As Publishing Trends rolls out its bestseller lists for the Czech and Slovak Republics, we herewith offer a brief survey of this modest but dynamic literary landscape, as sales rise in Wal-Mart-esque chains, and pivot sharply toward nonfiction.
Though Czech readers have long lapped up the likes of Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and Tom Clancy, a minor reading revolution is under way in the nation: the demand for fiction in the Czech Republic has drastically slackened of late, and most publishers there are now concentrating on nonfiction, according to a pre-Frankfurt market report on conditions in the Czech and Slovak book markets just released by Prague-based literary agent Kristin Olson. Some publishers have cut fiction to only 20% or less of their list, as demand ramps up for illustrated books on crafts, hobbies, and do-it-yourself home projects. The total market now breaks down to about 60% general nonfiction, 25% fiction, 11% textbooks, and 4% children’s titles. (Original Czech language publications amount to 70%, translations 30%.) Olson, who represents publishers from the US and UK, and sells translation rights for their books to Czech and Slovak publishers, adds that concentration in the retail market continues, as successful booksellers continue to expand into chains, while book superstores set up shop in Prague and Wal-Mart-esque commercial chains like Tesco start to sell more books as well.
On the bright side, though swaths of the Czech Republic were engulfed by some of the worst floods to hit Europe in over 200 years last summer, book production for 2002 remained impressively resilient. The industry kicked out 10,412 titles, according to Jaroslav Cisar, Secretary of the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers, which is nearly identical to previous years in which the Czech book sector recorded its highest ever number of published titles. Unfortunately, by most accounts print runs are continuing to drop (averaging 2,500 copies for both fiction and nonfiction; up to 6,000 for solid bestsellers), leading publishers to put out more titles in smaller print runs in an attempt to maintain the same financial turnover. Reorders are rare, and a new title can be fated for remainderdom within weeks or months of publication.
Perhaps the most notable change in the past year has taken place in the Czech children’s book market. While last year there were only two children’s publishers focusing on nonfiction titles, and two tackling fiction, Harry Potter novels have helped open up the market a bit, with publishers starting to take an interest in contemporary series fiction, fantasy for children, and contemporary novels. With the average retail price of a children’s book hovering around $2.50, there is little hope that a market will emerge for children’s picture books, as production costs are simply too burdensome. Publishers rely heavily on original Czech or Slovak writers and illustrators because it is often too expensive to license translations. In another growing segment, expect to see more successes along the lines of Bridget Jones’ Diary, as Czech publishers continue to build marketing strategies for film tie-ins, with posters promoting both the book and the film.
English accounts for the largest share of any translated language in the Czech Republic (over 50%), with German and French next in line. While translations from Polish are on the rise, interest is waning for Slovak books. By all accounts, Czech and Slovak are closely related, and are understandable to speakers of either language. As Lucie Straková of Andrew Nurnberg Associates in Prague reports, the “Czech market is of course much bigger and stronger so that’s where we make most of our deals.” Other factors are diminishing the prospects for Slovak publishing as well. As day-to-day communication between the two countries gets less frequent, Czechs are becoming less comfortable reading in Slovak. And because Czech editions are widely distributed and sold in Slovakia, a Slovak edition has little chance of succeeding if a Czech edition has been published first. (Incidentally, most contracts negotiated before the split of Czechoslovakia have expired by now, but even before the split, separate contracts were concluded for each language.) Unemployment in the Slovak Republic is up to 18.5%, making conditions there worse than ever. However, Vienna-based agent Ilene Kreshka of Transnet Contracts Ltd. reports that she notices a perhaps hopeful shift toward “higher quality commercial fiction and literary fiction.”