene was an ad campaign aimed at getting people to read more and revalidating the Soviet Union’s proud claim to be “the reading-est country in the world.”

Crime writer Polina Dashkova
The streets and metro stations of the capital sprouted 600 posters with photographs of popular authors and their exhortations in praise of reading. Such prominent names as Grigory Oster, Mikhail Veller, Eduard Uspensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Polina Dashkova, and Sergei Lukyanenko took part in the Slovo za knigu (Word for the Book) promotion, whose main sponsor is the publishing group AST, one of the industry’s leaders.

The business newspaper RBC Daily reported that most major outdoor advertising companies took part in the campaign, the financial side of which has not been disclosed, except that the budget of the project’s first stage amounted to several hundred thousand dollars.

All the authors are in AST’s stable, although the group’s name does not appear in promotional materials for the campaign. Some other industry players backed the idea of making reading more glamorous, but others were skeptical, RBC Daily reported, dismissing the drive as a nominally noncommercial initiative in fact devised to promote the authors whose faces were plastered all over Moscow.

PUSHING POP

Eduard Uspensky
The most notable newcomer in the Russian book industry in the last couple of years is Popularnaya Literatura (Popular Literature), a publisher owned by Konstantin Rykov, a deputy in the State Duma for the pro-presidential United Russia party.

Two years ago, Rykov, who also owns the pro-governmental Internet television channel Russia.ru, reportedly used his media clout to help make Sergei Minayev’s Dukhless (the title is a combination of Russian and English, loosely translated as “Soulless”) one of the biggest sellers of 2006, before going into publishing himself a year later.

Despite, or because of, Rykov’s friendships in high places, his publishing ventures have tended to steer clear of politics, focusing on commercial literature with a broad popular appeal. In the summer of 2007, Moscow saw a huge billboard campaign for the first two Poplit titles, Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky, a dystopia about the dark future of Moscow, and Eduard Bagirov’s Gastarbeiter, a social drama about the hardships facing immigrants to Moscow, both reportedly selling about 250,000 copies.

This summer, one of Poplit’s expected big hits was Sergei Kostin’s spy novel, V Parizh na vihodniye (also out in English translation as Paris Weekend). Reportedly written some time ago, the thriller started to make a real impact thanks only to heavy marketing and advertising across all media by Poplit, which helped to get the book into just about every Moscow bookstore and many outlets in other parts of the country.

In the face of some literati who dismiss Poplit’s titles as mediocre, mass-market fare, Rykov has brought several prominent literary figures into his stable. For instance, Kostin's novel was edited by Lev Danilkin, a book critic for the influential glossy magazine Afisha, and the overall literary direction at Poplit was recently taken over by Alexander Gavrilov, editor in chief of the weekly Knizhnoye Obozreniye (Book Review).

EASY PICKINGS FOR PIRATES?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Incidentally, just about every Poplit title is available for free online, a blow to many publishers’ claims that free Internet distribution of their books curbs sales. And that prospect is just what has several prominent writers worried enough to appeal to the president. The authors urged Dmitry Medvedev not to sign proposed changes in the legislation on libraries that they fear would boost unauthorized distribution of literature online. Under the proposed amendments, the country’s libraries would have to make publicly accessible digital copies of all new books within two years of receiving them.

The authors, among them Arkady Arkanov, Boris Vasilyev, Yevtushenko, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, fear the digital copies could easily be bootlegged by pirates.

– Vladimir Kozlov

POLITICS: SLOW AND STEADY

One and three-quarter million copies of nonfiction books on politics entered the Russian book market in 2007, just 0.2 percent of the 700 million books available to Russian consumers, according to the Russian Book Chamber. However, thanks to their higher cover price of 7 to 10 euros, compared with 2 to 4 euros for a typical title, political books accounted for 1 percent of the total book market.

No single publisher specializes in political literature. One struggling house, Ultra Kultura, went in for books on the fringes of political and other spheres and found itself at the center of several police investigations over pornography and illicit drug promotion before going out of business in 2007. Another market niche is filled by the small handful of publishers specializing in extreme nationalist tomes, but these hold a negligible share of the market.

Few political books can be found at bookstalls and kiosks. Most copies are distributed through big bookstores. Moscow's largest booksellers, Moskva and Biblio Globus, each stock between 100 and 120 political titles. Politics junkies in the capital also patronize the Falanster bookstore, where political books are the specialty. The store offers a variety of controversial titles and modern-day, small-circulation samizdat. Falanster has been occasionally raided by police in the last few years. It was also the target of an arson attack.

A VERY MIXED BAG

Memoirs by current and retired politicians and books reflecting their views make up a sizeable segment of the market, with the undisputed champion being Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, whose 70-volume (so far) collected works surpass Lenin’s 53-volume oeuvre. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov only took up pen and paper quite recently but has already published nearly a dozen books on subjects as diverse as the Kuril Islands, the Russian character, housing sector reform, Russia's role in the global capitalist system, and love between the Russian and Georgian people. A former Soviet spy in Lebanon, Yevgeny Primakov, who served as prime minister in 1998-1999, unveiled an extensive work on Middle Eastern politics last year.

Aside from Putin and Medvedev, profiles of prominent political figures are most popular with readers. "Success depends on readers' attitude to one politician or another and on book promotion," says Galina Kuvardina, assistant manager of Moscow's Molodaya Gvardiya bookstore. Exceptions do happen: two years ago, Yegor Gaidar’s Gibel Imperii. Uroki dlya sovremennoi Rossii (translated into English as Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia), a study of the economic factors underlying the USSR’s collapse, became a best-seller despite the public's toxic feelings toward its author, who as prime minister in 1991 and 1992 is widely blamed for the hyperinflation of those years.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the bilingual journal Rossiya v Globalnoi Politike / Russia in Global Affairs, notes that the market for political books in Russia can match Western markets in terms of titles published. But that variety does not equate to quality. "Along with serious scientific works one can find complete gibberish written by pseudo-experts or mad conspiracy theorists," he says, adding that where Western booksellers draw a clear line between "serious" and "unserious" nonfiction, the categories mix indiscriminately in Russian bookstores.

– Aleksandr Kolesnichenko
Vladimir Kozlov’s article on the small press Ultra Kultura will appear soon on TOL. Aleksandr Kolesnichenko’s survey of new Russian political books is now online.
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