Why Russian indie book publishers are fighting the conservative mainstream

For Russian publishers, translated foreign titles rule the bestseller lists. Now publishing startups are giving space to local voices — including those from the margins of Russian society.

29 May 2020

For most people, Russian literature is the realm of heavy-bound tomes by Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. The country’s traditional literary canon is hierarchical and conservative; largely male and devoid of openly queer voices. Even in the Soviet era, it was thick literary magazines (including Yunost’, Druzhba Narodov, and Voprosy Literatury), the heirs of the old intelligentsia, which remained key for writers craving recognition from the artistic world.

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It’s a legacy that has spilled over into contemporary literature. Russia’s book market is dominated by big players such as Eksmo-AST, the country’s largest publishing group, which distributes and promotes its books through affiliate bookshop chains. The most widely-read books are translated foreign bestsellers. There is little space for Russian talent — and if you want to be one of the chosen few to secure a book deal, that means satisfying big publishers’ often conservative tastes. The Covid-19 crisis, meanwhile, has heaped extra pressure on the industry. Bookshops are closed, and big publishers are now favouring authors with large social media followings in a bid to cut advertising costs and ensure bestsellers. Aspiring authors without millions of followers are finding that even more doors are beginning to close.

Change, however, is already coming — driven by a new wave of young literary activists and independent startups challenging the status quo. Many are led by young women, on offshoot from Russia’s growing feminist movement. They search for the forgotten Russian writers of the past, look for young new voices, and translate the queer foreign titles that would otherwise never make it into Russian.

The Calvert Journal spoke to the game-changing grassroots publishers breaking marginalised and experimental literature out of personal blogs and into the mainstream.


Popcorn Books

Independent publishing house

Tata Anastasian, co-founder:

When we opened our publishing house, we just wanted to publish the kind of books that we liked. In the end, we became the first Russian publisher to promote LGBTQ+ literature. Looking back now, I realise what a terrible loss it would have been to the already conservative Russian book market if we hadn’t taken that step. But our competitors saw how well our books sold, and suddenly they had picked up queer literature as a hot-selling topic. I always joke and say that capitalism is the only thing that will ever beat homophobia. Now, we’re far from alone in selling LGBTQ+ literature.

I believe that every area of culture needs people who can take those small but difficult steps forward in order to change the future of their country. Our goal is not just to give people the pleasure of reading, but also to help them cope with life’s difficulties, to accept themselves and others. I am inspired by the people around me, our readers, RuPaul’s Drag race, delicious homemade food, justice, and the hope that, in the end, everything will be fine.

Yana Markovich, co-founder:

Tata and I always enjoyed good young adult literature. But when we worked at large publishing houses, we were always surprised that the most popular foreign books would pass us by. When we had the opportunity, we began to buy rights for these books. All of them covered serious topics that weren’t being discussed in our society, such as being LGBTQ+, body-positivity, racism, political identity, and mental health. Now, we regularly receive words of gratitude: “You are the only ones who are not scared to bring up these subjects.”

Our goal is to give readers excellent stories that help them experience real emotions — and possibly find answers to their questions. That is what inspires me.


Common Place

Independent publishing house

Masha Nesterenko, compiler and editor of the fem-series:

We publish fiction and memoirs by forgotten Russian female writers. If you’ve read the famous essay by Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, you’ll know that the answer to that question lies in one thing: social prejudice. It was the same for Russia’s women writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now the situation is changing for the better: people pay more attention to the female experience in the broadest sense of the word.

I think it’s essential to look back at the past and try to find what we’ve overlooked. Female writing in Russia has a longer tradition than it is commonly believed. “Ѳ” is an attempt to fill in the gaps by bringing back forgotten female names and texts. I enjoy working with the archives, searching for information and new names. People look forward to reading our books — and that inspires me.


NEZNANIE

Independent literary magazine

Sanya Guseva, writer, co-founder and co-editor:

There is not much air in Russian literature. We want to stir it up, introduce new forms, texts, and practices. We enable authors to express themselves and not to adapt to the realities of the contemporary world of prose, to sound as they want to, and to be heard.

Lisa Kamenskaya, writer, co-founder and co-editor:

We are well aware that the personal is always political. Literature is always political too. That’s why, in this challenging time, we felt it was crucial to create a small oasis of freedom. A lot of writers in Russia think: “I have nowhere to send my work, because this publisher will tell me that lesbians are bad, or that the publisher will hate experiments”. Our goal is to change this situation. I don’t want people to write without the hope of being published for political rather than aesthetic reasons, like in the Soviet Union.

Arina Boyko, writer, co-founder and co-editor:

Over the past five years in Russia, more and more places where people can learn about creative writing have started to emerge. More and more people want to write and publish. I hope that in the bright future, our book market will be as diverse as in the USA, and I am sure that there will be more independent projects like ours.


Modern Magic

Independent publishing house and shop

Lida Pavlova, founder:

My initial motivation [in opening Modern Magic] wasn’t focused on a financial goal, but on the process. I wanted to publish the books and print the tarot cards that I liked; I don’t want to turn it into a commercial product. At first, I just did tarot readings. Then two years ago, I opened a store with a selection of decks and books that I personally enjoyed.

I do not like how everything works in large publishing houses: their style, approach to work, and portfolios. I want to translate important books into Russian, and publish Russian female writers that I like. I am fond of modern magic, I am a feminist, I love folklore and history: all of this affects what I do.

In my line of work, there are a lot of talented illustrators and artists, [as well as writers]. We will soon publish a feminist Sabotage Tarot, for example, by the artist and tattooist Sonya Sobatage. It is very stylistically fresh, current, and body-positive.


No Kidding Press

Independent publishing house

Sasha Shadrina, founder of the independent publishing house No Kidding Press and host of female writing courses Write Like a Grrrl Russia (WLAG) in Russia:

Our goal was to publish books that portray the experiences of women and queer people — something that’s underrepresented in Russian literature. It is important to me to publish authors who do something new in terms of language and form, and don’t pay attention to genre conventions.

At the moment, I really enjoy the work of playwright, director and publicist Natasha Zaitseva; I think her prose would turn out great too. Writer Ala Sarv was a recent great discovery for me — her story will be published in the new WLAG storybook on friendship.

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