Twelve years ago, Vladimir Grigoriev left Vagrius (the publishing house he founded in 1992) to join the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication, or FAPMC. Much has changed in the country's book market since then. PW catches up with the dynamic deputy director and indefatigable champion of the Russian publishing industry for some insights and news.
What have been the biggest changes in the Russian book industry in the past decade?
First, the number of titles published has doubled, and this is largely due to the low 10% VAT on books. The standard VAT rate in Russia is 18%, by the way. Secondly, there is now a concerted effort at the government level to promote reading and to help the publishing industry set up regulations and the supporting infrastructure. Thirdly, the Russian publishing industry is now nearly 100% privatized, a process that began after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is crucial for everybody to understand that the present Russian book market is on par with its counterparts in Europe or North America in terms of genres or segments. We have caught up with the trends and blockbusters, so to speak.
Are there any particular trends that you are worried about?
I would prefer to see 300 or 400 really active publishers in the industry instead of just a handful taking a big chunk of the market. We need fairer and more equal market distribution between players big and small. Then there is the centralized distribution system, which collapsed along with the Soviet Union and has not been restored to anywhere near its previous state. The number of bookshops in Russia is dismal, especially when compared to small countries in Central Europe such as the Czech Republic. The drop in reading—so reminiscent of the U.S. and U.K. in the 1990s—is worrying, and we are working hard to stop it from worsening.
And what is FAPMC doing to restore the reading culture?
We are working with the Moscow city government on a series of campaigns to create social awareness of the importance of reading and reading to children. It is a multipronged campaign with outdoor, radio, television, and online advertising. We are also working with schools, teachers, and librarians to get the message across to parents, especially young parents, in order to cultivate family reading. The objective is to increase the reading and appreciation of books—and it is not aimed at fighting the electronic media, which, ironically, is helping us to spread the reading message.
Are you not worried about book piracy?
After 75 years of being a closed society, Russians are being pretty rebellious. If there is any loophole in the legal framework, one can almost guarantee that it will be found and exploited. I think we are genetically and historically predisposed to disobey laws. But with family income quadrupling—and purchasing power increasing—in the past 10 years, 45% of Russians are now using handheld devices for reading, and they are ready to pay for the content. However, we have to build the proper payment and billing infrastructure and educate people about what is legal content. Moreover, we have yet to find the right business model for online retailing and digital publishing. FAPMC, together with Russian publishers, is seeking advice from major companies that have gone through the online and digital experience to help us tweak or find a workable model.
What changes would you like to see at publishing houses?
Structurally, it is common to find publishing houses operating as family businesses and their owners functioning as chief executives. In order to grow and foster new ideas, these businesses should prepare for professional managers to take over. Then, maybe foreign investment will come in. Personally, I find the Alliance of Small and Independent Publishers and Booksellers, launched at the 2011 Non/Fiction Fair, a great idea because creativity tends to come from small publishers and distributors. When a company gets too big or monopolizes a market, stagnation sets in. We do not want, or need, mass production of books.
How about the translation quality of Russian titles?
A lot needs to be done in terms of ensuring quality translation of Russian literature into foreign languages, and we should start with teaching the proper translation methodology. Half a year ago, the Institute of Translation was established through the cooperation of several major universities, national libraries, and foundations, such as the Moscow State University, St. Petersburg State University, Yeltsin Foundation, and Mikhail Prokhorov Fund. To further motivate translators and publishers, we are handing out translation awards starting this June in three categories: for poetry and for pre- and post-1980 classical Russian literature. The first prize winner will get 5,000 euros. In addition, there have been a large number of translation symposiums in recent months as well as translation courses offered at linguistic centers and institutes. The Moscow State Linguistic University, for instance, held a two-day international translation symposium last December. Such programs must be encouraged and supported for the future of Russian literature in translation.
There are many literary awards in Russia, and another one was added when you created the Big Book Award in 2005. What was your rationale for doing so?
The Big Book Award is an endowment, very much like the Nobel Prize. There are more than 100 people in the Award academy, half of them not from the publishing industry. So you can be certain that there is little danger of lobbying for the top prizes or unfairness in the selection. My goal is simply to honor the best book of the year, and the Big Book Award is the system I set up to achieve that goal.
What lessons did you take away from the 2011 London Book Fair, where Russia was the market focus?
There is a need to set up a proper infrastructure to promote Russian literature. Literary scouts and rights agencies have to work together with authors to restore contemporary Russian literature. The whole Russian language publishing industry—including that in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which produce nice children's titles and encyclopedias—needs to come together and be promoted as one. Then we need talented people to create new regulations that will close loopholes and prevent content piracy. At the same time, we need to do more to exchange ideas and culture, and not just push Russian literature and culture onto other people.