Blesok no. 44, September-October, 2005
Dinner for Four
Things were different in Slovenia before 1991. It was part of ex-Yugoslavia where two million inhabitants, eight percent of the national population, created a quarter of the gross national product. The residents of this ethnically homogenous, partially autonomous republic used a language different from the language of the majority. According to a phrase straight from Tito´s doctrine of self-government, books were objects of `special social importance´. Books preserved Slovene cultural and national awareness through eras of various hegemonies, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy being the longest lasting one.
The first national cultural programme was launched by the Romantic poet France Preseren (1800-1849) when he decided to write in Slovene and not in the then official language of communication, German, in which he initially wrote poetry. In the introduction to the second edition of Preseren´s Poezije (1847) published in 1866, this programme was formulated more clearly by poet and writer Josip Stritar (1836-1923). In the turbulent years of more recent Slovene history (1988-1991), Slovene writers played a prominent role in the creation of the Slovenian state, having formulated the first declaration of the aim of independence in a document referred to as the `writers´ constitution´, and it was rightly expected that the independent state of Slovenia would accord Slovene literature and creative writing a status of importance.
This however turned out to be wishful thinking, and books soon became a commodity like any other. After the liberalization of economy several hundred companies were registered as publishers, in place of the approximately twenty state-run publishing houses of the previous era. Around eighty publishers appear at the Ljubljana book fair every year and approximately four thousand titles have been published annualy in the past years. Of these three quarters were first editions (twice as many as in 1990). But in the case of the 2000 titles or six million books published in 1990 and 2000 the average print-run per title has been halved to 1500 copies. And it was the area of literary publishing that took the brunt of this drop: the print-run of poetry titles fell below 500 copies, while fiction print-runs start at 400 copies and rarely climb above 1500.
The drop in sales has been accompanied (or compensated by) retail price increases. In the old days of socialism, lack of consumer goods meant that people bought books with their disposable income, as there was not much else to spend it on. Now, not only are the buyers tempted by an ever-growing selection of goods, but a book costs as much as dinner for four, while it is available for free from libraries everywhere. As a result, book sales have fallen to a third of what they once were, while library rentals have risen from three or four to an average of nine tiles per resident per year.
Another factor contributing to the changes in the Slovenian book market is the wider availability of foreign books. In the eighties, our literary education was largely complemented by books smuggled back from my hitchhiking trips across Western Europe. Imported books were rare at that time, and my own precious collection ended up being photocopied for university libraries. Now, American, English, German, Italian and French editions are available in Ljubljana as soon as they appear, and what can´t be bought in bookshops, can be ordered over the internet, often faster and cheaper, which in turn means that serious bookshops are disappearing. Ljubljana now apparently has more shops selling mountain-bikes than shops selling books.
The very status of literature has changed. Before 1991, people often read to find something they did not have access to. Something different. Something that wasn´t supposed to be discussed or heard. History, sociology, politics. They sought democratic ideas in novels, voices of rebellion in poetry. Now everything is allowed in politics and the only readers literature has left are those interested in it per se. Slovenia has become too small for Slovene literature, its readers too few.
This narrowing of space has hurt some writers badly, while others found solace in the embrace of foreign publishers: Slovene authors with books published abroad before 1991 were few and far between, but in the last ten years, more then sixty living authors have been published abroad. A number of authors are published in influential magazines, with some included in the most prestigious foreign publishing programmes. The exotic Slovenes can even be good for business: Gallimard is selling the Paris-based Slovenian author Brina Svit all over the world, Verso publishes philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and the day when Slovene publishers have to buy the rights to Slovene titles from foreign publishers is probably not far. Perhaps they will even have to translate them into Slovene: Brina Svit’s international success was probably helped to the fact that after the first few translations she began to write in French, while Slavoj Žižek writes in English.
Today´s Slovene reader no longer expects poetry to create a better world or give meaning to his life, he depends chiefly on himself. Novels are no longer filled with notions of national significance which haved moved into election campaign speeches. Literature has been freed from performing socially important functions, it has become independent, out on its own, no longer having any social impact. State funding for books of national importance – is a remnant of the past regime – enables about 200 titles and around seventy cultural magazines to be published every year in print-runs ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand copies. In 2003 a budget of around 1.4 million Euros was awarded for book funding, around 800,000 Euros for magazines, around 280,000 Euros for foreign collaborations, including translators´ stipends and literary festivals, with a little left for the promotion of reading, mainly literary readings and discussions. We can conclude that this support makes it possible for quality writing, both original and translated, to be published; an unsubsidized book can make a profit (if the authors and translators are properly paid) in print-runs that few literary books achieve in Slovenia.
As a result of this new situation, Slovene publishing has been transformed; only one of the former large state-run publishing houses remains and it sells about half the books in Slovenia today, gaining its profits mostly from titles bought in the west and published in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia. The second largest publisher, the former Drzavna zalozba Slovenije (State Publishing of Slovenia), has reduced its publishing programme to the production of textbooks and has made financial investments its main business. As a recent report commissioned by the Ministry of Culture has shown, most books of cultural importance in Slovenia are published by small, non-profit publishing houses, many of which don´t have a single person on the payroll.
And the question of how a small non-profit publisher can make a living in a small-profit country like Slovenia takes us from the realm of fact into that of fiction, with elements of social drama, burlesque, horror and comedy of the absurd guaranteed.
Translated by Jure Novak