Communism still haunts Eastern European publishers

  • 2002-10-17
  • Fabien Novial

High book prices and a growing interest in Western literature have put a major strain on Central and Eastern European publishers, who say they are often struggling to survive.

At Rumanian, Czech and Slovenian book stands at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the verdict is almost unanimous given the deep slump in the publishing industry: Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, books are too expensive.

"In the general context of the crisis, people simply prefer to go without books," shrugged Dana Kalinova, director of the Czech Library and Editors Association.

The format of the book fair is also a problem. Halls are divided among countries and regions rather than by subject and books cannot be sold to visitors for cash, which deprives small publishers of some handy revenue.

"Look in the hall where the Anglo-Saxons are... it's huge and well-lit, that's where the business is," Kalinova complains. "They have thrown us, the old communist countries, together in a dark hall."

On the walls behind Kalinova's stand hang photographs of Prague devastated by the floods in August.

"Fifty percent of Poles say they no longer look at a book. That is a real danger for democracy," says Andrzej Nowakowski, president of the Polish Book Chamber, which represents book publishers and distributors.

He is also worried about the 250 libraries forced to close over the last two years for lack of funding.

"In communist times, Lithuania's seven publishing houses were state owned and subsidized," remembers Culture Minister Rasa Balcikonyte. "Now there are about 100 but the prices have gone sky high." In 1997, Balcikonyte's ministry even started giving out financial aid in an attempt to protect Lithuanian culture.

Publishing books in little-read languages is also a handicap compared with reproducing them in English or Spanish because higher print runs make for lower prices, book sellers in Frankfurt say.

Big publishing groups are very demanding," said Kalinova. "A year or two after a book is published, they look for discount printers to print the final editions, which is really hurting the book industry."

It is only when writers from former communist countries make it in the West that real opportunities arise for publishers from Eastern and Central Europe.

The awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature to Imre Kertesz last week was one such potential windfall that is likely to reinforce the industry in Hungary, an exception to the rule.

"Hungarian literature is going through an excellent period with a great variety of authors," said Peter Laszlo Zentai, head of the Hungarian Publishers and Booksellers Association, after the award was announced.

The fair, the world's biggest book show attended by more than 6,000 exhibitors from 110 countries, has also tried to help by giving writers from former communist countries a higher profile.

After Hungary in 1999, Poland in 2000 and Lithuania this year, the book fair will make Russia the guest of honor in 2003.

But it is still a question of breaking into foreign markets and while some, like that of Germany, are reasonably open, others are behind locked doors for publishers from Central and Eastern Europe.

"As for so-called close cultural relations with France, I think it's more of a myth," says one disgruntled publisher who preferred not to be named.