Publishers interviewed in the article:
Tomáš Reichel - publishing house Host
Martin Reiner - publishing house Druhé město
Petr Štengl - publishing house Petr Štengl
Filip Tomáš - publishing house Akropolis
David Vichnar - publishing house Equus Press
When people think of the Czech Republic (referred to here as CZ), some of them might not at once associate it with a well-developed reading culture and publishing market, a stereotype likely to plague many of the post-communist countries. However just a quick browse on the internet shows that you can find Czech libraries among the world leaders, the Clementinum Library in Prague rated as first among many “top 10” lists of most beautiful libraries in the world. The CZ in fact is one of the most-developed book markets, regarding the culture of reading, the structure of the readers as well as library accessibility. To be able to understand the situation in the CZ, I will paint a more general picture first about reading culture and the book publishing market. This also includes first-hand experience, provided by Czech and international publishers in CZ.
A good reading situation on the one hand, and low public funding on the other
Regarding reading, the Czechs place 6th, with an average reading time of 7.4 hours per week, according to the World Culture Score Index, placing best among the EU countries and topping the global average by almost a whole hour. What’s more, the CZ also boasts the highest ratio of public libraries per inhabitants in the world – 5 libraries for every 10,000 inhabitants (the EU average is around 1.3 libraries per 10,000 inhabitants). Nevertheless, a recurring theme in the book market is its underfunded-ness, even though the 50,000 libraries loan up to 60 million books each year, the CZ only spends 15 euro per inhabitant. Regardless of readers, the publishing situation is, on the other hand, generally speaking faced with a low level of government funding, even lowering every year. Considering that, how do publishers themselves view the current situation, when it comes to public spending, the role of libraries and so on?
Filip Tomáš, from Prague’s publishing house Akropolis, is “not sure if the situation could be called a developed book market, because it isn’t good. Around 170 bookshops closed during the last years, especially outside bigger cities, online bookshops wage a huge price war, being furthered by the unfixed price of books during the first couple months after publication. On the other hand, I am also not a big fan of regulating the market. However, I have to say I am personally very thankful because, through government subsidies, we were able to complete several projects, like the Collected Work of Jaroslav Seifert.” As for the role of libraries, he says that “the acquisition of books [from the libraries] should be more predictable and not limited to books published during the last year of acquisition.” He explains that sometimes the libraries will order 5-10 copies, even though his publishing house could offer even more books, and sometimes they don’t even have enough books, because they are surprised by their order.
The viewpoint that subsidies for books are rather limited and decreasing is also shared by David Vichnar, who runs the Prague-based English publishing house, Equus Press, which is university-founded and also aimed at the international book market. He tells an anecdote from the editor of the largest Czech publishing company of fiction in translation, Argo Press, where “they brand themselves as a leading publisher of ‘quality’ fiction, yet they also publish Dan Brown translations: their rationale being that sales from one Dan Brown title will pay for 10 quality titles.”
While some publishers display some negativity about the funding, others are more optimistic. This goes for Tomáš Reichel from Brno’s Host, and as well for Martin Reiner from Brno’s Druhé město, who claims: “After twenty-five years in business, I would say things go pretty well. Any business which is depending on direct sales is closely connected with the general economic situation in the particular country; now we doubtless have the heydays in the CZ.” What is more, Reiner also tells us that change for the nonprofit publishers of literature in the CZ came when “the distribution company Kosmas made use of the collapse of its biggest competitor, and became the hegemonic leader of the market,” which in turn helped stabilize specific and important branches of their business. Even though the publishers don’t always share the same opinion on the situation of the funding, all seem to be reserved, when it comes to the role of the government. Regarding state subsidy, Reiner is not applying for it, as he still remembers previous state interventions into culture from the socialistic “order,” and that is why the state for him still means power, or as he continues, “most of the ways it ‘helps’ we can in fact call clientele-ism, or more substantial tying up with the system, or moralizing in a less conspicuous form...” Yet, on the other hand, he claims that the state could help “in ‘softer’ ways, for instance in the legislation.” He exemplifies that by saying that “the state shouldn’t bow to the interest of the National Library in getting a ‘legal deposit’ of all books in electronic version to use freely all around the country.” Reichel also has a suggestion, when it comes to alternatives in how the government could use its power: “I think that mainly support to small local libraries, which also serve as social centers, support to young authors, to buying books by libraries, and to literary life should be much greater, with respect to development of education.” Petr Štengl, from Prague’s publishing house Petr Štengl, takes the middle ground, as he retains faith in the reader and believes that “people will read as long as reading provides pleasure. There have never been too many people interested in ‘artistic’ fiction, because reading is a bit of a challenge.” This goes hand in hand with the fact that he prefers to focus on smaller funds, as the procedure of applying for government funds is too complicated and tedious. He rather focuses on literature and leaves changing the system to the experts.
A lot of published titles but less book sales
A similar dissymmetry as in funding can be seen in the publishing market, where even though almost 20,000 titles are published each year (around 30% of which is fiction), the estimated book sales revenue however only comes to around 310 million euro (30 times less than in Germany, even though they publish around 80,000 books per year). Regarding the number of titles released each year, the CZ is leading in the European market, so how can we then explain the decrease in book purchases per year, and how, in such a market, does one go about to keep up the fine line between quality and quantity?
Some, like Reichel, see the overproduction of titles as a fact since “nobody can order publishers to publish fewer books.” With this also goes what he calls the greatest challenge of publishing, “the very preservation of the share of books in cultural awareness and the entertainment industry. The ratio between quality and quantity is an issue of marketing strategy of each publisher, and of the books people buy.”
Reiner sees overproduction as a problem of principle: “Most of the time, my publishing houses stood pretty high in the imaginary hierarchy of the publishers. I am going to continue doing it ‘my way,’ regardless of rather slight changes and shifts in the Czech book market. Ten years ago, I substantially reduced the number of released books. Nevertheless, the reasons for doing it were strictly personal.” Štengl, coming from a smaller publishing house, explains that they are a “low-budget publishing company and our profits cover strictly costs of getting books out.” To this, he adds an interesting viewpoint: to him, his publishing activity isn’t the main source of income. This means they don’t even need to worry about quantity and “quality, we hope, comes with the fact that we are absolutely independent and choose what we publish, with no regard for gain (most of the time it ends up being loss).”
Vichnar and Tomáš both see hyper-production shifting focus onto the electronic book market. While the latter believes hyper-production changes the situation in a more drastic way, by “letting titles in only in e-shops, because there is no way to store all the titles in traditional bookshops.” Vichnar says print-on-demand and the electronic book market are an efficient way to align with overproduction: “It doesn’t really make sense, in a world which can publish re-editions quite easily and cheaply, as well as keep a book ‘in print’ and available in the electronic edition.”
Is electronic publishing a possible solution?
Regarding the e-book market, the volume of titles is still quite small, making up around 1% of all published titles. As Reichel points out: “Electronic books have not obtained such a market share in the CZ as they have, for instance, in the USA.” For him, this doesn’t pose a problem, since his publishing house publishes both electronic and paper books. What is more important for him is that good stories and books find their readers, since the “space for literature in traditional media is diminished, and such a decrease affects traditional media, as well.” He proposes that the problem be overcome with a greater activity on social media, as an effort to strengthen the bond with readers. Reiner says: “Five, six years ago, when the wave finally reached the Czech coast, there were many concerns about e-books, of course. Is it going to cannibalize the traditional book market to death? [However] the e-books scene is flourishing. During the first year of our collaboration with one of the pioneers in the branch, we had collected less than 50,000 CZK. Then more (and stronger) players appeared on the scene, and nowadays we earn approximately half a million CZK annually.”
Some publishers, such as Vichnar, offer all their titles in e-book format, while others tend to be more reserved. Tomáš, for example, says: “I am not against e-books and do not see them concurring with traditional books. The main question, however, if we have time and willingness to read them, stays above this – a lot of electronic content is poorly edited and even often isn’t edited at all…”
However, there is no fear that e-books would overtake the print market, if we’re to believe Štengl. Not only has paper been around for a lot longer than the Internet, but the quality of content posted there is often questionable. For himself, the situation is shown in an equilibrium, where “some publications are available both online and on paper. It will probably stay that way and electronic books and the printed ones will coexist in peace.”
Periphery versus centralization of culture in the CZ
As would be expected, the book market and its publishing situation in the CZ is greatly concentrated on the capital, with Prague publishing four times as many titles as Brno, the second largest city, with the market as a whole being marked by a vast undercapitalization and fragmentation – the five largest publishers only make up 13% of the published titles. While Tomáš thinks the situation is similar as in other countries, where a lot of “niche” publishing houses are established and bigger publishers are naturally more connected to bigger distributors and funding, Reichel on the other hand proposes that the market today is relatively unconsolidated. In his opinion, the access to state support “is not influenced by whether you are small or large or Prague-based or from a small town; the point is whether you publish high quality books.” He continues: “Surely, large publishers with significant market power may be more noticeable in bookshops, but several new and very successful publishers were established quite recently.” This shows that the Czech book market is sufficiently competitive. As for receiving financial funds, Reiner also agrees that there is practically no difference between the size of publishing companies; “What matters is a good reputation and the particular title you are asking money for. And yes, ‘heterogeneity of publishing space’ enables greater plurality, and as a result, it is a good thing.” He adds that he is talking about the “real” publishers and not “factories” – publishing monsters like Albatros, Knižní klub and others. Štengl deepens this conviction by adding that “large publishing houses have a lot more means at their disposal than the small noncommercial ones. Big publishers focus on readers of mainstream commercial literature, as this group of consumers is the largest and is willing to spend money on their books.” This is reflected in all facets of the bigger publishers’ production, however, he still sees that both small and big publishers can coexist: “Big houses can afford much larger editions, better quality of design and can also print a lot more copies. That does not mean large and small publishers cannot coexist side by side. The small ones being no threat.”
Regarding the divide between the capital and peripheries of the publishing market, Reiner says that: “Prague is a big capital of a small country. Quite often, it’s called “the only city” in the CZ and mostly it’s not understood as a joke. Yet Brno has always been considered a traditional cultural bastion and even nowadays you can see an array of top publishing houses seating here.” Vichnar agrees: “The capital is highly centralized. That said, there’s a lively tradition in the CZ of major literary magazines running their “book series” affiliated with the magazines, which helps diversity.”
Conclusion and possible changes in the future
We’ve already seen that the Czech book market is defined by a very well-developed reading culture. Combining this with the fact that the CZ has a vibrant literary scene that might make some larger countries appear a little backward, how do the individual publishers try to stick out of the crowd and appeal to potential buyers? And how do they see possible future changes in the system to make it better?
Vichnar sees some possible changes toward a better system in the state funding also for international publishing houses, which are more and more common in the CZ today (Twisted Book Press, Equus, Litteraria…) since this would make the publishing situation even more heterogeneous. Regarding the fact that Prague with its “major literary tradition, in the course of the 20th century” was multilingual, for him it’s a shame if the system is acting “language-based and is parochially nationalist” because in this “splendid isolation,” a small language will not be able to survive “the trends in the dominant languages/traditions.” Others see the possible future trends in keeping the quality of nonprofit organizations. Tomáš, for example, points out that “small festivals and book fairs like Tabook in Tábor or Knihex in Prague, I really like, for meeting other publishers, their authors and to hear their readings and discussions.” Small organizations can play a role in an otherwise bigger system. Štengl also comes to a similar conclusion, as he believes in sticking to quality when publishing.
There are some who wouldn’t change the system, for example Reiner, who says “Truly, I am not contemplating the changes, not even in general. My publishing business is in blossom. I am doing bloody well.” For him and his publishing work, a flawless system doesn’t exist. What is important is the author who, in his words, “is the most important ‘item’ in this business. I tried to behave and work according to this creed. It seems it works.” Reichel agrees with him, and says that he “doesn’t think that the book market needs any system changes” since the system works rather well, even though some things could still be improved, for example “communication with the stores and legislature” where the problem usually lies in the “business environment, the high VAT rate applied to the books or increasing bureaucratic burden.”
We can see that the Czech publishing market and their reading culture can be placed at the top, not only in Europe, but also in the world, as attested by not only the statistical data, but also publishers’ own words—a truly remarkable feat, when one takes into account the size of the country. It would be delusional not to expect to find some flaws, as they exist in every system, especially when it comes to money and power distribution, but it is in part also because these flaws exist that such a vibrant and diverse situation is possible in the CZ, full of well-established publishers, as well as smaller, nonprofit ones. Only together they can truly showcase the literary happening today, from the periphery to the center, from the mainstream production to the alternative free scene, as well as in its plethora of languages. Maybe this is why someone taking public transport in the CZ can still see people glued to their books, rather than their mobiles and tablets, as one can see in most other countries…