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Estonian Literature, Book Buying, and Capitalism

This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog. I highly recommend visiting the official blog for interesting posts from Richard Nash, Alex Hippisley-Cox, and Arun Wolf

One of the most interesting figures Kaidi Urmet of the Estonian Publishers’ Association dropped in her speech about the Estonian Book Market was about the nearly inverted correlation between titles published in Estonia and overall sales. In 1991—just two years after the fall of the BerlinWall—only 1554 titles were published in Estonia. But because of the demand of readers, over 23,295,000 units were sold. The snapshot of 2007 paints a much different picture: 3410 titles were published (more than double the number from 1991), resulting in 8,853,000 copies (approx. 40% of the total in 1991).

Urmet pointed to the steady increase in book prices as the reason for this decline in sales. “In 1991 we were just starting to implement the capitalist model,” she said. “Books were much cheaper then—people could afford them.”

Although the past year has been rough on the Estonian book market (where hasn’t it been rough?), one of the bright spots has been the increased interest in memoirs and biographies. Rene Tendermann of Pegasus—which specializes in literary fiction and young adult titles—echoed this trend, pointing out that on the whole, nonfiction has done much better than fiction since the economic collapse. His big worry for the future is library funding though. About 20% of Pegasus’s sales are to libraries, but it looks like library funding will decrease by 40-50% in the next year.

Not all the news is bleak though. Ilvi Liive of the Estonian Literature Information Centre (ELIC) has had great success in recent years getting Estonian literature translated and published around the world. So far this year, 30 Estonian books have been translated into 15 different languages—including Albanian, German, Russian, and even English. This is a much different situation than what things were like in 2001 when the ELIC first came into existence and started developing a network of publishing contacts around the world.

One of the books she’s most excited about that’s launching at the fair is the French translation of the third volume of A.H.Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice, a five-volume Estonian family saga set in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The latest issue of the Estonian Literary Magazine (produced by ELIC) is also releasing at the Fair and contains a range of articles on Estonian literature and reviews of a number of new titles. And for publishers interested in award-winning titles, there’s even a special feature on the Estonian Literary Awards of 2008.



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