VILNIUS - It was a bad omen. The first material to be printed in a Baltic language was a Lutheran manuscript that appeared in Estonian in 1525. But due to the seething religious hostilities of the day, it never reached the readers and was destroyed immediately after publication.
Ever since this time, published materials in the Baltic region have been abused and censored over the centuries, becoming a front line in the eternal war for the hearts and minds of the masses.
The first printed texts in Latvian also appeared around 1525, then in Lithuanian a little later, but the efforts were scrappy and it was another 10 years before a complete book emerged - the Wanradt-Koell catechism from the year 1535, published in Estonian.
Publishing in the local languages took time to develop. It was a full 200 years before the Old Testament was published in Estonian, in 1739 (in Lithuanian in 1660; in Latvian in 1694). But once the national revivals of the 19th century began to take shape, spurred on by patriotic and philosophical poems such as those by Kristjan Jaak Peterson, the young founder of modern Estonian poetry, publishing grew quickly in importance.
The rise of this national awakening brought the emergence of an interest in language on the part of the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians themselves. The status of the Baltic languages changed. Latvian, for example, had been snottily dismissed by the Baltic German nobility as a "rural language" that was incapable of expressing complicated ideas.
In Lithuania, where the Latin alphabet was banned from Lithuanian-language books under czarist Russian rule in the late 19th century, language and identity were kept alive by books smuggled from East Prussia. The first Lithuanian-language newspapers, Ausra (Dawn) and Varpas (Bell) were also smuggled into the country, having been published in Tilsit and Ragnit (now Sovetsk and Neman in Kaliningrad).
The book smugglers, or "knygesiai," risked being shot on the spot or deportation to Siberia, but they succeeded in bringing up to 40,000 books a year into Lithuania undercover by the end of the century.
National independence between the two world wars ushered in a boom in publishing. Romantic poetry and prose, glorified histories, world literature, periodicals, and linguistic and political theses were devoured by a public hungry for the written word. In Estonia, 23,868 titles were published between 1918 and 1940, compared to 14,500 up to 1917.
The freedom of expression has no place under totalitarian regimes, of course, and when the Soviet Union invaded the Baltic countries in 1940 hundreds of publishing houses were nationalized. Censorship was immediately enforced and anyone caught expressing ideas that ran contrary to those strictly imposed by the new ruling power was considered an enemy of the state.
Hundreds of thousands of books printed before 1940 were destroyed. Books became ideological tools as knowledge became controlled. To systematize the industry still further, after the war the nationalized publishing houses were brought together in a single monolithic State Publishing House in each republic.
The local languages continued to be used, but overbearing attention was given to translations of contemporary Russian authors. The local languages were gradually replaced by Russian in "important" spheres such as transport and industry, and a huge influx of people from various parts of the Soviet Union diminished the use of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian still further.
A state printing and publishing board was established in each republic to ensure that censorship and self-censorship were enforced. Artists were told to work in the manner of socialist realism. Printing and publishing equipment, meanwhile, was primitive and of low quality.
When independence was finally regained, the publishing industry struggled to modernize itself. Under market economy conditions, state funding was drastically reduced and given only to publications seen as culturally important.
That did not prevent a second publishing boom from taking place. In Estonia, as many as 750 publishing houses and organizations were involved in the production of books, newspapers and magazines at the start of the 1990s. The publishing sector became almost completely privatized.
Today, around 50 to 60 publishers in each country are serious enough to have their books displayed in mainstream retail outlets, while most publishing houses have an increasing tendency to specialize in format or subject matter, for example in textbooks or literature on art.
However, the total number of companies, institutions and organizations involved in publishing activities in each of the Baltic countries is hard to quantify. It has certainly increased enormously, fueled by the Baltic region's economic success. Once Internet publishing and individual blogging are thrown into the equation, the possibilities for the written word are infinite.
CURIOSITIES: Tyto Alba, Lithuania's second-largest publishing house, specializes in world literature.
Active registered publishers
Source: national ISBN agencies