Let me recognize Georgian publishers which, speaking figuratively, have brought national literature to the dawn of a new era. They now face the digital era unafraid and braced to meet its challenges. I offer the story of three of them. In the future, I will introduce others too.
The first-person accounts of the three publishers featured here answer a range of questions: How were their publishing houses created; where did their titles emerge; how they get started; what obstacles did they encounter; what type of literature do they publish or do not publish; how do Soviet-time and current book markets in Georgia differ; what are their most successful and most unsuccessful editions; what is their attitude toward e-books, and what are their future prospects?
Each of these three publishing houses has its own distinguished history and viewpoint. The publishers tell their own story in their own particular manner, although some similarities in attitudes are evident among them.
Around eight or nine years ago, the first modern bookstore – Parnasi – was opened in Tbilisi, and it was filled with diverse modern foreign editions and unattractive Georgian ones. I realized then that I wanted and was able to make modern Georgian books. I had only once before been at a publishing house; that was when brochures of young authors were printed for us for a youth literature festival. Back then, I looked at that business as an author and I had lots of unwarranted demands for the publishing house.
On the one hand, I looked at books as an author and a Parnasi employee (bookseller) and, on the other hand, as a reader. That three-dimensional approach made me engage in the book business with great enthusiasm. I felt I cared more than anything else about publishing. I did not think about business and earning profits. Our red logo was created by [Georgian photographer] Guram Tsibakhashvili. The design of the office documentation was created by [Georgian painter] Tengiz Mirzashvili. We all were engaged in establishing a publishing house with great enthusiasm. They seemed reluctant to leave me alone in front of a responsible business. That support was later reflected in the title of the publishing house – Siesta Group – and continues to this day in the form of a continuous sharing of thoughts and exchange of ideas.
Before the public notary attached its seals to the Siesta charter, I wanted to give the publishing house a Georgian name. I thought about that day and night for a month. Different names were suggested by friends: Enigma, Nino, Aspurtsela. In fact, at that time I was pregnant and I was thus giving birth not only to Siesta but to my child too. Names were proposed for my unborn child as well. For several days, my friends and I assembled around books in the Parnasi bookstore café, busy trying to come up with names. Meanwhile, I collected a charter capital. With thirty minutes left before an arranged appointment with the public notary, we decided to start a countdown and shout out names and the one articulated at the last minute would be the winner. Options for the title of the publishing house included absurd and funny names. On the last minute (Georgian writer) Irakli Kakabadze shouted out “Siesta!” Thus the public notary sealed the charter. My daughter was also born healthy.
The start-up was similarly magical as well. The first published book was by Irakli Kakabadze, the writer who also christened the name of the publishing house. It was a book with color inserts on transparent paper, with a print run of five hundred. We were working on the edition of a second book when I received a call from a non-governmental organization that wanted to publish a book. I thanked them and told them that I was on maternity leave and had an office at home because I could not leave my baby. They said, “No problem, we will come to your home!” I agreed and suggested a meeting the next day, but they were in a hurry and insisted on coming immediately. It was already evening when they came – three ladies between the ages of forty and fifty, dressed in red, yellow and green – three enchantresses. They have since become my beloved friends. They ordered a large work and we used the earned “profit” to lay a foundation for Siesta. That year was very successful – we published some ten books. Had the selection of those ten books not been done with great care, our start would have quite soon become our finish.
Supporting young writers is our weakness, weakness in the sense that it is not profitable, although it is a very interesting process. Contemporary Georgian writers are the key direction of the Siesta publishing house. Works that are free from copyright must be made available for the future generation in the form of an electronic library – like it is done by lib.ge [literary portal], but that should also be complemented with books in various formats readable by different reading devices.
We publish translations of classic works. We do not scrimp on time or energy of translator, editor, proofreader. Nor do we scrimp on paper and paint or good illustrations and designers for books. We always translate from the original text and never spoil a work by translating it from a mediatory language, Russian, which is often the case in Georgia.
I am not fond of artificially uniting books into a series, numbering them like soldiers or identifying them by the same color. Each book is individual. Each book in its form and design must be consistent with the author and content.
We made reprints of very interesting second editions together with the Ministry of Culture of Georgia. Kavkasioni magazine was reprinted on the initiative of Professor Zurab Kiknadze. Published in 1924, the magazine was of a broad and comprehensive scope which was something absolutely new in those times. Under conditions of the Soviet ideology, the magazine, which was a public initiative, was not able to develop. We have also reprinted other important publications.
We also work on children’s books. We will soon release the epic poem “Snake Eater” by [famous Georgian poet and writer] Vazha-Pshavela in the form of a comic book. The amazing adventure of Mindia [protagonist of the poem], with illustrations created in Georgian aesthetics, will soon open up the world of Vazha-Pshavela and Georgian myths for children. Who is your child’s superhero? Superman? Or Spiderman? After reading these comics, it will definitely be Mindia.
Overall, the situation has changed. During the Soviet Union, no copyrights were purchased for published books. The rights then were one-sided, were not they? There are no book charts - the best of the best, top-ten books, do not exist. The most successful book is the one which has influenced readers the most.
We are exemplary leaders of literary contests – that is a fact. I would like to thank the impartial jury of the literary contest “Saba” and organizers of this prestigious Georgian literary award.
Among favorite modern authors, I would like to single out Erlom Akhvlediani. I have been a publisher for quite a while now, and I have met with many interesting, ambitious, extravagant authors. But Erlom Akhvlediani, with his depth and kindness, made me fall in love with life anew.
Sales of our series of the children’s edition “Let’s Talk about That” are not high. But I do not consider this series to be an unsuccessful edition because one can hardly find books of such content, prepared with psychologists’ consultations, which help both children and parents to overcome problems.
I welcome e-books. Woods will be saved. Moreover, new technologies offer cheap, environmentally friendly and convenient forms of acquiring knowledge. It is time now to take active part in their introduction. A new literary webpage has been created, lit.ge, the founders of which introduced new tools. We have already placed a few books on that webpage, including Zurab Karumidze’s “Dagni” in the English language. The Siesta publishing house will soon establish a new literary prize which will be awarded only to authors of books in electronic format.
The publishing house Diogenes was created in 1994. Four friends – Gia Karchkhadze, Otar Qaralashvili, Bakur Sulakauri and I – decided that publishing books would be a noble occupation and a profitable business at the same time. We started the business joyously, but, because of the incompatibility of the principals, the situation soon changed. To make a long story short, I lost friends and acquired business rivals instead. It was a difficult experience, an absolutely sobering one.
Over the past ten to eleven years, many new people have started working for Diogenes. And, as it always happens, gradually a team of like-minded people has been formed – people who share and like our vision, style and priorities. New employees bring new projects, and I am happy that the development of Diogenes is a continuous process.
Frankly speaking, we did not deliberate much on the title of the publishing house. Diogenes? Why not?! We all shouted out almost at once. Our logo (a tree and inscription “Diogenes”) was also created by Otar Qaralashvili quickly and with total agreement. It is one of the best Georgian logos indeed.
The main difficulties in our start-up were an abundance of ideas and a deficiency of money. This was subjective. As regards general problems and environment, very few bookstores were in Georgia sixteen years ago. Nor was the legislative framework in place. When you start a business, it is of utmost importance to have a favorable environment and to be able to implement your plans easily. In this regard, the situation in Georgia today is much better and the entire society must take care to make positive changes irreversible.
Children’s literature, fiction, textbooks are the most common priorities of the world publishing industry and are priorities for Diogenes as well.
It is nearly seven months now that our business has been enriched with a significant novelty: We opened the bookstore Diogenes at 9 Apakidze Street, near the sports palace in the Saburtalo district. We spared no efforts (or money) to create a pleasant environment in the bookstore. Many good books, a becoming design, literary meetings, music, films, the possibility of “unlimited” questions in a cozy atmosphere, tea and coffee, etcetera – this is bookstore Diogenes-style and this style has already acquired many appreciators.
Soviet-time and contemporary markets differ from each other like sky and earth, like closed space and the possibility to act freely. The situation could be further improved, of course. I wish the state showed greater interest in increasing book readership. Unfortunately, wrong initiatives are sometimes put forward at the level of separate entities. If the state would develop a common state vision and relevant program, misunderstandings would be eliminated and progress would be made much faster.
Among successful editions, what first comes to my mind is “Moukrepavni,” the collection of poems of Georgian scabrous folklore. The works were compiled by [Professor of philology and folklorist] Vakhushti Kotetishvili, who added to it materials collected by [prominent Georgian ethnographer, lexicographer and translator] Tedo Sakhokia. The success of this book is remarkable for a number of reasons. Among them, I would single out the fact that, despite controversies about the book and the opposition of “conservatives,” jolly folk humor has gained the upper hand and this small-size book has refreshed the libraries of many families.
As regards an unsuccessful example… I will name not a concrete book, but an entire series of books. We gave this series a conventional name “Genuine Children Books.” Those books are international bestsellers, modern fairy tales which have failed to find readers in Georgia. Now we are trying to find out the reason why these books are not popular in Georgia. There are many reasons, of course. But I think that the majority of Georgian parents are wary of delicate, “non-standard” books with unique text and illustrations. They prefer one-and-the-same plot, rewritten and remade several thousand times. Be more courageous, dear parents! Call in at Diogenes and look at books which parents around the world read to their children and enjoy together with them!
I am one hundred percent sure that the future belongs to electronic books. I feel and say that as a reader and as a publisher. It is impossible otherwise, and I am surprised when my colleagues oppose this phenomenon.
At present, Diogenes carries out intensive work to convert its earlier published books into electronic format. Naturally, we will also make attempts to have every new edition in both traditional and electronic formats simultaneously. This refers first and foremost to textual editions. I cannot say anything yet about illustrated books, but we also want to experiment in this area as well.
Bakur Sulakauri Publishing Ltd
In 1996-1998, I was one of the founders and a director of Diogenes publishing house. The visions of my co-founder friends (now all of them have their own publishing houses) regarding the editorial policy of the publishing house, as well as sales and financial management, differed drastically from my vision. So I decided to act independently and then established a separate publishing house. I first published books in 1998. Bakur Sulakauri Publishing Ltd. was founded later, on 30 June 1999. There were two people – Tina Mamulashvili, now director of the publishing house, and I – who worked then in the company.
Very few publishing houses operated then; the book market was not even in its nascent state. Naturally, when a publishing house is established with an ambitious goal to create and develop a market that is similar in essence to – and different only in size from – book markets of developed countries, the name, which must become a brand, plays a very important role. Our idea about the name was quite simple; what works in every developed country will work in Georgia too. This is true about the principles of arranging the market (say, book pricing policy), as well as about the name of the publishing house. A vast majority of publishing houses in the world carry the names of their founders and, as a rule, follow publishing strategies developed by them. At the end of the Twentieth Century, the name and surname of a person in the title of a company still sounded weird. But there was a precedent as well (at that time, for example, Paata Natsblishvili Publishing House was up and running). Therefore, the selection of the name did not take long.
The main obstacle then that impeded the development of the book market in Georgia now seems very ludicrous, but, at that time, it was a serious problem: the retail price of a book was much lower than the actual cost of printing it in a printing house. For example, the sales price of a medium-size novel was around one Lari, while the cost of printing alone for that book was one-and-a-half Lari. It is naturally impossible to create a book market under such conditions. The very first thing we did at the beginning was the following: We prepared six books by modern writers for publication (among them was, for example, the now-renowned book, “Flight over Madatov Island and Back,” by Aka Morchiladze). We paid great attention to ensure that the packaging of this book (both cover and design of content as well as binding) was up to international standards. To that end, we invited a well-known specialist of graphic design, Tamaz Varvaridze, and commissioned the cover design to him. Other novelties were also color covers and, moreover, printing at a high-quality level, which was something very unusual at those times. In order to save printing costs, other publishers printed black-and-white covers and, even more so, covers of poor quality. But the main novelty was that we started selling those books at an unprecedented-for-those-times high price – three Lari. We still remember unhappy people grumbling about the unacceptability of selling books at such a high price. The sale of these books was low because customers had different price expectations. The situation, however, changed little by little…
We identified publishing priorities very clearly from the very beginning: contemporary prose (both Georgian and translated) and children’s literature (both fiction and educational). Thereafter, we extended our priorities a little to include school textbooks, social and political literature, and illustrated editions for adults (cooking, health care, gardening…). Often, some have the wrong understanding that we do not publish, for example, poetry because it has not sold well. Those who say that are not familiar with the book market at all or otherwise they would know that most commercially successful editions of the past few years have been collections of poems. We do not publish poetry for the only reason that it is not among our publishing priorities (nor, for example, is legal or economic literature). In publishing fiction, our main goal is not commerce but literary quality. Naturally, we then try to make whatever we publish commercially profitable – and we quite often succeed in that. That is precisely what created the myth that we seek only commercially successful projects. In reality, we try to find and publish good books and to make them commercially successful.
In general, the market is evaluated by measurable criteria. They are: number of books published annually; number of publishers operating on the market; volume of market by sales; number of bookstores and other points of sale of books, etcetera.
According to these criteria, the present book market is incomparably far ahead of the Soviet market. For example, the number of titles is at least twice as many; the number of publishers ten times more; total sales is almost double; even a retail book network is at least twice as big now as during Soviet times.
Our most successful book, from its publication to date, is “The Children’s Encyclopedia,” which is, in fact, the first-ever general knowledge, richly illustrated and, in a polygraphic sense, impeccably produced encyclopedic edition in Georgia. We have not translated this book accidentally. We believed then that there are spheres where one does not have to reinvent the wheel – one should take the best book existing in the world in a relevant area and make an exact analogue of it. Therefore, we decided to choose the best children’s encyclopedia which existed in the world market then. Out of scores of books, two made it onto the final shortlist. They were two British editions: one book, very popular at that time illustrated with photographs and having a very impressive design, was published by Dorling Kindersley; the other, illustrated with paintings, was published by Osborne. Anyone who saw these two books reached first for Dorling Kindersley’s edition. But an observation of children, which we conducted, showed that children were soon bored with Dorling Kindersley’s edition while they could look through Osborne’s edition endlessly. Therefore, we decided to publish the latter. We were not mistaken – this book is one of best selling books in the Georgian market to date.
We publish dozens of books annually which we know will not be commercially profitable. Nevertheless, we publish them and cross-subsidize them from commercially successful projects. Consequently, we do not have any criterion by which we will measure the unsuccessfulness of non-commercial projects.
Certain types of books will no longer exist in hard-copy form in the foreseeable future – for example, directories, dictionaries and the like. The prose will shift toward electronic format relatively slowly. We have already started to keep in step and, in the near future, we will have our first electronic editions. In general, the book market (both in printed and electronic formats) in Georgia grows year after year and I hope these growth rates will be maintained in the following years too.