Bibliophiles converge on 2000 Vilnius book fair

  • 2000-02-24
  • By Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Despite a slight drop in the number of publishers present, this year's annual three-day Vilnius Book Fair at the LitExpo exhibition facility on the city's outskirts was well attended by teachers, students and the country's intelligentsia. Some smaller publishers were unable to afford displays, having sustained losses from Lithuania's overall economic slump. Nevertheless, on the afternoon of Feb. 18, the aisles were teeming with booklovers drawn by the fair's promotional discounts.

A home-grown success story

Vilnius' Vaga Publishers had by far the busiest stand at the show. The staff could barely keep the shelves stocked, and customers were grabbing books as soon as new boxes appeared.

"People in this country are too used to crying instead of working," said the company's director, Dr. Arturas Mickevicius, in reference to the sluggish economy.

He claims 260 percent growth in sales of Vaga published books in 1999 and points to the crowd of people swarming his stand as evidence of this. "I did my doctorate in Sweden. I lived, worked and learned how to run a business there. At Vaga, I have put together a young, ambitious and hard-working team. The present economic crisis only makes us work harder. We simply don't over dramatize it," he said. In his three years with Vaga, he has doubled the number of books published without increasing the number of employees.

Vaga publishes over 100 books a year. They use premium, Scandinavian-made paper and never try to save money on printing costs. Last year they won five of the thirteen prizes for artwork and jacket design. In addition to books by Lithuanian authors, they publish highbrow novels by the likes of Toni Morrison and Francois Mauriac as well as John Grisham's best sellers.

"There is no such thing as a bad book, only badly-published and badly-sold books," Mickevicius said. "We listen to our customers as much as possible. Ten years ago you could publish a translated foreign book in this country, and people would buy it just because the author had an exotic name. Today's reader is far more intellectual and is familiar with not only foreign authors but also specific titles. Garbage doesn't sell," he said.

A strong British presence

The British Books for Managers was on hand displaying business books at Lithuanian prices. In operation since 1991 and sponsored by the British government, the scheme subsidizes British books on law, business and economics at up to 50 percent of the regular price so that local booksellers can make a normal commercial gain. The aim is not only to promote British publishers but also to assist in the transfer of expertise.

BBM operates in 15 countries in East and Central Europe but is slowly beginning to scale down its efforts.

"The book trade in most transitional countries is buoyant, and I foresee us operating only for another two years or so," said Julie Carpenter, the scheme administrator. "Also, we no longer operate in European Union accession countries such as Poland, Hungary and Estonia," she said.

BBM also offers local publishers a translation scheme for British books which are either EU or business related. They cover up to 50 percent of translation costs and will pay the licensing fee to the relevant publisher. To date they have gone to press successfully with Richard McAllister's "From EC to EU: a Historical and Political Survey".

"Our customers are young people fluent in English," said Jolita Simonyte, BBM's Lithuanian marketing director. "To date our biggest sellers have been specialized business and law dictionaries for students and their professors. Our textbooks are not quite as popular, as many students prefer American ones," she said. Still, no American publishing companies were present at the Vilnius book fair.

Books published by the United Kingdom's Macmillan Press, in Lithuania since 1991 and represented by several local booksellers, also attracted attention.

"There is great long-term potential for us in this country despite today's economic constraints and the strength of the British pound," said James Papworth, Macmillan's international sales manager.

The company plies the educational market but plans to enter mass-market paperbacks with a local partner soon.

"We intend to sell these in large volumes at 22 to 28 litas a copy ($5.50 to $7)," he said.

Judging by the titles on display, Macmillan's most popular books are in the English Language Teaching market segment.

"We price to market in ELT and are willing to sacrifice margin for presence in this area. When you sell 20,000 to 40,000 copies of an ELT book worldwide, you can afford to be generous on 1,000 copies in Lithuania. The same is not true for a specialized medical book selling a few thousand copies. You just don't have the same margin to play with," Papworth said.