Letter from Croatia

Context N°17

by Hrvoje Bozicevic

There was a period in recent Croatian history—when we were still a part of Yugoslavia—when the publishing industry made a large contribution to the development of democracy, in defiance of communist ideology. We alone were permitted to publish world authors with dissenting and even anticommunist views, authors forbidden in other Eastern Bloc countries (although it should be noted that domestic dissident writers still had great difficulty finding a publisher). This was due to President Tito’s political curiosity (we were also allowed to travel abroad): Yugoslavia was a country of strange ambivalence. Kundera was forbidden in his own country, as well as in other Eastern Bloc states, but not in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the other republics of Yugoslavia. This partial freedom of print (though not freedom of speech) had an enormous influence on national reading habits, an influence that survived into the early days of our newly established democracy.

Then came war, which destroyed everything that had been built. It marked the end of the time when worthwhile books could be published here in large print runs. Our luck, as publishers, hadn’t lasted long. Now the bookshops aren’t the same: there is nothing to force their owners to keep books as their primary product—books have actually started to disappear from their orders. Book distribution is completely disorganized. There are no chain bookstores, no bookclubs. Books are simply not available in some parts of the country. Prices vary, depending on hardback or paperback, from $6.50 to $25.00—quite high for our economy. The reason for such exorbitant retail prices is not just our small print runs: there are also taxes, high commissions to what few distributors there are (from 35 to 50%), and relatively expensive production costs. Since most people can’t afford to buy new books, they decide to borrow them from libraries—and our libraries can’t meet their demands. Patrons wait in line for months. For a book like Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, you’d wait nearly half a year: the biggest libraries have only about 10 copies each. This problem might be solved by legislation on the part of the Croatian Association of Publishers and Booksellers.

While I am nostalgic for the old, ideological model that Croatian publishing used to function under, we must now—in order to survive—learn to make publishing a profitable business. Without a doubt, our print-runs will grow parallel with our quality of life: a more stable economy will mean more time for reading. At present, however, out of 42 million kunas—about seven million dollars—spent during the Chrismas holidays, only around $833,000 was spent on books, while two million dollars went for perfume.

There are three kinds of Croatian publisher as of 2005. The first have lists of enormous range, from schoolbooks to scientific texts, professional literature to literary fiction (including Nobel Prize winners) and childern’s books. There are three or four of these larger companies; they each publish about four hundred to eight hundred titles annualy. Some of them started as booksellers, and most have continued this as a sideline.

Those in the second category are often considered “literary” and “incoherent.” They publish distinguished authors, but in a scattershot manner, and often without any particular scheme in selecting them. They have enormous difficulty introducing even one or two new titles to Croatian readers: not nearly enough to make an author recognizable, despite his or her enormous popularity in foreign markets. These publishers are medium-sized houses, publishing about three to four hundred titles a year.

The smallest publishers have uniformly excellent lists and loyal authors, but miniscule print runs. They are often called “snobbish.” They can do great marketing and have gorgeous websites, but never seem to make the money necessary for survival. The small publishers are by far the most vital category of Croatian publishing: completely devoted to their authors and to literature, commissioning tranlations whatever the cost, introducing us to writers like Cees Nootebom, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing, Imre Kertesz, Michael Ondaatje, Chuck Palahniuk, John Fante, Anthony Burgess, Amoz Oz, Catherine Clement, Milan Kundera (still one of the most popular writers in Croatia ever), Julian Barnes, Alex Garland, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Hornby, Barry Gifford, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Marc Levy, Marguerite Duras, and William S. Burroughs; nonficiton writers like Jacques Barzun, Jacques Le Goff, Naomi Klein, Gillo Dorfles, Ernst H. Gombrich, and Hunter S. Thompson; and philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky, Jean Baudrillard, etc. These houses often publish only five or six titles a year.

Classical as well as contemporary Croatian literature includes a wide range of genres, and could probably arouse decent interest abroad. Some of our authors, like Slavenka Drakulic or Dubravka Ugresic, were recognized quickly after independence, mostly because they criticized the mistakes of our newborn democracy. Whether or not a writer supports the state, however, we have no nationally funded institutions here to encourage the export of our authors’ work—to help subsidize translations or give financial support to foreign publishers interested in Croatian literature. The arts in Croatia deserve much more of an investment, especially in the promotion of our writers and our participation in international literature co-operative programs. It is absolutely imperative that we join international conferences in which we could provide information on the Croatian publishing scene. There is reason for hope, however: last week the Ministry of Culture issued a press release on book publishing in Croatia, saying that they are aware of the problems that publishers have been facing, from production to distribution. Also, several young Croatian writers belonging to a group called FAK (Festival of A Literature) recently stepped onto the stage. Their books have been extremely well received and for the first time foreign publishers are showing interest without persuasion. Among their better-known colleagues are Miljenko Jergovic (Sarajevo Marlboro, Archipelago Books), the aforementioned Slavenka Drakulic (Marble Skin, W. W. Norton) and Dubravka Ugresic (Fording the Stream of Consciousness, Northwestern University Press), Josip Novakovich (Salvation and other Disasters, Graywolf Press), Predrag Matvejevic (Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape, University of California Press), and Nobel candidate Miroslav Krleza (On the Edge of Reason, New Directions, and Return of Philip Latinovicz, Northwestern University Press). From the history closet we could also pull out Radovan Ivsic´ (close friend of Apollinaire), ever-faithful member of the surrealist movement, dramatist, and poet, published by Gallimard in Paris, where he lives with his wife, the French writer Annie Le Brun. The books of Juliana Matanovic and Zeljko Feric are published in Austria and Germany. Much credit for the promotion of Croatian literature in England goes to writer Boro Radakovic, who translated and brought English writers (“New Puritans”) to Croatia. Serpent’s Tail Publishing in London will soon bring out a short story collection called Croatian Nights: an overview of contemporary Croatian writing, edited by Radakovic, Matt Thorne, and Tony White.

There are many other valuable writers who are not so lucky, however, and have never been translated, and perhaps never will be. If they had a chance, I am sure they would easily enter the annals of great twentieth-century literature. Let’s put them aside for now, with the hope that the readers of CONTEXT might one day be interested in a short article on the history of Croatian literature.

For a few very good reasons Croatian publishing is still an unstable business, what with the dizzying tempo of technological changes, but more importantly because of many details which are beyond the ability of any one individual (publisher) to manage. Guessing the taste of readers is “like gambling,” said Jamie Byng of Canongate Press: a wrong decision can be catastrophic, and in the infrastructure of the Croatian publishing industry, even more so than in other countries. Moreover, in Croatia we are forced to compete with our local newspapers, who, seeing the weakness of our national publishing industry, have stepped in with cheap and badly-edited books, mass-produced and sold at prices that we simply cannot compete with. Authors and readers are seduced away from legitimate publishers by these shoddy articles, since, given the crippled state of our business, everything from printing to delivery to the payment of authors and translators runs late. The newspapers can afford to pay in advance, and it’s hard to explain to the writers published in this manner that they have done both their work and their “industry” an enormous disservice.

We must not forget the most important link: the reader. Given the growing competition from other media and from the entertainment industry, much of our planning must revolve around the definition of “quality literature,” whether there is a need to make such distinctions, and whether there are ways in which our readership can be recaptured and reading restored as the creative activity it is—as opposed to the passive consumption of entertainment—for example through reader development programmes. In the end, we can only say that we must go on. Then we will see what will happen next.

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