Lithuanian publishers in uncertain times
Twenty years ago books in Lithuania were a source of forbidden knowledge, which you received as a faded copy via secret channels and had to read in a single night to pass on afterwards. You could see how close a householder’s relationship was with the bookshop manageress from the number of books on his shelf, and the “World Library” volumes or the “Ways of the Brave” adventure series guaranteed their owners not only respect but also excellent entertainment. In those days books were longed for, collected, lent and read.
Jurgita Ludavičienė, Lithuania
What has changed? You might think that Lithuanians could still be called a nation of books, particularly in view of the crowds who surge to the Vilnius Book Fair every year. This event, a sort of “consecration festival for books” suggests to the observer that every Lithuanian is not only able to play basketball but also reaches for a book as soon as he has put the ball away. Statistics even seem to confirm this impression: in 2011 the Vilnius Book Fair attracted more than 61 000 visitors. A real record, especially when you see most of the visitors leaving with their bags of books – you literally see the publishers jubilantly counting their takings and the readers, who have shared out the trophies they brought home amongst their family and then immediately immerse themselves in hours of reading pleasure, only pausing to top up their reading supplies in the nearest bookshop.
In view of the large number of new publications it is possible to conclude that Lithuanians are pretty much hot on the heels of global trends – of course you have to take a certain delay into account for the translation, but the best-selling books in the world are published in Lithuania as well about six months after their first publication. Most publishers keep an attentive eye on what interests and motivates the readers in other countries – both nearby and further away – which is why both Stieg Larssen and Haruki Murakami, as was the case a few years ago with Dan Brown, rank right at the top of the popularity stakes, not only with British, Swedish or Polish readers, but also with Lithuanian readers.
Lithuanian publishers also follow the trend that has become definitive everywhere in the world, which is the increasingly noticeable shift of the relationship between quality literature and its opposite, or to differentiate even more precisely, between “serious” and “light” literature. In Lithuania more and more books are being published and read that do not fall into the fiction category: biographies, memoirs and in particular books about history and psychology that are written in laymen’s terms. It is possible that these preferences can be explained by the sharp increase in prices of books (having bought the book, the reader wants to look things up again and again, not just once; the book should provide advice and information, not just entertainment and excitement), but maybe it is also because buyers are so busy and exhausted – they are tired of all the stories that have been thought out and are now looking for facts to hold onto.
Every month around seventy books are published in Lithuania, in the original or in translation, this does not include reprints and textbooks; if you take into account the efforts already mentioned to launch international bestsellers onto the Lithuanian market as fast as possible, then there is certainly a broad selection of books available to readers. However this primarily affects fans of light literature; for more serious, non-commercial literature hard times have begun in Lithuania. It is with reluctance that publishers take on more ambitious works in the original Lithuanian or in translation if sales figures cannot be guaranteed. On the one hand that is absolutely understandable since after all the economic crisis has weakened customers’ purchasing power as well as hitting the publishers themselves. Books have become expensive with the increase in the VAT rate to 9 per cent, discerning literature has dwindling readerships, so there is a real risk that these works in which a large amount of time and money has been invested (the fact is, translating, editing and publishing books like this is time-consuming and expensive) will ultimately be left in storage at bookstores and in publishing houses. This type of literature is urgently dependent on life-saving support from Lithuanian and international translation funding, which has made it possible in the first place for many important works to be published in the Lithuanian language at all. And yet: while the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Goethe-Institut and NORLA, the organisation for Norwegian literature abroad are supporting the publishers as dependable partners, the funding programmes for publishers supplied by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture seem to be more stringently controlled each year so that the funds granted trickle in more and more sporadically and publishers are exposed to increasing insecurity. For this reason less and less non-commercial literature is being published, the readership demands “useful” and “straightforward” books with which they can relax from their everyday lives, and this is what they are getting. In these financially uncertain times, no publisher would take on the mission of being concerned with his readers’ education purely as a “culture medium”, a mission destined to fail from the outset, because this would mean economic suicide. This is exactly why bookshops are overflowing with vampire stories, crime novels and psycho guides about the best methods of getting slim as you eat and rich while you sleep. It’s a never-ending cycle.
Furthermore there seem to be more and more books and less and less people buying them. There are many reasons for this: one is the enduring wave of emigration (you see, books become ballast for people who do not know where they are going to live), the weakened image of reading per se, and finally the decreasing buying power and rising book prices. That last reason given, which probably irritates readers the most, can be attributed not only to increased printing costs and pricier licences, but also the profit margins of bookstores, which are between 70 and 80 percent. The customer has no alternative other than to save up patiently, to wait for price reductions… or to go for the electronic book. Obviously this cannot be read in Lithuanian, because the extremely scanty Lithuanian e-book market has so far been restricted to textbooks and dictionaries. The reason for this is firstly the very uncertain legal situation for publishers and authors in this field, and the other is pirating of products, which is particularly flourishing in Lithuania and for which there is still no legal basis at all under which it can be stopped. As a result the position of the electronic book in Lithuania is anything but secure, even though people are talking and thinking about it more and more, but a specific strategy and decisive action to solve these problems are so far not on the horizon.
It is considered good form to answer the question raised at the start of an article at its conclusion. Here the question was – what has changed: prices, demand, relationship to books. Publishers have changed as well, so have readers, the whole situation is different. There are more and more questions – but everyone involved in the book retail trade will have to find their own answers.
Jurgita Ludavičienė, Lithuania
Translation: Jo Beckett
Translation: Jo Beckett