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‘We won’t pull any books — until our own spines are horizontal’ How the war and the new anti-LGBTQ+ censorship laws have plunged Russian publishers and booksellers into crisis

Source: Meduza

The St. Petersburg-based Podpisnye Izdaniya (“Subscriber Editions”) bookstore is one of the best booksellers in Russia and a favorite destination for the city’s book lovers. Its co-founder, Mikhail Ivanov, has spoken with the independent media project Bumaga about the state of the Russian publishing industry, currently trapped between the vague censorship requirements of the new Russian anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and the growing list of banned authors designated as “foreign agents.” Ivanov has described a beleaguered and chaotic scene, where publishers are losing international contracts, booksellers are forced to pull bestselling books from their shelves, and writers are deprived of opportunities to publish their work in Russia. Meduza relates the bookseller’s reflections on what’s happening to the Russian book industry, in our own free and concise translation.

‘Liberal’ books and plastic wrap

The new censorship law against so-called LGBTQ+ “propaganda” is full of prohibitions, but doesn’t have any clear criteria for what’s permissible and what should be censored. Besides, we’re talking about tens of thousands of new titles — and the complete absence of any clarity about who is going to inspect them all for compliance with the law. It’s not all fiction, either: we also have non-fiction and scientific books — all of them vulnerable to the possibility that someone, somewhere, might take issue with a random word between the covers.

In this beleaguered book market, the authorities expect the publishers themselves to enforce the law by censoring their own output. Not to mention the absurd requirements like plastic packaging for any book that has some “adult” word in it. One appearance of the word “cock,” and the book is sealed in plastic. Are we being serious? Do we really imagine that a 16-year-old will not find a way to buy that book with a “cock” in it? He can buy alcohol and cigarettes — surely, he’ll buy that book, too. Back in the USSR, people also managed to find jeans to wear and bubble gum to chew.

We don’t participate in censorship at our bookstore. With our staff of 100 booksellers, each one with a personal opinion, you wouldn’t get very far with pulling an author like Boris Akunin, or Leonid Parfenov, or Lyudmila Ulitskaya, or Katya Gordeeva. It’s laughable to even think of it. We won’t pull any books — until our own spines are horizontal.

Periodically, we have visitors who tell us, “Look, all you have here are these liberal books.” Or they say, “your books are all about the war,” “your books are all about X.” This is just like beauty: all in the eye of the beholder. If this is what you notice, this is what you’ll see. And what you see will only be one percent of our 40,000 titles on all kinds of subjects, from Soviet furniture to Medieval herbaria.

If a book was written by a qualified, award-winning author, we’re going to sell it, regardless of her nationality, or his political views. Some customers might mistake our insistence on quality for censorship, and the difference can be hard to explain. Our internal policy is the policy of balance: we want to sell the best books possible, to the widest possible readership. We promote books — so that people would buy them and read them, since it’ll help other people publish more of them.

No more daring projects

Among our recently reissued books was Federico Fellini’s Making a Film. We spent a lot of time trying to find the Russian translator’s relatives who might have the rights to her translation, believed to be the best in existence. We secured the rights, and published our edition.

We also began to work with American prose, and with more ambitious prose in general. We published Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, and it did very well, with good reviews and good sales. This made us feel that we had found the sweet spot, and brought something truly new and unique to our book market.

Quite soon, we’ll be releasing a new interpretation of Joseph Brodsky’s “Tugboat Ballad.” The verse is still the same, of course, but our illustrator Kasia Denisevich brought it to life in a completely new way.

Speaking of rights, Americans and Italians haven’t given us any problems here. Our problems are with the Brits, who are Ukraine’s main allies — while London is the greatest art editions hub in Europe. This is why we now have such a problem with art books. Some authors, too, have refused to work with Russians.

Given the costs of printing and the paper shortages, we cannot afford any more risk-taking. Publishers will now have to be maximally scrupulous in judging a book’s prospects. This means that we won’t have any more daring projects — books that a publisher might print at one’s own risk, hoping that they might take off and add flourish to a predictable book market, as it happened sometimes, in the past.

Keeping the readers close to the writers

I feel responsible for my staff, who are all crestfallen, to say the least. I think of them all as my children — in the sense that I want them all to be alright, the way a parent does. Before you can take care of customers, take care of your staff.

From our very first day, we positioned ourselves as a little island of safety amidst the drama of Liteyny Prospect, studded with bordellos, with the Mariinsky Hospital next door to ourselves. We wanted people to come into our bookstore — and feel good, forgetting all about what they left outside.

During the pandemic, we were very active on social networks, and our message to the community was this: “Friends, books are still around. You’re still around, and we’re still around. Let’s try to do something together, to go on living.” If this helped one or two people, I think it was all worth the trouble.

Our bookstore is arranged in such a way that you could easily spend a few hours and only see a small portion of what’s in stock. We still have customers who need to be told that we have a second floor. People come in to find some distraction from what’s happening and from their problems. I think it’s a good thing, and this is what we try to offer.

Recently, we opened up a book club. We had so many applications that we closed the registration five minutes after we opened it. When we hosted a “birthday” picnic in the Italian Garden behind our building, we had 7,000 visitors. We offer a creative writing course for teens, where 8–10 kids gather at the store and write together.

There are things, both in the book market and in the book world at large, that take time to come to fruition. Our book market is fairly stagnant to begin with: people talk about “implementing” some “state program for fostering readership” — but readership doesn’t grow from the top down. No one knows this better than booksellers and publishers do. But to reach people who may not yet know that they love books, booksellers and publishers need resources. They need freedom — and money.

We’re always trying to worry less, and to come up with new things to do together. This is how we find some peace of mind. If our bookstore is a success, it’s because the people who work here night and day are very deeply committed.

‘Our core customers had to leave’

Shipping books abroad became difficult as far back as the pandemic. The postal service wasn’t working; warehouses were closing. It used to be a very good income source, since shipping becomes more cost-effective in bulk, so people would order lots of things at once. Ukraine has a lot of intellectual non-fiction fans, who would read in Russian what hadn’t been published in Ukrainian. But around the same time as the pandemic, Ukraine passed a law to limit Russian book imports.

When we realized that 90 percent of our packages had been lost in transit or returned to us, we stopped offering international shipping. If someone asks us to send something abroad, we try to find a way, on a case-by-case basis. Payments from the West are also problematic. All in all, we now only work with Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, since they are serviced by the SDEK courier service and the Russian Post.

Many of our regular customers have left Russia. Now they tag us in photos from other bookstores. We sense that our core customers had to leave — and this is a tragedy for us all.

Like any retailer, we have our own analytics. So, if look at the 2022 bestsellers, people are interested in two things. They’re saying, “Help me understand what is happening.” And also: “Help me forget about it all.” They pick up novels — great big timeless novels. Or else, they look for answers.

When people look for information, they turn to books as a last resort, when they cannot what they’re looking for anywhere else. Books reassure people: information in a book is backed by the reputations of the author, the publisher, and the editors. A reader can glance at these credentials and decide whether to trust what’s between the covers.

But our daily visitor numbers are down by 15 percent. Considering the way the prices have crept up with the new taxes we’re paying, this is concerning. In our ten years in existence, we always saw growth and more growth. Until September, demand seemed fine, and sales were okay. But in October and November, our profits zeroed out. Some customers have left, others are saving their money — knowing that they will need that money very soon, and not for books.

Debate around the new anti-LGBTQ+ law

'It's not propaganda to condemn this law' United Russia deputy uses new anti-LGBTQ law to denounce openly gay St. Petersburg politician

Debate around the new anti-LGBTQ+ law

'It's not propaganda to condemn this law' United Russia deputy uses new anti-LGBTQ law to denounce openly gay St. Petersburg politician

Translated by Anna Razumnaya.

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