’The Age of Discontent’ – Greek publishing through six years of austerity

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JANUARY 12, 2016
Panoramic view of the Pleiades bookshop in Athens
by Socrates Kabouropoulos*

The effects of the 2010-2015 economic recession on the Greek publishing market have been unfortunate, by all means; they have affected and changed its structure, operation, quantity and quality features. While we can roughly touch upon some of those consequences, funnily enough we can’t thoroughly analyse them as a result of austerity. Between 2013/2014, the Greek government decided to suspend the operation of the National Book Centre of Greece (NBC, in Greek: EKEBI), and so they did for its specialized Documentation Unit for book statistics.

A brief idea of what the picture looks like after six years of austerity, can be summarized along the following lines.

Less books published

The number of Greek books more than doubled during the ‘90s (from appr. 3,000 new titles, in 1990, to 7,338 in 2000), in what may justifiably be described as a ‘book title boom’. In the course of 00’s the number of new titles kept increasing until 2008 (10,680 new titles); then they started decreasing, back to the number of appr. 7,000 titles in 2012, according to the unpublished latest data by the NBC. One might see that this fragility would have been an inevitable consequence of a very fast growth, irrespectively of the crisis; this is true to some extent. However, it’s interesting to watch how different parts of book publishing have been affected by the shrinking of the consumer market. Fiction and poetry, i.e., have shown the greatest resilience, while the production of social and human sciences has been fragile and that of children’s books and of all the other subject issues (self-help books, ELT, pure & applied sciences, art books) showed a steep fall.

Literature as a means of identity (decline in the number of translations)

Literature (fiction, non-fiction and poetry) rose from 20.5% of the total titles, in 2006, to 27.9% in 2011, led by Greek fiction. The rate of translations in the book production fell from 42.5% to 32.1%, during the same period (Greek novels topping the ones in translation for the first time, in 2011, by 507 vs. 455). The cost of rights and translation fees is only one reason for that, while the persistent commercial success of titles by Greek authors bears witness to an extended usage of literature as a means of reaffirming notions of cultural identity, identifying with- and, at the same time, escaping from the harsh realities of the crisis.

From Contemporary History to Politics, and back (disenchantment in politics & economics)

The last part of the ‘00s saw a revived interest in retelling the Greek story of WWII and the Civil War that followed, through a new and unconventional approach. The outbreak of the crisis has interrupted this discussion, shifting the interest towards politics, economics and the European Union (History: 531 titles in 2010, 273 in 2012; Politics: 234 in 2010, 247 in 2011, 207 in 2012; Economics: 119 in 2008, 157 in 2010, 120 in 2012, according to Biblionet). This could be seen only between 2010-2012, when the social democrats’ reconciliation with the necessity of ‘tough measures’ marked a decline in political and economic debate and a shift towards political philosophy, radical ideology (paving the way for the left wing, SYRIZA government), and, in 2015, towards contemporary history, anew.

Poetry: a young generation of agitated poets?

In parallel with Greek fiction, Greek poetry books showed a persistent growth during the crisis (from 444 new releases in 2008 to 547 in 2012); the main difference being that, in the majority of the cases, the poets are being asked to contribute in the publication cost, making the deal beneficial for a number of niche publishers. The surplus of new books is accompanied by an enlarged presence of the younger, politically sensitive poets, who are in their 20’s-30’s, in websites, blogs, readings and public events (i.e. like when 36 of them read poetry for the “unburied dead”, inspired by Sophocles’ Antigone, at the Attis Theatre, Athens, in May 2015). “A radical new generation of poets ignited” is noted in publications such as Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis (ed. by Theodoros Chiotis, UK: Penned in the Margins, November 2015), or Austerity Measures (ed. by Karen Van Dyck, US: forthcoming).

Books on display at Saixpirikon

Book publishing: media groups, independents and start-ups

In 2004, seven leading publishers, producing over 200 titles a year, accounted for 24% of the total book title production. In 2011, their number was diminished to merely three and their production share to 8.8%. On the other hand, the number of businesses publishing over 10 new books/year, has grown from 151 in 2004, to 167 in 2011, retaining a production share of 77% – and leaving the remaining 33% to a “very thin, very long tail” (according to the expert Mike Esplen) of over 700 nonsystematic or occasional publishers. The effects of the crisis were felt more severely at the top, where the media groups involved were more globally exposed to the negative effects of the recession (from reduced consumption to diminished advertising expenses): Ellinika Grammata (owned by Lambrakis Press Group, with a backlist of 4,000 titles) seized operating in 2011, Modern Times (owned by the Alter TV/”O Kosmos tou Ependyti” Weekly Newspaper consortium) followed in 2012, as did IntroBooks (owned by Imako Media group); while Lambrakis Group suspended their book title production by 40%. The decrease in net profits, between 2010-2011, was lower for the medium size companies (i.e. with a turnover between 1 and 2.5 m euro), compared to the ones with a turnover over 2.5 m euro (20,7% vs. 77,7%).

Putting some of the leading players off the ring (such as Ellinika Grammata and Modern Times), the crisis has created more free space at the top. Two different models of corporate “success” have been shaped, consequently. The one of a global, balanced and diversified publisher, building its sustainability mechanisms through the variety of its production and readership (i.e. Patakis), and the one of a publisher investing in high-cost advances mainly in fiction & children’s books, buying rights for the major Greek and international best sellers (i.e. Lena Manta, Chryssa Dimoulidou, Stieg Larsson, Khaled Hosseini, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco, J. K. Rowling, including the Man Booker Prize winners), adopting offensive marketing and raising sales and profits (i.e. Psichogios). Most of the few other key-players fall somewhere between these two models, in the fight for sustainability (Metaichmio, Livanis, Kastaniotis, Minoas, Kedros). Alongside the resilience shown by the specialized and experienced, medium-sized publishers (such as Agra, Hestia, Polis, Dioptra, Gutenberg, Kritiki, Nefeli, Alexandria, Ikaros, Papadopoulos, Potamos, Melani, Indiktos, Klidarithmos, et. al.), a number of startups have emerged, often (but not always) run by former employees in the book business, aiming at a small literary production of an artistic quality (Kichli, Perispomeni, Shakespearean/Shakespirikon, Antipodes, ePoema, Poikili Stoa, Kokkino, et. al.)

Bookselling: de-regulation and the sinking of flagships

The decline of the media conglomerates has affected bookselling, as much as it has affected book publishing. While the only important foreign investment withdrew from Greece in 2010 (Fnac), the two leading chains experienced a dramatic downturn in both sales and profits, leading them to close down the majority of their stores (Eleftheroudakis, from 31 in 2009 to only 3 in 2015, Papasotiriou, from 30 in 2009 to 14 in 2015). High street bookshops have been further affected by the frequent, and often agitated public protests in the centre of Athens. The year 2013 has marked another negative landmark: the closing-down of Hestia Bookstore after 120 consequent years (and 5 generations) of operating, its history going hand-in-hand with that of contemporary Greece. Public, a company created by a successful ex-telecommunications businessman, copied the Fnac concept of a multiple product store (books, music, films and microelectronics, with phones and tablets leading the way), and expanded in every major Greek city (45 branches in Greece and 3 in Cyprus, in 2015). The rise of their turnover to 134.2 m euro, in 2013, though, was not eventually accompanied by profit, but by balance sheet losses (11.5 m euro in 2013).

As a measure to flare up consumption, the Greek government modified the Fixed Book Price Law in 2014, which had been in power since 1997, allowing free discounts for all books with the exception of ‘fiction’ and ‘children’s books’, whose retail price was kept under discount control (can only be discounted up to 10% for a maximum of two years, as long as the book is not republished). According to last year’s experience, free discounts have mainly benefited a couple of ‘heavy discounters’/booksellers in Athens and in Thessaloniki, while Public, Eleftheroudakis, Papasotiriou, Ianos and the majority of the key-players abided to the old, ‘regulated’ prices, offering a discount of up to 10% in most of the titles. While Amazon has never reached the Greek-language market, there’s a visible threat that heavy discounters are going to conquer a disproportional share of it, as has happened during the 80’s and the early 90’s.

At the same time with the shrinking in the bricks-and-mortar, commercial bookshops, a number of new, small independents have sprung up, often created by ex-book professionals (Epi Lexei, Pleiades, Shakespirikon, Booktalks, Lexikopoleion, Mauve Skiouros, Booktique, et. al.) Their business models include an enlarged selectivity towards distinct quality books, even if they are to leave bestsellers totally out of the picture; events and readings organized on a regular basis; and a credible service of orders which come out of personal contact.

Higher education textbooks: state buying, ill-pricing & photocopies

Despite all the reforms which were imposed to Greece during the period 2010-2015, the state is the only commissioner of textbooks in public sector higher education (and the only schoolbook publisher in primary and secondary education). All university textbooks are published by commercial publishers, purchased by the Education Ministry and distributed to the students for free. This has led, over the years, to a notoriously bad practice: textbooks are being luxuriously printed and over-priced, so that they bring the maximum benefit to their publishers after the ‘discount’ bid, and their price grows irrationally high for the rest of the consumers. This leads the students who aren’t entitled to free textbooks (i.e. the ones from private colleges or universities) to extensive, irregular photo-copying, and the publishers to protest against the abuse of their work. A reform based on a volunteer shift of the textbook writers towards e-textbooks, which was announced in 2012, wasn’t thoroughly followed in the implementation phase.

Book reading: an unaccomplished object of desire (expansion of the audience but towards the ‘weak readers’)

Between 1999-2010, the National Book Centre of Greece has conducted three nation-wide surveys on reading behaviour, based on the same methodology (and, therefore, producing comparative results). The basic findings of these surveys are that: (a). The percentage of the Greeks who identify themselves as ‘book-readers’ is comparatively minor to that of the ones who don’t read at all, together with those who read only for professional or educational purposes, (b). The percentage of ‘medium to avid readers’, among them, i.e. of those who read ‘more than ten books a year’, notably, has been stable along the decade (from 8.2% in 1999, to 8.0% in 2010), (c). By the end of 2010, the interest towards book reading seemed to increase, compared to 2004, based on the ‘weaker’ strand of the readership (of those who read on average, up to 3-4 books a year). The positive sign in this development is a potential shift (even in terms of an unshaped or even wishful thinking) towards book-reading, at a time of economic downturn. At the same time, a number of ‘objective’ constraints seem to interfere in this desire, having to do with individual uncertainty, unemployment, longer working hours/less leisure for those who work and less money available to spend on books, because of income cuts and over taxation.

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Cultural policy: from State to charities (i.e. public libraries)

It has always been interesting to explain why public policies fail exactly at the point where they could have a chance to help recover a certain field of social or economic activity. In Greece, the government decisions to close-down the National Book Centre, with no other alternative institution as such in the field of policymaking, as well as to raise the taxes in all the intermediate phases of book publishing (including paper purchasing, book design and printing), raising their VAT from 6.5% to 23%, bears witness to the lack of depth, inconsistency and ‘panic’ of Greek policymaking within the context of austerity, in the place of the reforms needed. The negative developments, together with the poorly justified quitting of Retail Price Maintenance -based on only 7 pages of a larger OECD report- came to add on the lack of a sustainable policy for textbooks and for public libraries. The latter part has left charities, such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and its NGO subsidiary, “Future Library”, to appear as the most important players in the field of library modernisation. The Foundation is delivering to the state, in 2016, the brand-new building of the National Library it has constructed on its own expenses, designed by the famous Italian Renzo Piano, while “Future Library” coordinates computer and book purchases and a reading promotion campaign in municipal libraries, every year.

Rights sales and international literary perception (towards a ‘stereotyping of compassion’?)

Rights sales is a healthy vehicle for Greek publishing, because of the small size of the domestic consumption. To achieve them, though, the language barrier has to be beaten. During the recent years, this hasn’t been easy, in spite of Greece being invited in a number of book fairs, such as Frankfurt Book Fair in 2001, Bologna and Torino in 2004, Madrid in 2005, Beijing in 2008 and Belgrade in 2009. This is also partially due to the erratic application of the country’s translations subsidy scheme (called ‘Frasis’ in the phase of 2012-2013, under the NBC). The effort is recently mediated by professional literary agents who cooperate and act in the major international markets. In 2001, 54 Greek book titles were translated into German, in view of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Less than one fourth followed in the next decade, disencouraged by the commercial ‘failure’ of the initial ones – with the notable exception of Petros Markaris’ crime novels. After 2010, however, the road to international reception has been easier for a certain literature dealing with the ones particularly affected by the economic crisis (i.e. Christos Iconomou, Something will Happen, You’ll See –translations in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, US-, All Good Things Will Come from the Sea –translation rights sold in France, Italy and US; Christos Chrissopoulos, La Destruction du Parthenon/The Parthenon Bomber, 2012, Une lampe entre les dents/The Lens Between the Teeth, 2013 -translations and Laure-Batallion Prize in France; Makis Tsitas, God is My Witness, European Union Prize for Literature, 2014, translation rights sold in Italy and in seven other languages; et. al.); a literature radical in form and content (i.e. the poetry anthologies mentioned); and a literature of critical reflection (i.e. Nikos Dimou, On the Unhappiness of Being Greek – translations in eight languages, over 35,000 copies sold in Germany; Yanis Varoufakis, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, 2015, rights sold in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Serbia and Brazil; et. al.).

eFuture: ebooks and mobile apps

Greek eBooks were launched in the trade market in 2010, following their rising success in the English-speaking countries. Their degree of penetration, though, six years later, is less than 1% of the value of the market. This is due to the lack of a low-cost, ‘everyday’ reader (such as Kindle, with no large Greek language ebooks’ inventory, such as Amazon’s), and the relatively high price of tablets such as Galaxy or the iPad in the frame of a consumption crisis. Greek language ebooks amount to appr. 7,000 titles, today, and include mostly ePub versions of the new titles that come out in printed form. Most of them are available through iTunes and through dedicated e-bookstores such as myebooks.gr and cosmotebooks.gr (powered by the larger Greek mobile service provider, Cosmote). Copy-free literature has been promoted by initiatives such as openbook.gr. An acclaimed medium-size publisher (Periklis Douvitsas, from Nefeli Books) has recently launched a ‘fair trade’ ebook platform (fairead.net), aiming at services offered to authors and publishers (and ‘fairer’ terms offered to e-retailers and readers). His focus is mainly mobile distribution, through a reading app. Mobile distribution (‘a book in every pocket’) seems to be closer to ebook perspectives compared to audiovisual and trans-media digital publishing, following the effort to overcome the global stagnation in ebook sales.

References

[ Book Production, Book publishing, Bookselling ]

National Book Centre of Greece (2006), The Book Market in Greece, 2nd Athens: EKEBI.
National Book Centre of Greece (2007), Book Production in Greece, 2006 [in Greek: I Vivlioparagogi stin Ellada, 2006]. Athens: EKEBI.
National Book Centre of Greece (2012), The Book Market in Greece, 8th Athens: EKEBI. Available at: http://www.ekebi.gr/appdata/documents/BookMarketInGreece2011-8.pdf
National Book Centre of Greece (2013), Book Production in Greece, 2012 [in Greek: I Vivlioparagogi stin Ellada, 2012], unpublished.
National Book Centre of Greece (2012, b), Balance Sheets of Publishing Firms 2000-2011 [In Greek: Isologismoi Ekdotikon Epixeiriseon 2000-2011]. Athens: EKEBI. Available at: http://www.ekebi.gr/frontoffice/isologismoi/ekdotes2011.xls
National Printing House/Ethniko Typografeio (2015), “Balance Sheet of Retail World SA” [In Greek: “Isologismos tis Anonymis Etaireias Retail World AE”], FEK 764/10.2.2015. Available at: http://www.et.gr/idocs-nph/search/fekAeEpeForm.html?args=ghPriTbqMLO1KL8YLjv4MblPftDoqEuJSyfdh22VNYH7SbR6Q7-y5HuAEP5mMG8HbpDiIXIxcVX8UqWb_zFijNIcy64iUP3jQilY-EC3HX6Fr8ROoyFe2okl-myYWzzQ
[ Book Reading ]

National Book Centre of Greece (1999), Greek Survey Study of Reading Behaviour [In Greek: Panhellenia Erevna Anagnostikis Symperiforas]. Athens: EKEBI. Available at: http://www.ekebi.gr/frontoffice/portal.asp?cpage=node&cnode=426
National Book Centre of Greece (2004), 2nd Greek Survey Study of Reading Behaviour and Cultural Practices [In Greek: B’ Panhellenia Erevna Anagnostikis Symperiforas kai Politistikon Praktikon]. Athens: EKEBI. Available at: http://www.ekebi.gr/frontoffice/portal.asp?cpage=node&cnode=424
National Book Centre of Greece (2010), 3rd Greek Survey Study of Reading Behaviour and Cultural Practices [In Greek: G’ Panhellenia Erevna Anagnostikis Symperiforas kai Politistikon Praktikon]. Athens: EKEBI. Available at: http://www.ekebi.gr/frontoffice/portal.asp?cpage=RESOURCE&cresrc=8433&cnode=309
[ Cultural Policy ]

OECD (2014), Competition Assessment Reviews: Greece. Paris: OECD. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/competition/greece-competition-review-2013.htm 119-125 [“Books”] available at: http://www.enelvi.org/site/images/enimerosi/%CE%95%CE%9A%CE%98%CE%95%CE%A3%CE%97_%CE%9F%CE%9F%CE%A3%CE%91.pdf
[ Rights Sales ]

National Book Centre of Greece (2013, b), Archive of Greek Books in Translation [In Greek: Arxeio Metafrasmenon Ellinikon Vivlion], searchable at: http://www.ekebi.gr/frontoffice/portal.asp?cpage=node&cnode=470
Evangelia Avloniti (2015), “Greek Literature Abroad: A Modern Odyssey”, Publishing Perspectives, March 5, 2015, available at: http://publishingperspectives.com/2015/03/greek-literature-abroad-a-modern-odyssey-part-1/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+PublishingPerspectives+%28Publishing+Perspectives%29
* Socrates Kabouropoulos worked as a senior officer at the National Book Centre of Greece, in charge of its Book Monitoring Unit, between 1996-2014. He also launched and run the Greek books-in-print database, Biblionet [ http://www.biblionet.gr ].

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