The Book Market in Russia
The Book Market in Russia
The Russian economy has transitioned toward militarization. How has this affected the book market? What are publishing houses and bookstores going through amidst the censorship and sanctions? Researcher and activist Konstantin Kharitonov analyzes the state of the book industry in wartime Russia

A brief history of the book industry in modern Russia

While the market reforms of the 1990s proved to be catastrophic for much of the Russian economy, the book industry thrived in those turbulent times. The lifting of censorship restrictions, and openness to the outside world, combined with the Soviet Union’s culture of reading and extensive book infrastructure (stores, libraries, etc.), facilitated the industry’s growth significantly. Some publishers began filling the gaps left by years of censorship in fiction and intellectual literature, while others worked to inundate the shelves with tons of simplistic detective stories, romance novels, and science fiction, often adorned with flamboyant covers. As a result, from 1990 to 2010, total book circulation increased by 1.5 times, and the number of published book titles surged by 2.5 times. A peculiar indicator of the industry’s growth during Russia’s 1990s era were the targeted assassinations of key figures in the book market. From 1996 to 2003, three directors of the Drofa Publishing House were killed. At the time, Drofa was successfully competing with the Prosveshcheniye Publishing House for the academic book market. Drofa continues to publish textbooks, now as part of the EKSMO-AST holding to this day, while Prosveshcheniye has become virtually a monopoly in this field.

During Putin’s era of stability, particularly in the 2000s, the book market flourished. It was expanding, having evolved into a market with relatively distributed spheres of influence, a developed publishing culture, and a clear trend toward monopolization.

However, starting in 2010, positive trends began to reverse, and the industry saw a noticeable decline. By the pandemic year of 2021, aggregate circulation had nearly halved. The lockdown and general economic issues aggravated the situation, resulting in a 10% contraction in the printed book market. Concurrently, book prices saw noticeable increases. Although several bookstores temporarily closed during this period, the main challenges were not about sales. Amid the pandemic crisis, industry representatives grappled primarily with rising paper costs, shortages in printing capabilities, outdated equipment, and a lack of qualified personnel. 

Currently, the Russian book market is monopolized but retains a high level of flexibility. The majority of textbooks in the country are published by Prosveshchenie Publishing House, while the EKSMO-AST holding (which also includes the Azbuka-Atticus Publishing House, the LitRes e-book service, Chitay Gorod/Bukvoed bookstore chains, and several printing enterprises) publishes most other books. Despite their extensive market coverage, the monopolists do not necessarily publish books of worthy quality (with a few exceptions). Often, their publications are of the lowest literary caliber. However, Russia is home to several small publishers who, despite their tiny scale of circulation compared to the major players, maintain a reputation for carefully curated literature and meticulous editorial, proofreading, and design work. These publishers release anywhere from several dozen to several hundred titles per year but often lack the resources for the wide distribution of their books. Nevertheless, it was their work that made the Russian book industry vibrant and intellectually rich before the war.

Sanctions and more

In December 2022, it was reported that the Russian book market was in a “severe crisis due to the war,” with publishers and book traders preparing to resist increasing censorship. Due to the sanctions, Russia stopped receiving paper supplies from the European Union, as well as certain components and reagents necessary, for example, for paper bleaching. Some high-quality sorts of paper are only produced outside of Russia. The fifth package of sanctions prohibited the supply of typographic equipment and other professional machinery to Russia. As a result, book production increased by 30% in 2022, primarily due to rising paper prices.

Not only did the sanctions negatively impact the book industry, but in 2021, translated literature accounted for about 20% of the total book offering, and foreign authors contributed 40% of bookstore revenue. A significant part of bestsellers and highly profitable publications belonged to Western authors. With the onset of full-scale war, some of these authors (along with several publishers) declined to enter into new agreements with their Russian counterparts. Even for those who continued to work with Russian publishers, noticeable difficulties arose due to the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT system, currency fluctuations, and overall uncertainty.

Among the most well-known authors who refused to publish in Russia were Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Nicholas Sparks, and Stephen King, who have been sales leaders in Russia for many years. The existing contracts remained in force, but new releases in Russian from these and many other authors should no longer be expected. On the other hand, most small publishers specializing in intellectual literature managed to maintain contact with Western partners and continue their work despite the obstacles. In February 2022, many of them condemned the invasion on their social media platforms before the first repressive laws were introduced. Overall, these publishers rightly enjoy a good reputation.

However, large publishers, namely EKSMO-AST, were forced to seek alternatives to compensate for the financial losses caused by the exodus of once-popular Western authors from Russia. The situation mirrored developments in many other sectors of the Russian economy: the use of domestic resources and the shift toward the Asian market. Indeed, certain books from China, including comics and young adult literature, are now published in Russia with quite impressive print runs, exceeding 100,000 copies. Indeed, the Asian book market is rich and diverse, but engaging with it requires scarce specialists fluent in the respective languages. 

Dealing with Russian authors is also challenging. Previously, large publishers often declined to collaborate with lesser-known Russian authors, citing insufficient resources for promotion, and preferring instead to translate and secure rights for already successful authors and books. Now, however, they are compelled to seek authors within the country, though the system of their selection and promotion is not yet fully developed.

One way to circumvent restrictions and profit from the works of Western authors has been to publish so-called “summaries.” These are essentially paraphrases close to translations. Copyright does not extend to such “summaries,” thereby avoiding any prohibitions. The first experimental publication of this kind was Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, released in early 2023 by the publisher Eksmo in a print run of 3,000 copies. However, after several experiments with paraphrasing potential bestsellers, major publishers chose not to continue down this dubious path. Such a choice would have tarnished the reputation of Russian publishers and hindered the future normalization of relations. Moreover, books of this nature appear rather pitiful. Paraphrasing is suitable in a review format, but when an entire book is reworded and filled with introductory phrases like “the author claims that…” or “further, it tells us…”, it seems odd and may appeal only to a rare reader. Publishing houses that produce high-quality translated literature, such as Individuum and Ad Marginem, immediately denounced such practices.

Another experiment was the release of books purportedly from the perspective of a fictitious, literally non-existent publisher. Thus, the obscure and suddenly appearing Trophy Book publisher in 2023 presented paper editions of new books by Stephen King and J.K. Rowling on certain marketplaces, supposedly published in Luhansk, i.e., in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. The publisher was shown to have no website or office, and the books lacked essential publishing details, including ISBNs. No such legal entity could be found in any databases. These books were published by no one despite author prohibitions, and no one took responsibility for them, which raised significant suspicions.

Fewer, yet more expensive

The Russian Book Chamber maintains comprehensive statistics on all book activities, unavoidably receiving copies of every book published in the country. According to the Chamber’s data, despite all the challenges, the volume of the book market in 2022 remained almost unchanged compared to 2021 in quantitative terms: the number of titles published decreased by 3%, while the total circulation increased by 0.8%. However, compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019, there was a noticeable decline (-6.1% and -4%). Almost all types of published literature experienced a reduction to varying degrees, except for fiction, which saw a growth of over 20%. In monetary terms, amidst inflation, the industry showed a growth of 7.1% (7.5% for printed books).

Simultaneously, according to the EKSMO-AST Publishing House, the number of books sold decreased significantly by 7% (following a 21% increase in 2021). In 2022, there was a sharp decline in the export of book products to countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan, by factors ranging from 10 to 20 times. The purchase of books from other countries also decreased even further: by 35 times from the UK, over 17 times from China, and 14 times from Germany.

Although 2022 could have been extremely challenging for the e-book market, it has also shown growth. The collapse of major Russian company stocks, the exit of key Western organizations, transactional issues, and reduced advertising platforms did not significantly impact the e-book market. Similar to printed books, the sector quickly recovered following the initial shock in the first months of the war. Sales declines were soon compensated for, and Russian entrepreneurs acquired most of the assets left by the exiting companies. For instance, Bookmate, a popular international service exited Russia, but the Russian company Yandex continues to use its technological platform under license. New projects were also launched. However, this segment of the market did not expand broadly. The new companies only slightly stimulated the industry by injecting financial resources into it. LitRes, owned by EKSMO-AST’s Oleg Novikov, remains a monopoly holder of the Russian e-book market, accounting for approximately 70%.

The detailed report from the Book Chamber for 2023 has not been published yet, but some figures are already available. In November 2023, the monopolists forecast the overall growth of the industry: around 10% in monetary terms and 5% in the number of published copies. However, the results presented by EKSMO-AST were slightly more moderate than forecast: the market for printed books grew by 9% in monetary terms and by 3% in quantity.

On the other hand, published figures indicate a general decline in production by over 10%, both in print runs and the number of titles published (translations showed a decrease of over 20%). In 2022, there were 19,724 titles of translated books published (11,674 of them translated from English), compared to 15,713 titles in 2023 (8,844 from English). Thus, while the book market grew monetarily in 2023, book production began to decline noticeably after the stagnation of 2022. However, the digital book market resumed growth in 2023. After a brief stagnation in 2022 due to the exodus of Western services and platforms, it grew by 19%.

Statistical data for the first quarter of 2024 show a continuous decline both in print runs and the number of titles, down by 5%. According to the specialized journal Book Industry, while book sales in monetary terms increased slightly by 0.6%, there was a 3% decline in quantity. Only fiction sales showed a slight increase (2.2%). Overall, there is an increasing trend in print runs of editions and average volume (which reduces production costs), as well as the number of reprints. It is noteworthy that over the past decade, new titles have driven primary reader demand, accounting for approximately two-thirds of the total print run.

Publishers and bookstores

The economy’s shift to militarization has not altered recent trends in the activities of major Russian publishers. Their total number has decreased, but the monopoly of EKSMO-AST holding has strengthened. In 2022, the Book Chamber counted 4,450 organizations that submitted at least one publication, which is 503 fewer than in 2019 (a decrease of 10.2%). There has also been a decrease in the number of actively operating publishers, those submitting more than 12 copies per year to the Book Chamber. Those leading in terms of quantitative indicators are invariably Prosveshchenie, which published more than a third of all books and brochures in Russia, and the publishers within the EKSMOAST holding. The share of the top 20 largest publishers has increased in both the number of titles (by 15.5% since 2019) and print runs (by 14.2%), reaching over 80%.

Evidently, industry captains continue to consolidate significant assets related to book publishing and distribution, seizing opportunities presented by new realities. For instance, the independent publisher Individuum, operating in the country since 2015, was acquired in 2022 by Denis Kotov, the founder of the Bukvoyed bookstore chain associated with the monopolistic publisher Eksmo. Meanwhile, its former owners were dubbed “foreign agents.” This was not incidental: prior to the war, Individuum included the Popcorn Books initiative, which focused on adolescent and youth literature often addressing LGBTQ+ themes. The first administrative case in Russia for “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” was filed against Popcorn Books. Upon acquiring the publishing house, Denis Kotov, as the new owner, announced a complete reorientation of its publishing policy and rejection of LGBTQ+ culture. Subsequently, he sold the remnants of the demolished publishing house directly to the Eksmo monopolist.

There has been no breakthrough in the economic life of bookstores either. Since the late 1990s, their number in Russia has not increased but gradually decreased. In 2022, according to official industry reports, there were 5,300 specialized bookstores operating in Russia. A prime example is the major chain Chitay-Gorod-Bukvoyed, which accounts for just under 20% of all retail sales of printed books. While it showed regular growth in previous years, 32 of the company’s retail outlets were closed in 2022. In total, 86 bookstores were closed in Russia between 2022 and 2024.

The growth observed in the book market in 2023 was driven by marketplaces (Ozon, Wildberries, etc.) and e-books, while sales in traditional bookstores have been declining. The share of marketplaces in book sales has been steadily increasing in recent years, reaching nearly half. According to EKSMO-AST, sales in this segment grew by 31% in 2023. At the same time, foot traffic in bookstores decreased by 10% in 2023, with sales declining by 4.9% in Rubles and by 12.5% in the number of copies sold.

In response to declining sales, leaders of major bookstores and chains continue to discuss, in interviews and industry conferences, the need for bookstores in the country to restructure in order to survive. As they have been doing in the last ten years, before the war and sanctions. This involves offering customers not just books but also a unique environment, a platform for discussions, and personalized recommendations on what to read. However, major market players simultaneously lament the lack of suitable personnel for restructuring their operations and seek government support.

Small independent bookstores have long existed in Russia, primarily independent bookshops. Despite an optimistic surge in the 2010s, they have not achieved widespread distribution, but it is rare not to find such a store in each regional center. A hallmark of these stores is their collaboration with a wide range of publishers, including small and independent ones, some quite tiny. Their assortment is cherry-picked, with staff enjoying a high degree of autonomy in their work. However, these stores face challenges in developing under the competition of large chains, especially in the current market contraction, due to their low margins and extremely limited resources for investment and advertising. Nonetheless, there are isolated positive examples. For instance, the independent store Piotrovsky opened in Perm in 2010, expanded to Kazan in 2015, and reached Moscow by 2023.

Small independent stores, on the one hand, have adapted to survive in Russian realities, while, on the other hand, they have firmly established themselves in their niche with a loyal readership. Unlike them, large chains and stores do not rely on sales growth stemming from economic expansion and population prosperity. They must either be restructured under adverse conditions or continue their gradual transformation into stationery stores.

Censorship

Since the onset of full-scale Russian aggression, major censorship restrictions have targeteda two sensitive topics for the Russian authorities: the war in Ukraine and LGBTQ+. However, these legislative bans are vaguely defined, leaving uncertainty about their exact scope. There are still no lists of banned books or transparent oversight mechanisms by law enforcement agencies. In practice, publishers, booksellers, and library directors find themselves in a situation where nothing is explicitly prohibited, yet inspections can occur at any time. Typically, these are initiated by individual readers who share the conservative views of the Russian state, sometimes even surpassing them in radicalism. Not all complaints from concerned conservatives or prosecutorial inspections have consequences for stores and publishers. Nevertheless, together with the notable cases and the overall repressive atmosphere in the country, they intensify a sense of fear and readiness for self-censorship among industry representatives.

Penalties for violations are quite serious, ranging from hefty fines to temporary suspensions of organizational activities for up to 90 days. Clearly, the repressive laws were hastily enacted, and now everyone involved is trying to adjust to them, practicing self-censorship or testing the boundaries of what is permissible. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation (Min Tsifry) and the Russian Book Union have directly suggested that the industry (and therefore the monopolists of the book market) take on expertise, essentially a censoring review.

Indeed, in April 2024, an “expert center” was launched under the Russian Book Union to review books in Russia for compliance with Russian legislation. It also issues recommendations for withdrawing non-compliant literature from circulation, which are mandatory in practice. The center includes representatives from The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), the Russian Historical Society, the Russian Military Historical Society, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia, and others. Based on this council’s recommendation, on March 22, 2024, AST Publishing House halted sales of The Heritage by Vladimir Sorokin, The House at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. According to the examining center, these books vigorously promote LGBTQ+ values (whatever that might mean). Naturally, publishers were not particularly enthusiastic about this. “There’s nothing to comment on here, you already know everything. Thank you for reading and staying with us. We know there are many of you,” said Corpus Publishing, which published the now-banned book The Heritage by Sorokin.

Another tool of censorship has been the regularly updated (on Fridays) list of “foreign agents,” which also includes book authors. In 2023, there were 37 writers on the list, including quite well-known ones: Dmitry Bykov, Dmitry Glukhovsky, Linor Goralik, Mikhail Zygar, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, among others. These authors not only do not support the war but publicly denounce it. Consequently, their books are wrapped in opaque covers in bookstores, and they are denied open access in libraries. “Suspicious books” are withdrawn from library collections in many cases, to steer clear of trouble. It should be noted that self-censorship and preemptive fear of getting into trouble currently act as the most effective censorship mechanism. “Foreign agents,” lists designating an author as extremist, and recommendations of the expert center mainly direct and deepen the restricting of literary freedoms.

Interim Conclusion

Despite initial panic-induced estimates, the sanctions did not cause the Russian economy to collapse, and the book business has stood its ground alongside it. After two and a half years of full-scale war, the public statements of the major players in the book industry are optimistic, with the refrain that the future would be bright if sanctions did not break them. Indeed, the book industry has shown relative resilience, flexibility, and even financial growth. However, looking beyond profits to the internal dynamics of the industry, it is quite clear: book production and the number of published titles are declining. Reprints of fiction are increasingly dominating the market share. The output of scientific and popular science literature, new titles as well and translations from other languages is decreasing day by day.

At the turn of the 2010s, book enthusiasts held high hopes for small independent publishers and bookstores. They developed promisingly, offering a different reading culture, distinct from the commercialized consumptive perspective of book corporations and supermarkets. A culture where the book is not just a commodity but also a reason and basis for exploring the world around, engaging in useful discussions and interesting conversations.

Unfortunately, these hopes did not materialize, and every passing month of the ongoing war buries them deeper, throwing them into the past. Book monopolists accumulate more and more resources, while banned topics and repression create an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. Many independent publishers and booksellers used to look to the future with optimism, whereas now the primary task for most is to salvage what they can for the sake of post-war recovery and restoration.

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The Book Market in Russia
The Book Market in Russia
The Russian economy has transitioned toward militarization. How has this affected the book market? What are publishing houses and bookstores going through amidst the censorship and sanctions? Researcher and activist Konstantin Kharitonov analyzes the state of the book industry in wartime Russia

A brief history of the book industry in modern Russia

While the market reforms of the 1990s proved to be catastrophic for much of the Russian economy, the book industry thrived in those turbulent times. The lifting of censorship restrictions, and openness to the outside world, combined with the Soviet Union’s culture of reading and extensive book infrastructure (stores, libraries, etc.), facilitated the industry’s growth significantly. Some publishers began filling the gaps left by years of censorship in fiction and intellectual literature, while others worked to inundate the shelves with tons of simplistic detective stories, romance novels, and science fiction, often adorned with flamboyant covers. As a result, from 1990 to 2010, total book circulation increased by 1.5 times, and the number of published book titles surged by 2.5 times. A peculiar indicator of the industry’s growth during Russia’s 1990s era were the targeted assassinations of key figures in the book market. From 1996 to 2003, three directors of the Drofa Publishing House were killed. At the time, Drofa was successfully competing with the Prosveshcheniye Publishing House for the academic book market. Drofa continues to publish textbooks, now as part of the EKSMO-AST holding to this day, while Prosveshcheniye has become virtually a monopoly in this field.

During Putin’s era of stability, particularly in the 2000s, the book market flourished. It was expanding, having evolved into a market with relatively distributed spheres of influence, a developed publishing culture, and a clear trend toward monopolization.

However, starting in 2010, positive trends began to reverse, and the industry saw a noticeable decline. By the pandemic year of 2021, aggregate circulation had nearly halved. The lockdown and general economic issues aggravated the situation, resulting in a 10% contraction in the printed book market. Concurrently, book prices saw noticeable increases. Although several bookstores temporarily closed during this period, the main challenges were not about sales. Amid the pandemic crisis, industry representatives grappled primarily with rising paper costs, shortages in printing capabilities, outdated equipment, and a lack of qualified personnel. 

Currently, the Russian book market is monopolized but retains a high level of flexibility. The majority of textbooks in the country are published by Prosveshchenie Publishing House, while the EKSMO-AST holding (which also includes the Azbuka-Atticus Publishing House, the LitRes e-book service, Chitay Gorod/Bukvoed bookstore chains, and several printing enterprises) publishes most other books. Despite their extensive market coverage, the monopolists do not necessarily publish books of worthy quality (with a few exceptions). Often, their publications are of the lowest literary caliber. However, Russia is home to several small publishers who, despite their tiny scale of circulation compared to the major players, maintain a reputation for carefully curated literature and meticulous editorial, proofreading, and design work. These publishers release anywhere from several dozen to several hundred titles per year but often lack the resources for the wide distribution of their books. Nevertheless, it was their work that made the Russian book industry vibrant and intellectually rich before the war.

Sanctions and more

In December 2022, it was reported that the Russian book market was in a “severe crisis due to the war,” with publishers and book traders preparing to resist increasing censorship. Due to the sanctions, Russia stopped receiving paper supplies from the European Union, as well as certain components and reagents necessary, for example, for paper bleaching. Some high-quality sorts of paper are only produced outside of Russia. The fifth package of sanctions prohibited the supply of typographic equipment and other professional machinery to Russia. As a result, book production increased by 30% in 2022, primarily due to rising paper prices.

Not only did the sanctions negatively impact the book industry, but in 2021, translated literature accounted for about 20% of the total book offering, and foreign authors contributed 40% of bookstore revenue. A significant part of bestsellers and highly profitable publications belonged to Western authors. With the onset of full-scale war, some of these authors (along with several publishers) declined to enter into new agreements with their Russian counterparts. Even for those who continued to work with Russian publishers, noticeable difficulties arose due to the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT system, currency fluctuations, and overall uncertainty.

Among the most well-known authors who refused to publish in Russia were Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Nicholas Sparks, and Stephen King, who have been sales leaders in Russia for many years. The existing contracts remained in force, but new releases in Russian from these and many other authors should no longer be expected. On the other hand, most small publishers specializing in intellectual literature managed to maintain contact with Western partners and continue their work despite the obstacles. In February 2022, many of them condemned the invasion on their social media platforms before the first repressive laws were introduced. Overall, these publishers rightly enjoy a good reputation.

However, large publishers, namely EKSMO-AST, were forced to seek alternatives to compensate for the financial losses caused by the exodus of once-popular Western authors from Russia. The situation mirrored developments in many other sectors of the Russian economy: the use of domestic resources and the shift toward the Asian market. Indeed, certain books from China, including comics and young adult literature, are now published in Russia with quite impressive print runs, exceeding 100,000 copies. Indeed, the Asian book market is rich and diverse, but engaging with it requires scarce specialists fluent in the respective languages. 

Dealing with Russian authors is also challenging. Previously, large publishers often declined to collaborate with lesser-known Russian authors, citing insufficient resources for promotion, and preferring instead to translate and secure rights for already successful authors and books. Now, however, they are compelled to seek authors within the country, though the system of their selection and promotion is not yet fully developed.

One way to circumvent restrictions and profit from the works of Western authors has been to publish so-called “summaries.” These are essentially paraphrases close to translations. Copyright does not extend to such “summaries,” thereby avoiding any prohibitions. The first experimental publication of this kind was Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, released in early 2023 by the publisher Eksmo in a print run of 3,000 copies. However, after several experiments with paraphrasing potential bestsellers, major publishers chose not to continue down this dubious path. Such a choice would have tarnished the reputation of Russian publishers and hindered the future normalization of relations. Moreover, books of this nature appear rather pitiful. Paraphrasing is suitable in a review format, but when an entire book is reworded and filled with introductory phrases like “the author claims that…” or “further, it tells us…”, it seems odd and may appeal only to a rare reader. Publishing houses that produce high-quality translated literature, such as Individuum and Ad Marginem, immediately denounced such practices.

Another experiment was the release of books purportedly from the perspective of a fictitious, literally non-existent publisher. Thus, the obscure and suddenly appearing Trophy Book publisher in 2023 presented paper editions of new books by Stephen King and J.K. Rowling on certain marketplaces, supposedly published in Luhansk, i.e., in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. The publisher was shown to have no website or office, and the books lacked essential publishing details, including ISBNs. No such legal entity could be found in any databases. These books were published by no one despite author prohibitions, and no one took responsibility for them, which raised significant suspicions.

Fewer, yet more expensive

The Russian Book Chamber maintains comprehensive statistics on all book activities, unavoidably receiving copies of every book published in the country. According to the Chamber’s data, despite all the challenges, the volume of the book market in 2022 remained almost unchanged compared to 2021 in quantitative terms: the number of titles published decreased by 3%, while the total circulation increased by 0.8%. However, compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019, there was a noticeable decline (-6.1% and -4%). Almost all types of published literature experienced a reduction to varying degrees, except for fiction, which saw a growth of over 20%. In monetary terms, amidst inflation, the industry showed a growth of 7.1% (7.5% for printed books).

Simultaneously, according to the EKSMO-AST Publishing House, the number of books sold decreased significantly by 7% (following a 21% increase in 2021). In 2022, there was a sharp decline in the export of book products to countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan, by factors ranging from 10 to 20 times. The purchase of books from other countries also decreased even further: by 35 times from the UK, over 17 times from China, and 14 times from Germany.

Although 2022 could have been extremely challenging for the e-book market, it has also shown growth. The collapse of major Russian company stocks, the exit of key Western organizations, transactional issues, and reduced advertising platforms did not significantly impact the e-book market. Similar to printed books, the sector quickly recovered following the initial shock in the first months of the war. Sales declines were soon compensated for, and Russian entrepreneurs acquired most of the assets left by the exiting companies. For instance, Bookmate, a popular international service exited Russia, but the Russian company Yandex continues to use its technological platform under license. New projects were also launched. However, this segment of the market did not expand broadly. The new companies only slightly stimulated the industry by injecting financial resources into it. LitRes, owned by EKSMO-AST’s Oleg Novikov, remains a monopoly holder of the Russian e-book market, accounting for approximately 70%.

The detailed report from the Book Chamber for 2023 has not been published yet, but some figures are already available. In November 2023, the monopolists forecast the overall growth of the industry: around 10% in monetary terms and 5% in the number of published copies. However, the results presented by EKSMO-AST were slightly more moderate than forecast: the market for printed books grew by 9% in monetary terms and by 3% in quantity.

On the other hand, published figures indicate a general decline in production by over 10%, both in print runs and the number of titles published (translations showed a decrease of over 20%). In 2022, there were 19,724 titles of translated books published (11,674 of them translated from English), compared to 15,713 titles in 2023 (8,844 from English). Thus, while the book market grew monetarily in 2023, book production began to decline noticeably after the stagnation of 2022. However, the digital book market resumed growth in 2023. After a brief stagnation in 2022 due to the exodus of Western services and platforms, it grew by 19%.

Statistical data for the first quarter of 2024 show a continuous decline both in print runs and the number of titles, down by 5%. According to the specialized journal Book Industry, while book sales in monetary terms increased slightly by 0.6%, there was a 3% decline in quantity. Only fiction sales showed a slight increase (2.2%). Overall, there is an increasing trend in print runs of editions and average volume (which reduces production costs), as well as the number of reprints. It is noteworthy that over the past decade, new titles have driven primary reader demand, accounting for approximately two-thirds of the total print run.

Publishers and bookstores

The economy’s shift to militarization has not altered recent trends in the activities of major Russian publishers. Their total number has decreased, but the monopoly of EKSMO-AST holding has strengthened. In 2022, the Book Chamber counted 4,450 organizations that submitted at least one publication, which is 503 fewer than in 2019 (a decrease of 10.2%). There has also been a decrease in the number of actively operating publishers, those submitting more than 12 copies per year to the Book Chamber. Those leading in terms of quantitative indicators are invariably Prosveshchenie, which published more than a third of all books and brochures in Russia, and the publishers within the EKSMOAST holding. The share of the top 20 largest publishers has increased in both the number of titles (by 15.5% since 2019) and print runs (by 14.2%), reaching over 80%.

Evidently, industry captains continue to consolidate significant assets related to book publishing and distribution, seizing opportunities presented by new realities. For instance, the independent publisher Individuum, operating in the country since 2015, was acquired in 2022 by Denis Kotov, the founder of the Bukvoyed bookstore chain associated with the monopolistic publisher Eksmo. Meanwhile, its former owners were dubbed “foreign agents.” This was not incidental: prior to the war, Individuum included the Popcorn Books initiative, which focused on adolescent and youth literature often addressing LGBTQ+ themes. The first administrative case in Russia for “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” was filed against Popcorn Books. Upon acquiring the publishing house, Denis Kotov, as the new owner, announced a complete reorientation of its publishing policy and rejection of LGBTQ+ culture. Subsequently, he sold the remnants of the demolished publishing house directly to the Eksmo monopolist.

There has been no breakthrough in the economic life of bookstores either. Since the late 1990s, their number in Russia has not increased but gradually decreased. In 2022, according to official industry reports, there were 5,300 specialized bookstores operating in Russia. A prime example is the major chain Chitay-Gorod-Bukvoyed, which accounts for just under 20% of all retail sales of printed books. While it showed regular growth in previous years, 32 of the company’s retail outlets were closed in 2022. In total, 86 bookstores were closed in Russia between 2022 and 2024.

The growth observed in the book market in 2023 was driven by marketplaces (Ozon, Wildberries, etc.) and e-books, while sales in traditional bookstores have been declining. The share of marketplaces in book sales has been steadily increasing in recent years, reaching nearly half. According to EKSMO-AST, sales in this segment grew by 31% in 2023. At the same time, foot traffic in bookstores decreased by 10% in 2023, with sales declining by 4.9% in Rubles and by 12.5% in the number of copies sold.

In response to declining sales, leaders of major bookstores and chains continue to discuss, in interviews and industry conferences, the need for bookstores in the country to restructure in order to survive. As they have been doing in the last ten years, before the war and sanctions. This involves offering customers not just books but also a unique environment, a platform for discussions, and personalized recommendations on what to read. However, major market players simultaneously lament the lack of suitable personnel for restructuring their operations and seek government support.

Small independent bookstores have long existed in Russia, primarily independent bookshops. Despite an optimistic surge in the 2010s, they have not achieved widespread distribution, but it is rare not to find such a store in each regional center. A hallmark of these stores is their collaboration with a wide range of publishers, including small and independent ones, some quite tiny. Their assortment is cherry-picked, with staff enjoying a high degree of autonomy in their work. However, these stores face challenges in developing under the competition of large chains, especially in the current market contraction, due to their low margins and extremely limited resources for investment and advertising. Nonetheless, there are isolated positive examples. For instance, the independent store Piotrovsky opened in Perm in 2010, expanded to Kazan in 2015, and reached Moscow by 2023.

Small independent stores, on the one hand, have adapted to survive in Russian realities, while, on the other hand, they have firmly established themselves in their niche with a loyal readership. Unlike them, large chains and stores do not rely on sales growth stemming from economic expansion and population prosperity. They must either be restructured under adverse conditions or continue their gradual transformation into stationery stores.

Censorship

Since the onset of full-scale Russian aggression, major censorship restrictions have targeteda two sensitive topics for the Russian authorities: the war in Ukraine and LGBTQ+. However, these legislative bans are vaguely defined, leaving uncertainty about their exact scope. There are still no lists of banned books or transparent oversight mechanisms by law enforcement agencies. In practice, publishers, booksellers, and library directors find themselves in a situation where nothing is explicitly prohibited, yet inspections can occur at any time. Typically, these are initiated by individual readers who share the conservative views of the Russian state, sometimes even surpassing them in radicalism. Not all complaints from concerned conservatives or prosecutorial inspections have consequences for stores and publishers. Nevertheless, together with the notable cases and the overall repressive atmosphere in the country, they intensify a sense of fear and readiness for self-censorship among industry representatives.

Penalties for violations are quite serious, ranging from hefty fines to temporary suspensions of organizational activities for up to 90 days. Clearly, the repressive laws were hastily enacted, and now everyone involved is trying to adjust to them, practicing self-censorship or testing the boundaries of what is permissible. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation (Min Tsifry) and the Russian Book Union have directly suggested that the industry (and therefore the monopolists of the book market) take on expertise, essentially a censoring review.

Indeed, in April 2024, an “expert center” was launched under the Russian Book Union to review books in Russia for compliance with Russian legislation. It also issues recommendations for withdrawing non-compliant literature from circulation, which are mandatory in practice. The center includes representatives from The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), the Russian Historical Society, the Russian Military Historical Society, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia, and others. Based on this council’s recommendation, on March 22, 2024, AST Publishing House halted sales of The Heritage by Vladimir Sorokin, The House at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. According to the examining center, these books vigorously promote LGBTQ+ values (whatever that might mean). Naturally, publishers were not particularly enthusiastic about this. “There’s nothing to comment on here, you already know everything. Thank you for reading and staying with us. We know there are many of you,” said Corpus Publishing, which published the now-banned book The Heritage by Sorokin.

Another tool of censorship has been the regularly updated (on Fridays) list of “foreign agents,” which also includes book authors. In 2023, there were 37 writers on the list, including quite well-known ones: Dmitry Bykov, Dmitry Glukhovsky, Linor Goralik, Mikhail Zygar, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, among others. These authors not only do not support the war but publicly denounce it. Consequently, their books are wrapped in opaque covers in bookstores, and they are denied open access in libraries. “Suspicious books” are withdrawn from library collections in many cases, to steer clear of trouble. It should be noted that self-censorship and preemptive fear of getting into trouble currently act as the most effective censorship mechanism. “Foreign agents,” lists designating an author as extremist, and recommendations of the expert center mainly direct and deepen the restricting of literary freedoms.

Interim Conclusion

Despite initial panic-induced estimates, the sanctions did not cause the Russian economy to collapse, and the book business has stood its ground alongside it. After two and a half years of full-scale war, the public statements of the major players in the book industry are optimistic, with the refrain that the future would be bright if sanctions did not break them. Indeed, the book industry has shown relative resilience, flexibility, and even financial growth. However, looking beyond profits to the internal dynamics of the industry, it is quite clear: book production and the number of published titles are declining. Reprints of fiction are increasingly dominating the market share. The output of scientific and popular science literature, new titles as well and translations from other languages is decreasing day by day.

At the turn of the 2010s, book enthusiasts held high hopes for small independent publishers and bookstores. They developed promisingly, offering a different reading culture, distinct from the commercialized consumptive perspective of book corporations and supermarkets. A culture where the book is not just a commodity but also a reason and basis for exploring the world around, engaging in useful discussions and interesting conversations.

Unfortunately, these hopes did not materialize, and every passing month of the ongoing war buries them deeper, throwing them into the past. Book monopolists accumulate more and more resources, while banned topics and repression create an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. Many independent publishers and booksellers used to look to the future with optimism, whereas now the primary task for most is to salvage what they can for the sake of post-war recovery and restoration.

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