On 23 May 2019, the Federation of European Publishers, in cooperation with the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers and the Moravian Library, organised an Aldus event “Focus on the Czech Book Market”, as part of the FEP General Assembly in Brno.
Tomáš Kubíček, Director of the Moravian Library, welcomed the participants and introduced the Library, the second largest in the country, highlighting its role in presenting Czech authors at fairs and other events in recent years, also through contacts with several publisher associations. Mr Kubíček explained that the Czech Republic had the densest network of public libraries in Europe – with 6,000 branches – and said that the libraries were channels for discussions on literature and for the promotion of reading, as well as stakeholders in the debate on publishing and the related policies.
Martin Vopěnka, Director of the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers, made a presentation on the Czech book market from a historical perspective: ‘From socialist planning and censorship through capitalism to contemporary book market or 30 years of free publishing in Czech Republic’. Mr Vopěnka first provided some data on the Czech market: the current value of the Czech book market is about 310 million euro; about 15,000 titles are released per year, out of which some 35% are translations. After many years of stagnation, the market has started growing modestly in the last years. VAT on printed books at first increased from 5 to 10, 11, and finally 15%, but afterwards the association successfully campaigned to have it reduced to 10%, and that is the state as of today. The parliament is currently discussing a proposal for a law which would reduce VAT on ebooks and audiobooks from 21 to 10%.
Compared to mature markets in Western European countries, the Czech market remains relatively diversified, even though concentration became significantly more prominent in the past few years. The market share of the five largest publishing houses is not more than about 20%. On the other hand, the share of the main retail chains will nowadays be close to about 50%. The field is still characterised by above-standard personal relations – commented Mr Vopěnka – which differentiates it from other business areas. However, only slowly is the association managing to restore the belief that a professional organisation is justified, with scepticism being prevalent especially among smaller entities. On the other hand, large companies are aware of the justification for the existence of the association and see measurable results of its activities.
Mr Vopěnka recounted then how the present situation arose from its past roots. When the word “normalisation” is used in the context of literature, a word prominently referencing to the seventies and eighties when the Czech Republic wasn’t a democratic country, the first thing that comes to mind is censorship. However, one thing that had an even more devastating impact was the planned economy, which completely ignored market laws. Economic and productive plans were made in advance. For instance, the plan would say that a certain book would have a print run of 10,000 copies – even if there was demand for 100,000 books (back then, the number of different titles published was small and the number of copies printed was large). On the other hand, the plan gave ideological titles such as Lenin’s Collected Works a print run of 200,000 copies, even though there was no demand for those. These books were then placed in all libraries, schools and state companies.
Planning also affected printing houses. A whole year in advance, it was already determined how much a printing house would print and how much paper it would use. A successful printing house which could manage to print many more books and thus require more paper, would have a lot of problems. The most economically advantageous approach in this system was to follow the plan and perhaps slightly exceed it.
Investment resources were also scarce and hard to come by. It often depended on the relationship between a company director and the communist government, and how politically engaged the director was. The distribution of books was secured by a state company called “Book Wholesale”, but it was all basically only virtual trading, since everything was determined in advance. While an ordering system did exist for bookshops, most titles were delivered based on the plan anyway.
With the end of the communist regime, free entrepreneurship became possible in 1990. However, state companies still existed at that time. As censorship was abolished, previously forbidden titles were published in massive numbers; however, the capacity of the printing houses was not enough to cover the demand. In that first phase, the market had three types of entities: the original state publishing houses, publishing houses founded by people from the field, and finally people who founded a publishing company without any prior knowledge – people like Mr Vopěnka, who told the story of his pioneer years as a publisher.
He recalled that, at the beginning, the biggest problem was finding a way to print the books: he had no contacts at the printing houses. Mr Vopěnka used to store the books in his small apartment, privately. When a truck arrived, he completely unloaded it on his own. After that, he delivered the books in his backpack, used a rented van, or had the booksellers come and pick them up on their own. Clients had to pay in cash, because there was virtually no legislature in the early years and fraud was rampant. He didn’t even have a phone – the socialist infrastructure was not even up to that task. He had to go to a phonebooth with a handful of coins – and there often were long lines and conflicts. Later he bribed someone to have a phone line installed.
By the end of 1990, the state-owned Book Wholesale got into deep financial trouble. Its rigid system could no longer survive in the economy, and its bankruptcy had a strong negative impact on many new publishers. This was followed by the privatisation of the retail network and some state-owned companies. The process was saddled with numerous frauds; however, one such large fraud allowed for instance Prague to maintain its original network of bookstores, which was privatised by bookstore owners. The Book Wholesale was privatised by a crafty politician, who correctly identified that its real value lay in real property – a complex of houses in the centre of Prague. He then no longer continued the company’s wholesale activities, even though it was one of the conditions of the privatisation.
In the first years of the free market, many people became rich quickly – some with their own smarts and hard work, while others thanks to fraud. The market quickly became saturated and the demand for books dropped faster than was expected. In the mid-nineties, many of those who got rich ended up losing everything. In other cases, successful publishing houses went out of business due to the bankruptcy of their distributor or due to a fraudulent client who didn’t pay for a large book shipment.
In the second half of the nineties, the market stabilised, and the number of bankruptcies dropped. Those who survived until then usually ended up with a stable company. In this phase, the publishers had the strongest position – the many distributors had to compete for their titles, and often purchased whole print runs to do that. The margin of distributors was also small – it gradually grew from 30 to 40 percent. Today the situation is reversed: the publisher bears all the risk and in addition needs to push really hard to get its books on the market. The system basically relies on a virtually full commission with a distribution rebate of 50%.
After the year 2000, when the market was already stable, the position of the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers was very weak. Larger entities did not take part, and there was a lack of understanding of the need for advocacy in favour of readership and supporting literature. This started to change after 2010 – at that point, the opinion seemed to be that president Klaus’ hard liberalism had its limits and that societally beneficial activities could not be secured only by the market.
Mr Vopěnka became Chairman of the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers in 2013. In his first year, he managed to convince large companies to join the association, and thanks to that today it represents about 80% of the market. And right at the beginning of his function, he reached an agreement with the future Prime Minister on reducing VAT rates on books. Meanwhile, the association became a professional organisation that was respected by the public as well as by politicians. It is proactive in lobbying around legislation affecting publishers. Mr Vopěnka covers his position for free, and the same goes for the board members. This also leads to certain limitations, and that’s also the reason the association cannot afford to be very active internationally.
State support for the publishing of books significantly grew in the past years, especially in the form of grants of the Ministry of Culture. The peak to date was this year’s book fair in Leipzig, where the Czech Republic was the guest of honour and arrived with a delegation of over 50 authors. Still, there are also numerous negative trends, notably a diminishing space for book reviews in the media. This means that titles supported with massive advertisements tend to win out in sales, and quality is no longer the determining factor for success.
That being said – argued Mr Vopěnka – book publishing remains a beautiful field, full of adventure. In his case, it allowed him to become independent, and today he even has much more time to do what is most important to him – writing novels.
Radovan Auer, Director of Svět Knihy Praha (Book World Prague), an international book fair and literary festival, introduced the fair as the biggest publishing and literary event in the Czech Republic. As Mr Auer explained, World Book Prague is very much audience oriented, B2C; as B2B issues are treated mostly at the Frankfurt Book Fair, it wouldn’t make sense to try and compete on that ground. Book World thus decided to position itself as attractive for the public (stressing the notion of festival), rather than for literary agents.
The venue is pleasant: a palace from 1898, with a good exhibition area – though with technical issues. There were 461 exhibitors this year, and more than 50,000 visitors – the number of visitors has experienced a 20% increase year on year for the last 3 years. All in all, Mr Auer considered the current times as good for publishing and literature in the Czech Republic.
For the time being, exhibitors at the fair are mostly Czech publishers. A lot of lectures and debates take place in the four days if the event. Mr Auer illustrated more in detail the venue of the Book World, to then move to this year’s edition, which marked the 25th anniversary of the fair.
The event was celebrated having Latin American literature as guest of honour; 8 countries participated. It took 2 years of complex negotiations, but then for the first time Latin America was represented as one at such an event. Mario Vargas Llosa was one of the guest stars of the festival.
Jaroslav Císař, from the Central Bohemian Research Library, provided some data on the Czech book market in 2018 as well, based on the figures of the Czech National Library and the Czech ISBN Agency, using a somewhat different method than that of the trade association. Mr Císař first declared that the Czech Republic was a country of books, and that its literature had helped the country survive through its most difficult times. He then presented some series of data on book production from the period 2014-2018.
According to the sources mentioned, title production stands at more than 16,000 titles per year (used to be above 18,000 a few years back), with translations representing 35-40% of the total. Roughly half of these make it to bookstores, the rest being ‘grey literature’ (catalogues, company publications, government publications, theses, etc.).
The number of publishers – on the rise – is 6-7,000, of which some 2,000 are considered active (publishing at least 1 title in a year). In communist times, in comparison, there were 50 publishers. Further data regarded the 20 largest private book publishers in the Czech Republic by number of titles published (those with at least 100 titles in 2018). The main groups have their own distribution and retail networks nowadays, and – with minor exceptions – all publishing houses are private subjects. Publishing – commented Mr Císař – was the first creative industry completely privatised in the country after the revolution. More tables showed the different imprints of the main publishing groups, and the largest presses of institutes of higher education, universities and institutions of the central government by number of titles published.
Looking at the number of books issued by Czech publishing entities in foreign languages, English is by far the most present, with between 600 and 800 titles, followed by Slovak (around 300); the other main languages, all below 100 titles, are German, Russian, Polish, French and Spanish. Fiction is the main category of books published, with close to 5,000 titles (in decrease); some 2,000 children’s books are published per year (growing), while academic books and textbooks have decreased from some 1,700 to less than 500 (the phenomenon certainly requires further explanations). Translations – generally some 6,000-odd per year – are predominantly from English (52 to 56%), followed by German, French, Slovak, Russian, Polish, Spanish and Italian.
Mr Císař quoted some figures about public library purchases of books, which represent allegedly around 4 to 5% of publishers’ turnover. The main formats of e-books, for which the Czech ISBN Agency started assigning ISBN numbers in July 2010, are epub, mobi, pdf; in 2018, more than 10,000 ISBN were assigned to e-books, but only about one third of those are distinct titles, the rest being the same books in different digital formats. 300 ebook publishers are currently active in the market, while print books are by far the main segment: ebook turnover is estimated at below 2% of the total. The typical Czech ebook reader is a man, under 30, with a university education. Audiobooks sales expanded a lot in the last 3 years; some 30 publishers are currently on the market, with 250-300 new titles per year.
According to Mr Císař, books still rank among the highest places as to cultural values for people in the Czech Republic, and the publishing industry is highly developed even in such a relatively small country. Altogether, he concluded that in this he saw reason for cautious optimism for the future.
Tomáš Kubíček concluded the event with a presentation on ‘Leipzig 2019 Tschechien’, the experience of the Moravian Library with the Czech Republic being guest of honour at the Leipzig Book Fair 2019. The Library organised the country’s presence at the fair (as they do with other fairs: Frankfurt, London, Bologna and more).
The situation before this year saw some 5 Czech books published per year in German-speaking countries – the figure now stands at 80. Some 2,800 pieces of news on Czech literature were issued this year in the German-speaking area.
The strategy adopted was to make of the occasion a ‘Czech year’ in the Germanophone world, rather than just 4 days (the duration of the fair). Many institutional partners were involved – the Czech Ministry of Culture first and foremost. A network was thus established, and the Library received a lot of support, from partners at home and in Germany alike. The aim was to showcase Czech culture in a broader sense; hence the range of partners was also very broad.
A programme was set to support translations of Czech books abroad, and many events were organised before the fair, including a residency programme for Czech and German authors in Brno and Leipzig. More events took place at the Leipzig Book Fair, where the Czechs set up three stands: a Czech Republic stand, a Children and young people stand, and a stand called Quo Vadis, dedicated to German emigration to the Czech Republic. Events at the fair included exhibitions and films; all in all, there were some 130 events in 4 days, and 55 Czech authors engaged in readings or talks.
The Czech year in Leipzig started in October 2018 and will end in November 2019, actually lasting one year and a half. Launched in autumn 2018 with events at the Frankfurt book Fair and a ball at the Leipzig Opera House, its calendar foresees a large number of events of all kinds (readings, film projections, concerts, etc.) and will close on 8 November, again at Leipzig Opera House.