Russian publishing has been hit with a double dose of trouble this year, from the economic crunch to an excess of published titles. At the beginning of the recession, 100,000 new titles were being published a year, many with inflated print runs. Russian news site polit.ru reports the 2008 estimate of the size of Russia’s book sales was around $2.2–2.5 million. Now, publishers are struggling with the extra inventory and their financial woes have trickled down through all facets of the industry.
“Over-publishing was indeed a tendency of the last few years,” says Julia Goumen of the Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency in St. Petersburg, adding that Top-Kniga, one of Russia’s big distributors, went bankrupt just a few months ago.
Three of Russia’s main distributors have been unable to pay publishers, who in turn haven’t paid agents. “We’re not getting royalties,” says Elizabeth van Lear, founder and owner of Synopsis Literary Agency, which sells rights to Russia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states on behalf of publishers and agents.
Yulia Borodyanskaya, International Rights Director at McGraw-Hill’s Higher Education Division, along with her mother, Olga Borodyanskaya, Managing Director of Business Development at ARCA Publishers in St. Petersburg, have seen significant consolidation among publishers in the past year. The Azbooka-Attikus Group recently absorbed the well-known Innostranka, KoLibri, and Makhaon publishing houses, and in joining the larger house, the publishers handed over their publishing programs and distribution, adding to the consolidation and monopolization of the market.
“It is considered a victory when a publisher, instead of getting returns, hears from the retailer that the books have sold through and money will be paid ‘at a later date,’” says Borodyanskaya.
Publishers with a lot of debt on their books are the hardest hit now that banks are demanding expedited loan payments, she says. Publishers have been saddled with these loan repayment issues for over six months already: their books are selling, but revenue comes in with great delays and irregularity, and after much prodding of retailers.
“Certain measures are being taken, as the government reports, but as far as this relates to the publishing business, the rule of selfrescuing and survival reigns,” says Goumen.
Russia’s St. Petersburg Times reports that the city’s three key retail book chains—Snark, Bukva, and Bukvoyed—are looking to downsize on space to alleviate some of their financial woes.
As they lack an extensive web presence, Russian publishers don’t expect online sales to compensate for lost retail space. Online book sales, although growing in Russia, face obstacles similar to those in China and other parts of the world that haven’t joined the credit card culture. Ozon is one of the leading online booksellers, starting as far back as 1998. But the convenience is available only to those living in major cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow, and many of those residents don’t have credit cards or don’t trust them enough to use them.
Another option for those ordering online is to pay a courier to deliver the purchase, or to pay at a chosen delivery point like the post office, a bookstore, or a book club. Borodyanskaya says that Ozon, for example, has pickup locations in 28 cities across Russia.
Unlike Amazon’s used books, which often sell for less than the shipping cost, internet shops in Russia sell mainly new books that are delivered directly by the publisher. Instead of deals, customers tend to surf for new releases or hard-to-find titles.
Goumen says that outside the 11 so-called “million cities,” people hardly have internet access or use the internet as a common practice. “It is worth noting that internet book sales have been in Russia for over twenty years, and it’s evolving, but its evolution has been slow and difficult, especially since the ongoing economic recession has affected all businesses in Russia, including the book trade.”
Investors have used Russia’s economic situation for future profit, buying out shares of big chain distributors or signing onerous exclusive distribution agreements with smaller independent publishers, and when the country comes out of the crisis, the map of the market and its rules could be drastically changed.