Book trade in Ukraine: the next few years
The Fund for Central and East European Book Projects (CEEBP) in Amsterdam and the International Renaissance Foundation (IRF) in Kyiv have in the past three years made an effort to improve the infrastructure of the book trade in the Ukraine. Now that this project is coming to its final stage it is worthwhile to publicly sum up the achievements and, more importantly, to present a roadmap for the years ahead.
The efforts to enhance the general professionalism in the Ukrainian book trade have already resulted in the establishment of regional distribution centres, in a book trade portal (http://uabooks.info), in a Books-in-Print database, and in the regular collecting of book market statistics. Undoubtedly the numerous seminars and consultations for both publishers and booksellers have contributed to an improved performance in practical terms.
There are clear signs that the quality of published books has improved. More bookstores are becoming more customer-friendly and new well-equipped bookstores are opening their doors in various cities. Several foreign companies obviously find the Ukraine an interesting book market and are prepared to invest.
The ultimate goal, a professional country-wide functioning Ukrainian book trade, has perhaps come within reach. This would be very much to the advantage of not only those actively dedicated to the production and sale of books, but of course also to the advantage of authors, translators, the media, libraries, individual book buyers and the reading public.
What is most needed in order to achieve further improvements is a sense of urgency. The world of books is a dynamic one and to face the consequences of internet bookselling, the electronic book, publishing on demand and other elements of the digital revolution, a continued effort is required. A rapid modernization of traditional bookselling should in fact have preceded these developments: bookstores should provide their individual added value through a clear profile and unique atmosphere of their store, activities, and better customer service. A growth of the number of outlets is in fact necessary to get the increasing book production successfully to the reading public; the ratio for Kyiv is only one bookstore for every 100.000 inhabitants (compared to 11.000 in The Netherlands).
The responsibility for better bookselling is not limited to booksellers alone. The second requirement for improvements of the book market is a sense of co-operation. It is in the interest of all players in the field to recognize that the more sophisticated book markets in the world have successfully achieved progress by joint action.
While the role of government is not unimportant (in particular concerning the rule of law, and fostering education and libraries), publishers and booksellers should be aware of the opportunities they themselves have to improve the accessibility of books by doing things together. Mention should be made here of examples of action required, cited already during the seminars:
- booksellers should co-operate by introducing book gift coupons on national scale, so that the book can compete effectively in the gift market
- publishers and booksellers (eventually perhaps also libraries) should promote reading and the book in general promotion campaigns, such as a Book Week and a Children’s Book Week
- the Books in Print database should be used in an informative portal for the public
- professional training of publishers and booksellers should be jointly organized and provided also online.
When the interdependence of the book trade partners thus becomes apparent, a side effect is likely to be that sound trade practices will be introduced or re-defined. To give just a small example, publishers will undoubtedly begin to realize that it is in the interest of the book trade as a whole, as well as in their own individual interest that they help booksellers by announcing exact publication dates of their new titles. Another conclusion would be that it is somewhat crazy that they sell their books at the same price to distributors, booksellers, and consumers alike. In other words: for a publisher, channel management is a logical requirement. Booksellers, on the other hand, should improve their payment habits. Hopefully, a set of general business practices will evolve from this process.
Worldwide there is a consensus that there are economic and cultural aspects to the book. In Great Britain the expression reads "books are different" and in the Ukraine the book is recognized by many as a "spiritual product". However, the status of the book could be further enhanced. This is an area where a supportive role of government can be expected: the constant stress on the importance of books in a society requires limited funding but makes any money put into financing libraries (at present obviously far too little!) more effective!
It is in this context that the responsibility of the media in the Ukraine should also be emphasized. The amount of attention given to books, in the form of reviews, interviews with authors, news about the book trade, is not at all satisfactory if compared with other countries. The establishment of a well-organized national literary prize as well as the joint book promotion suggested before might create additional media attention.
Since the influence of the government on the rents of business premises has considerably diminished, one cannot expect the local and national authorities to solve a major problem faced in particular by booksellers: the high rents. In the interest of a diversified retail book trade infrastructure, however, government can help convince those active in the field of real estate that bookstores are an interesting ingredient of attractive shopping areas. This instead of opening state owned bookshops; government should not be a player in the book trade.
One important suggestion to be made for the short term to improve the development of the book industry is the introduction of retail price maintenance. In many countries of Western Europe, this measure has helped enormously to achieve a wide availability of a broad range of book titles, and the EU has allowed national laws to create what is known as the "fixed book price".
While price competition between publishers is left untouched, a level playing field results for retailers. It means cross-financing of titles because there is no fear of discounting of bestsellers. Retail price maintenance is generally considered to be an alternative for government subsidies aimed at improving the variety of books that are available on the market. Where full competition on the book market is allowed, this is only beneficial to those consumers who buy merely bestsellers; the average book price has a tendency to go up and the number of booksellers goes down.
It appears that a great many people in the book trade now view this option as a favourable development. The discussion on this topic, inside and outside the book trade, should get further shape and should arrive at a conclusion before long.