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Book market bursting, but sales stagnant


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Olga Sobolevskaya.) "The Russian book market is overflowing, and only high-quality and well-printed books are in demand," Russia's book publishers are saying at the 18th Moscow international book fair.

Its opening on September 7, with 3,000 firms demonstrating more than 100,000 publications in dozens of languages, was attended by guests from 50 countries. Visitors are crowding round de luxe editions of classics, new revelations about Stalin and Napoleon, provocative pamphlets by politicians, books on culinary art and beauty treatment, esoteric literature, and textbooks.

"The publishers are going out of their way to increase the number of titles offered, but sales show no real growth," Oleg Novikov, director-general of Russian Eksmo Publishers, told RIA Novosti. "The books either fail to reach the readership or gather dust on shop shelves." Igor Yelcheninov, director-general of another publishing giant, Olma-Press, explains that the average price of books has risen, while the regions require inexpensive literature. So as more titles are issued, their editions get smaller.

In the country that once considered itself the most well read nation in the world, "young people now read almost no books or fiction, and the Internet is only partly to blame for it," Alexei Gordin, executive director of Azbuka Publishers, told us. Azbuka is the leading publisher of fiction.

Falling sales make publishing costs go up and force publishers to think of changing tack, says Novikov. "Small-time publishers find it particularly hard, since they concentrate on one genre or even one author. A change in consumer preferences, a mistake in forecasts, or a competing product appearing on the market immediately expose the company."

In an oversaturated market, the main competitive assets are fast-selling brands (authors and book series with an established market reputation), a streamlined selling network, and one's own press, explains Gordin. "Our monthly output is half a million copies of between 50 and 100 titles, depending on the season," he says. "New books do not make up more than 50%." Olma-Press reports the same percentage. Fifteen to twenty Eksmo core brands bring in over half the profits.

The grapevine is the most effective way of promoting a new brand, says Gordin. Critics, literary and otherwise, and "people reading and discussing books" help a lot. A history and adventure novel by Alexei Ivanov, "The Gold of the Rebellion," about the Catherine era took $30,000 to hype.

Azbuka's main authors are Patrick Zuskind, Milan Kundera, Erlend Lu, Milorad Pavic, and the Russian emigre writer Sergei Dovlatov, as well as fantasy novels that are popular with young people. "Novels teaching you to live and love" are always a hit with readers," says Gordin. First to hold this niche was the immortal Carlos Castaneda, now Richard Bach and Paolo Coelho have followed him.

Yelcheninov says there is great demand for Asian literature, with the Japanese leading the way. Also Spanish authors are quite popular. Russian classics are also at a premium. The publishers do not forget hot issues either. "History books and political writing come to the front, as well as what is shown on television and written in the magazines," he stresses. Olma-Press publicizes blockbusters about Josef Stalin and his right-hand men, or Richard Sorge. Other characters of history are Dante and Da Vinci. Dan Brown's best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" has sharpened interest in the Italian geniuses. Another Olma super-project is "The Chronicle of Troubled Times" (dating from 1990) issued under the slogan "All that the readers wanted to know, but the oligarchs refused to tell."

Publishers also pin big hopes on professional literature, which is increasing in demand. These comprise reference books and textbooks on economics, law, and advertising. Books about cooking, gardening and coffee table books are also selling well, says Novikov. Big publishers are increasing their penetration of these market segments.

"Quite recently music, cinema and other arts have marginalized literature," says Gordin. "It is only in the past two to three years that publicly recognizable newsmaking authors have appeared." And yet book-reading needs encouragement - via television, the Internet and book festivals. Both the government and the cultural elite should join in promoting it, Gordin says with conviction.

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