Between pandemic and language law. What happens to book sales in Ukraine?

Author : Anna Peshkova

Source : 112 Ukraine

Every second book n publishing houses and stores should be in Ukrainian. The norm of the law "On ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language" came into force. Officials assure that there will be no drop in sales. But the forecasts are disappointing, as are the data of the Ukrainian Institute of Books on the current situation with book publishing.
19:03, 28 July 2021

While in quarantine worldwide book sales have grown by 30%, in our country the figure has decreased by 50%. If Ukrainians bought literature, it was through pirated online, not supporting Ukrainian publishing houses and bookstores with a pretty penny.

We will tell you why Ukrainians began to buy fewer books and how this affects publishers.

Decline in circulation and losses of publishers

Let's start with the fact that there is no general statistics on real book sales in Ukraine - no one keeps such records. There are data only for published editions. But printing a book doesn't mean selling it. So all the data is based on expert surveys and on the statements of publishers.

According to a study by the Ukrainian Institute of Books, the share of Ukrainians who bought at least one book a year dropped from 40% to 34% in 2020. In general, in the first half of 2020, receipts from book sales were two times less than in the same period of 2019.

Publishers are extremely cautious in their comments on the drop in sales, fearing image losses. In Bukva, in particular, they announced a drop in sales in physical stores in 2020 by 21% (although the chain began the year with an increase of almost 12%).

Against the background of this situation, many publishers have launched their own online stores.

"The editorial office has reorganized the work to be remote. When quarantine measures are weakened, we meet in the office several times a week if necessary. With the decrease in wholesale sales associated with the closure of large stores, the volume of online sales has also increased. Therefore, the attention of the publisher moved to the development of an online store ", emphasizes Svшtlana Krupchinska, editor-in-chief of the publishing house Ridna Mova.

Online sales of the largest online store in Ukraine Yakaboo grew by 30%. April 2020 turned out to be twice as profitable as April 2019. At the publishing house Folio Internet sales by the end of the year also almost doubled. Yes, and Nash format speaks of payback due to online. However, unofficially, representatives of the sphere report that in some publishers the drop in total sales was 50%. So online sales didn’t save many publishing houses.

The situation was critical, because, according to the Association of Book Publishers, about 90% of publishers sent books to print on credit to printing companies in the hope of later covering the loan through sales.

In general, the planned release of many books was postponed to the "quarantine" year: 30% fewer books were published than in 2019 (by titles). This assessment is given by the Association of Book Publishers and the Book Chamber of Ukraine, and also confirmed by the publishing houses KSD, KMBooks, Force Ukraine. And the publishing center Academy says that it has not published a fifth part of the literature.

If we talk not about the titles of books, but about the circulation, then the number of published copies has decreased even more significantly. If, as of the beginning of autumn, the press sank three times, then after the end of severe restrictions, it began to resume. At the end of the year, the circulation decreased 2.3 times (to 26.9 million copies, according to the Book Chamber).

That is, the publishers decided to save money, rather, at the expense of volumes, but not at the expense of diversity.

The good news is that there was still no massive shutdown of publishers. Judging by the corresponding register, in February this year, compared with the pre-quarantine January, there were 157 more business entities.

However, the consequences are still significant, and not only for the book publishing industry. In the EU, it is generally accepted that the release of less than 2.5 books per person per year leads to cultural degradation of the population. In Ukraine, during the pandemic, this figure dropped to 0.8.

In addition, many bookstores have already closed their physical outlets. The scale of the problem can only be guessed at, since the State Statistics Service has stopped tracking the number of bookstores. But reports of office closings can be easily found on the websites of small, highly specialized stores. In particular, the closure of the physical point was confirmed to us in Arche, a store that specializes in literature on philosophy, psychology, history, culture, and political science.

"Sales decreased significantly, both online and offline. Because of this, we were forced to close the office. In addition, the tax authorities carried out inspections of small businesses during the quarantine, and many were fined," says a bookstore representative.

One way or another, experts say that it will take three to four years to restore the book sector to its previous level.

Why Ukrainians did not support publishing houses

A paradoxical situation is developing. Inhabitants of most countries of the world, in which severe restrictions were also introduced, began to read more in quarantine, on the contrary. In particular, in England, whose bookstores also suffered from quarantine restrictions, the number of books sold, on the contrary, increased by almost a third.

Ukrainian publishers believe that the main reason for the drop in sales is coronavirus restrictions on bookstores and the cancellation of literary exhibitions and festivals. That is, the reduction of sites for the sale of books and advertising of authors. We are talking about two major book events for which the Ukrainian book market actually works: the Knyzhkovyi Arsenal and the Forum of Publishers in Lviv. Although the forum was held online, it is a priori difficult to achieve previous sales in this format.

In Europe, literary events were also canceled due to the pandemic, but this did not significantly affect their publishing houses, since their capitalization is much higher than in Ukraine.

Another reason for the decline in sales, which publishers cite, is the lack of such a culture of book consumption in Ukraine as in Europe or America. First, Ukrainians in general read less and less. Over the past seven years, the number of citizens who read at least one book a year, according to Research & Branding Group, has decreased by at least 7%. Secondly, many citizens simply do not have the habit of buying books.

The fact is that 53% of those who read at least one book in the last year did not purchase a single book in 2020. That is, more than half of the readers do not financially support the sphere.

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Interestingly, the same 53%, according to, read books in electronic form. And, as you might guess, Ukrainians do not have the habit of buying such books. According to PEC data, in 2020, only 2% bought e-books, and 1% bought audiobooks. In particular, Nash format says about 10 thousand conscientious buyers of e-books among their audience. It turns out that most of the e-book market remains in the shadows.

At the Ukrainian Institute of Books, sales failures are also linked to a drop in solvency during the pandemic. However, in the neighboring Russian Federation, where the culture of purchasing e-books is not much more developed than in Ukraine, and the solvency has sagged no less, the situation is radically different. Book sales have only grown - although not by 30%, like the British, but by 20%.

Igor Stepurin, director of the Mystestvo publishing house, connects the decline in sales with the licensing of the import of literature from Russia. According to him, Ukrainians began to read less due to a significant reduction in the supply of Russian-language literature on the market.

Russian-language VS Ukrainian-language book

The head of the licensing procedure and control over the distribution of publishing products of the State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company once said that “absolutely every Russian book, to a greater or lesser extent, is the bearer of the ideology of the Russian world. Book products from the Russian Federation can be imported into Ukraine only subject to a special permit or a maximum of 10 copies in hand luggage.

Since then, the number of legally imported Russian books, according to Dilova Stolytsia estimates, has decreased by about 20 times. Many Russian publishing houses were forced to open their offices in Ukraine in order not to lose the market.

The restrictions really contributed to Ukrainian book publishing. Its presence in the market, according to the estimates of representatives of the sphere, has approximately tripled since 2014: from 10-25% to 50-75. It is not surprising that in the "coronavirus" year, according to the Institute of Books, for the first time in the history of independent Ukraine, legal sales of Ukrainian-language literature exceeded sales of literature in Russian.

However, the specialized literature on natural sciences, engineering and technology has virtually disappeared. And, which is especially felt during a pandemic, literature on medicine, biochemistry, virology. The production of such books is considered unprofitable due to the high cost of production and low demand. Previously, the demand for such literature was covered by Russian publishing houses.

And, of course, the supply of Russian-language books on the market has decreased. In 2020, its volumes decreased to 57% of the 2019 level. At the same time, the release of the Ukrainian-language book amounted to 72% of the level of the pre-quarantine year.

At the same time, the demand for the book has not gone anywhere. Representatives of publishing houses openly confirm that it is much higher for Russian-language literature. In particular, the director of the Knygarnya Ye network, Andriy Domransky, justified the sale of Russian-language books by the fact that the Ukrainian audience was more interested in literature in Russian. And the poll of the Razumkov Center showed that the share of fans of the Russian-language book was higher.

This is due to the fact that statistically most of the readers are among the 35+ age group. And, accordingly, most of its representatives grew up in Russian-language literature. For the same reasons, literature for children and adolescents and applied literature are most popular in the Ukrainian language.

As a result, Ukrainians increasingly began to turn to book markets such as Petrovka for highly specialized and Russian-language literature. According to the estimates of the Association of Book Publishers, the "shadow" sale of books is about 35-40% of the total market. In such conditions, the Ukrainian budget loses, because it does not receive income taxes from the sale of counterfeit books, and also receives significantly less VAT from imported books.

It cannot be ruled out that the decline in book sales we are witnessing is not at all, and the current decline in legal sales is just a symptom of a Ukrainian going into counterfeiting. Which, in fact, due to its low cost, also covers the problem of low effective demand.

The future of Ukrainian books

As practice has shown, the mere oppression of books by Russian publishing houses was not enough for a full-fledged renewal of the sphere. According to Dilova Stolytsia estimates, a sharp decline in domestic supply was in 2014-2015. It was never replenished by imports and has not been compensated so far: Ukrainian book publishing had never reached the volume of 2013 before the pandemic.

Publishers talk about low support from the state in a pandemic. In Russia, during quarantine, books were generally included in the list of essential goods so that bookstores could continue to work under quarantine conditions. In Ukraine, which market is eight times smaller, such support was not provided, and this is taking into account the fact that the requirement for the number of Ukrainian-language books negatively affects the earnings of publishers.

While world publishers received loans of 2-3% to restore production during strict quarantine restrictions, in Ukraine only a few publishers could count on loans under the "5-7-9%" program, which were able to save most of the state. At the same time, polls of publishers showed that they sent an average of 59% of employees on unpaid leave.

Moreover, the government significantly cut funding for the book industry in 2020. We managed to save only 2/3 of the funds that were previously promised to be allocated to the Ukrainian Institute of Books. And the Book Chamber notes that the volume of payments for 2021 will not even be enough to pay salaries.

Until now, the state does not have a development strategy for the sphere of book publishing - it is planned to form it only within the next two years. As well as starting training programs for authors, translators, publishers, conducting research on the publishing market.

But, of course, it's not just about government support. The market needs healthy competition: it is both prompt high-quality translation of bestsellers and the creation of a high-quality author's product.

“You can't blame all the problems of the market on a Russian book. You need to create attractive conditions for the reader to choose a book from a Ukrainian publishing house,” Yulia Orlova, general director of Vivat, commented to one of the media.

If approaches do not change, it is not surprising if in the future there will be fewer and fewer Ukrainians who legally read, and the sales of publishers will fall even more.

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