Book industry fights back against debt crisis

12th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Publishers and booksellers from debt-laden countries gathered at the world's biggest book fair Wednesday determined to fight the impact of Europe's economic woes.

But authors at least have drawn inspiration from the crisis, they reported.

Greece, currently in the eye of the eurozone debt storm, has 15 publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, its lowest number in recent years, but trade in translation rights makes it an important date in their calendar.

Wage cuts, tax hikes, especially a VAT increase on books, and rising prices, have proven a "great shock for the publishing industry", Sokrates Kabouropoulos, senior officer of the National Book Centre of Greece said.

Book retailers have bought 30 percent fewer books in the last two years, and publishers have had fewer titles annually since 2007-2008, when there were 10,000 new titles, he said.

"In 2010, we had 9,000 new books but around 10 percent were in fact ebooks, that are not real new books," he added.

Reading habits have also changed in Greece, where many people have been forced to take a second job to weather the crisis and simply do not have as much time to read, he said.

And with books costing 17 euros ($23) on average, the number of books bought per person in Greece has also fallen from seven to five on average between 2004 and 2010.

"A lot of books linked to the crisis... have been successful. There's a need to understand what happened," Kabouropoulos said.

But people had also turned to Greek classics and poetry "as a self-defence against all the bad publicity," he added.

In Portugal, also in the midst of a painful austerity drive in exchange for an international bailout, books have tended to do well during crises as they can still be cheap and retain their "prestige", an industry expert said here.

"At Christmas typically, it's a kind of refuge product. It used to be but we think this year it will not be anymore," said Henrique Mota, chairman of the International Relations Council of the Portuguese Publishers' and Booksellers' Association.

Fearful of what could be around the corner, the Portuguese were banking their cash now rather than spending it, he said: he could not predict whether they would even buy five-euro books this Christmas.

"The only thing we asked the government is not to increase VAT rates, which would be the end of the publishing industry," said Mota, who is also an editor and CEO of Principia publishers and a Lisbon-based book store.

However, he said he was quite confident for the future. Seventeen publishing houses representing 70-75 percent of Portugal's publishing industry were in Frankfurt, meaning "everybody wants to stay in business".

Governments in Ireland and the book fair's guest-of-honour Iceland, which are both recovering from economic crises in recent years, continued supporting their countries' culture, industry insiders here said.

"We had to cut costs, which we did... We have not reduced our staff since and we have been profitable since," Michael O'Brien, of O'Brien publishers said, referring to when the Irish crisis began.

With sales, margins and cover prices falling, managing director Ivan O'Brien said the company needed to be "very creative to make the books successful, and it worked so far.

"There are a lot more efforts on packaging, a lot more illustrations... The commercial criteria is a stronger part of the mix," he said.

But, economic turbulence can also prove a source of inspiration for writers.

"It's important to write about the crisis because we want to keep a correct picture of (Icelandic society)," Iceland's internationally renowned crime author Yrsa Sigurdardottir said.

"The characters don't drive luxury cars, they go bankrupt, and it gives also motives for the crimes."

Children's author Andri Snaer Magnason referred to an Icelandic poet who during the 1930s Great Depression wrote a satirical poem about how the crisis made him cry for joy because of all the stories it gave him to write about.

Since the dramatic collapse of Iceland's economy in 2008 when its three major banks failed, "there has been much to write about," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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