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Moscow Rules

Moscow Rules

The Higher School of Economics in Moscow held a conference on digital publishing from December 6-10, 2014.   I was invited to recount my experiences publishing online (see post Adventures in the E-Trade).   The conference was intended mainly for young publishers aiming to make the transition from print to e-books. Speakers included well-known Russian media and literary figures, such as Aleksandr Arkhangelskiy, Vladimir Kharitonov and Aleksandr Gavrilov.

In Soviet times, Russians were reputed for their attachment to books, but the reading public has shrunk, and now 36% of the adult population never read a book. Why not? Because there are other things to do now: socializing, eating and drinking, social media… Traditional forms of entertainment such as books and theatre are losing ground to music and cinema, and books must adapt to the new digital landscape if they are to survive.

The book market in Russia is moving rapidly away from print editions to online publishing. Print sales now account for 25% of total book sales, and e-books for 75%. Why the shift? For one thing, there are few bookstores left in small towns with a population of under 100,000, whereas internet access is available practically everywhere.   In a country the size of Russia, online publishing solves the problem of distribution. Amazon.ru is having limited success because the postal service cannot provide rapid delivery (and the drones aren’t yet in service). Prices of print books have risen 10% in the past six months, and e-books are considerably cheaper.

Digital books have a major role to play in the field of education – though they should be avoided in the early years, says literary guru Aleksandr Gavrilov.  If you give only e-books to very young children, it  will kill off print books forever – and besides they’ll just use their e-readers to hit each other over the head with.

E-books change the nature of the reading experience, notes Alyona Sosnina. Readers are no longer interacting with an object (the printed book), but experiencing reading as a flow on a screen, and they must be made sufficiently comfortable with the online environment to cross the divide from User to Reader.

Which is where Design comes in. It takes a well-designed site, says Roman Zolin, to grab the bird-brain attention span of the passing surfer. What’s more, you need a Brand. If  your product has no Ideology  it won’t survive. You must have a Marketing Strategy. (It’s the second time in three days that someone’s told me I need a marketing strategy – which is alarming.  As soon as I find out what it is, I’m definitely going to get one.)

What makes the conference interesting is that it’s a bit of a grab bag. Something for everyone. Krossplatformennost’, as they say.  Advice for publishers from Aleksandr Arkhangelskiy:  Talk to your pirates,  see if you can get them to hold off on their wicked ways until you’ve had the chance to make some money from your own edition. (Apparently this works for a while.) Make videos of authors reading from their books. Poll your readers on their opinions. Aim for maximum visibility: post blogs, go on Facebook, get yourself seen.

As for authors, anything goes. Dispense with the services of a publisher by posting and distributing your book through Amazon. Choose a technological platform like ridero.ru to download an application, format your book, choose the layout, and post your text in online bookstores (Amazon, Ozon.ru, Bookmate…) Use crowdfunding sites to present your book proposal and see if anyone wants to finance it.  This option doesn’t seem to exist in Russia yet, but a site called unbound.co.uk is mentioned. Another British start-up, FicShelf,  offers a different model: FicShelf aims to create a social platform for the reading community. (It is suggested to me that I might like to post chapters of my next novel on their site to get reactions from anyone who happens to be passing through. Feedback from strangers having caused one or two disasters in the past, I decline politely.)

Some of these approaches are familiar to me from personal experience, some are new, and some are slightly confusing. The opportunities of the Internet have gone to everyone’s head. English-language sites and jargon are spattered liberally across all the Power Point presentations, and there are a lot of international cross-references and cross-platformness. It reminds me of the heady dot.com days of the 1990s. It’s hard to say if the Russian e-book market is developing in the same way as the Western market, with maybe a few years’ time lag, or if it is going in a completely different direction. Vremya pokazhet. Time will tell. Whatever happens, it’s going to be huge.

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