Publish or perish. Literary critic Galina Yuzefovich on how sanctions are affecting the future of Russia’s book industry

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Like other sectors of the Russian economy, the book market hasn’t been spared the fallout from Moscow’s war against Ukraine and the ensuing Western sanctions. Despite the fact that many competing forms of entertainment are now unavailable to people in Russia, there are few reasons for those in the book business to celebrate. For Meduza, literary critic Galina Yuzefovich breaks down the problems facing Russia’s publishing industry today and what writers, publishers, booksellers, and readers fear is yet to come.

The cost of books is going to go up. The Russian book market was already in a deep crisis because of a shortage of paper and printing capacity, and now this situation will be even worse. The fall of the ruble will lead to further price inflation for paper and printing, and will inhibit cooperation with foreign suppliers and printers. For example, the Eksmo-ACT publishing group has done part of its print runs in Kazakhstan, and the publisher Sindbad has done likewise in Lithuania. They will probably have to give this up for purely financial reasons. In addition, supply chains are already strained and obsolete printing equipment cannot be replaced and upgraded quickly because of sanctions.

By summer, publishers are predicting a 30–5 percent rise in prices — and that’s an optimistic forecast, based on the assumption that things will not radically change for the worse. At the same time, the quality of books will fall dramatically. Publishers are already switching to the cheapest materials and technologies: We can no longer expect to see elegant dust jackets, bookmarks, and color illustrations. 

Distribution is also a major concern, especially against the backdrop of rising book prices. Bookstores, which are already going through a rough patch, will find it hard to make ends meet. We can already see that not everyone will survive the crisis. While most of those that closed during the pandemic were small, independent stores, this time, it will be difficult even for the giants to survive.

Over the past two years, publishers have begun to gradually shift to audio and electronic formats, a trend that is only likely to grow in the near future. However, given that one of the most ambitious projects in the field of audiobooks — a Russian version of the Swedish service Storytel — has been put on hold (hopefully temporarily), the prospects in this area don’t look particularly bright either.  

Print runs won’t be greatly reduced. But small print runs are very expensive, so a significant reduction in the number of titles can be expected. Many publishers have already begun to revise their plans, removing or indefinitely postponing all but the guaranteed best-sellers. In other words, the range of books is bound to shrink, primarily at the expense of everything obscure, new, and unusual.

Communication between publishers and readers will suffer. Social media has been the main channel of communication, so the loss of Facebook and Instagram in Russia will be a painful blow to many publishers, especially small ones. Direct advertising in the book industry is not cost-effective, so for now, publishers have lost their most important links to readers. It will be more difficult for them to advertise new releases and promotions, announce meetings with writers, and receive feedback. While remaining social media platforms like as VKontakte and Telegram will help offset some of these losses, publishers are unlikely to re-establish contact with all of their former followers and subscribers.

On Russia’s closing information space

Overseas book rights are at high risk. Several literary superstars, such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, have already announced a definitive break with the Russian market. Less visible, but no less significant, will be the departure of one of the world’s largest copyright holders in literature — Penguin Random House, which has officially stopped selling rights to Russia. The publishers Macmillan, Simon & Schuster UK and USA, and Hachette UK have done likewise. According to the Eksmo publishing group, the rights already purchased from these companies will be enough to last for six months to a year, and after that the range of foreign literature available in Russia will be significantly reduced.  

Decisions by Russian courts are another cause for concern. The Kirov Arbitration Court recently refused to impose a penalty on a Russian entrepreneur who illegally used the image of Peppa Pig in an advertisement. The judge would not to award damages to the British copyright holder Entertainment One UK Ltd., based on a presidential decree from February 28, entitled “On the application of special economic measures in connection with the unfriendly actions of the United States of America and affiliated foreign states and international organizations.” So far, it’s an isolated incident. But if leniency toward counterfeiting in the cultural sphere becomes the norm, even rights holders who have not planned to break off contact with Russia will stop wanting to work with the country.

In any case, the relative cost of copyright on the Russian market is already becoming too high for many publishers. Even in the most optimistic scenario, Russian publishers will only buy and translate obvious bestsellers, sacrificing everything else. 

Censorship appears to be one of the most significant threats to the Russian book market and Russian literature. Many supporters of the Putin regime expect that all “incorrect” and “cosmopolitan” literature will be eradicated, with “correct” and “patriotic” works taking its place. These expectations are are premature: imposing full-scale censorship is expensive and complex and Russia’s book market is not big and powerful enough for the state to pursue serious pressure and control over it. Unfortunately, however, it’s still possible that publishing houses will start to play it safe, refusing to publish books deemed ideologically “dubious,” even without outside pressure to do so.

The experience of some children’s publishing houses that changed their policies after the adoption of a 2010 law on “protection of children from undesirable information” shows that self-censorship sometimes works even better than official censorship. 

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Text by Galina Yuzefovich

Translated by Carol Matlack

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