By Noah Charney
Once upon a time, a book release was a major event. There were few enough books published that each one was looked upon as noteworthy, the conduit of new and often foreign ideas, a treasure to be purchased, carefully wrapped, gifted with a degree of reverence, and discussed in dark cafes and across bottle-strewn dinner tables. This concept will surely sound foreign to readers today who are overwhelmed with words flowing from so many magazines, newspapers, books, and blogs that we’re forced to skim as a defense mechanism. Several hundred thousand books were self-published last year, leaving aside those published by established presses, after having been selected by agents and acquiring editors, then polished and edited into a finished state (around 350,000 such books are published annually in the U.S. alone). Smaller markets, such as Italy, publish around 300 books every month, or 159 per day, as recorded by the Associazione Italiani Editori. A whopping 60% of these books will never sell a single copy. Only 5% of Italians report that they read a book each month, while 45% say that they read about one book per year. The numbers are similar in the United States, despite the difference in population. According to UNESCO, 2,198,829 books were published worldwide in 2011. In order for a book release to feel like an “event” these days, or to grab any sort of public notice, a huge amount of media wrangling and paid advertisements are required. Small armies of publicists struggle to shout above the white-water of the multi-media, proclaiming the books entrusted to them as worthy of note, while scores of other publicists splash away beside them, drowning one another out.
When were things different? Before the Internet Age, there were far fewer books published each year (tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands), so any and each one had a greater value, a higher potential to attract attention. Even still, we’re talking about a lot of books. No, we must imagine a time when one book would be the talk of a nation, read by all of the literati, and argued over in those dark cafes, between sips of wine or black coffee. It sounds like a remnant of the 18th century, and yet this was how it was in Slovenia just over a decade ago.
As a Slovenophile, a part-time resident of Ljubljana, and the husband of a Slovene who has translated several books into English, I wondered how publishing there differs from the American and British ways. I also wanted to know how a life of writing differed during the time of Yugoslavia—as opposed to post-1991, when Slovenia, the northernmost former Yugoslav country (just east of Venice and just south of Vienna) gained its independence.
My own experience with Slovene publishing came when my first novel, The Art Thief, was translated into Slovene and published by Vale Novak publishing house (now re-formed and called Totaliteta). Tat Umetnin, as it was called in translation, became a small-scale best-seller, to my pleasant surprise, selling around 600 copies. It is nice to be a best-seller under any circumstances, but a sales record of 600 books is not exactly going to cushion one’s retirement fund. This led me to wonder whether Slovenes could live as full-time writers. How were books treated there, from the standpoint of a publisher, author, and consumer? Did the publishing world change when Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia?
Best-selling books in Slovenian history tend to sell around 20,000 copies. A recent blockbuster, the 700-plus page biography of Tito, Tito in Tovariši by Jože Pirjevec, sold an incredible 23,000 copies in hardcover in the first five months—an excellent sales record for nonfiction, even by American standards. The beautifully-bound book was also priced at 40 euros—over 50 dollars, which is what most Americans would hesitate to pay, preferring to pay under $15, and in some cases, just a few dollars. This sales record and price made for an impressive haul for the publisher of Tito in Tovariši, Slovenia’s largest, Mladinska Knjiga. A popular novel published by Beletrina Press, Cefurji Ravs!, by Goran Vojnović (now being made into a film) sold 18,000 copies—the best-selling book in Beletrina’s catalogue. Miha Mazzini’s novel, Drobtinice (available in English as The Cartier Project) sold 54,000 copies, but the author attributes this to what was, at the time, a new and surprisingly effective sales method, used for the first time for his novel—students selling books door-to-door.
These three examples, Cefurji Ravs!, Drobtinice, and Tito in Tovariši, are rare, however. Publishers rely on the purchases of Slovenian libraries to help them meet costs—a few hundred copies of each book are snapped up before the books hit the stores, and this often covers the publishers’ expenses. Slovenians are among the most voracious library users in the world, but this fact is a mixed blessing. Libraries support the book industry, but the enthusiasm of Slovene library-goers means that they would rather check a book out for free than buy a copy—perhaps understandable, especially when Slovene books can be so costly. 30 Euros or so is not an uncommon cover price, and this is no small sum when a good Slovene salary would bring in only around 1,000 euros per month.
The expenses for publishers in Slovenia are relatively low: most authors opt for a small advance (a few thousand euros is considered good) and, in doing so, waive their rights to royalties. Print runs are usually in the hundreds. Marketing is far easier here than abroad—a few major newspapers and magazines will reach all literary and literate Slovenes, and an advertisement on a single billboard in or around Ljubljana will likely be seen by a surprisingly high percentage of the population. But, along with low expenses, come generally small rewards.
Outliers like Tito in Tovariši aside, it is all but impossible for writers to live by writing books alone. According to Tatjana Cestnik of Mladinska Knjiga, the biggest-selling books of all time in Slovenia are the national folk fable Martin Krpan (around 235,000 copies sold over many decades) and, in translation, The Little Prince (around 130,000 copies sold in Slovenia). But those are rarities, and both have been in print, and required reading in many schools, for decades. The 20,000-book zenith is what authors might aspire to, but most Slovene books sell a few hundred copies total, if that. Authors normally receive royalties of about one euro per book sold—if they receive royalties at all. Even with a big best-seller, like Cefurji Ravs!, and a total income around, say, 18,000 euros (a good year’s salary for a Slovene) one must keep in mind that a book might take more than a year to write. Additionally, Cefurji Ravs! is an example one of the best-selling books in Slovene history—not exactly typical. Yet even with best-sellers, authors find that a day job is necessary to keep their income steady. Miha Mazzini, author of Drobtinice and wildly successful in Slovene terms, winner of multiple awards abroad and with several of his books translated, works full-time as a computer specialist and writes in his spare moments.
Aleš Šteger, an editor at Beletrina Press and an award-winning poet (the translation into English of his collection, The Book of Things, won two awards in the United States) says: “When I started to publish as a poet in the beginning of the 90’s, there were magazines that paid very well for poetry. I would publish ten poems and go for a month vacation. Now it’s impossible. This changed. We have quite a good system to support through [government] grants and people involved in all aspects of the book publishing business… But for authors, over the last ten years, it’s been a permanent decline.” It seems that the publishing industry is better supported than the writers themselves. Steger continues, “I suffer very often in seeing gifted writers who have to take any kind of job, from growing trees to working in public relations, in order to pay the bills.”
Did the situation differ during Yugoslavia? Šteger tells us, “The Slovene Communist Party was well aware of the force that literature can have—authors as public intellectuals. Therefore the Party cared for them by taking the authors under the Party’s wing controlled them not by putting them into prison, but instead by playing a tricky role—writers would get a good position from the Party, as an editor or teacher for instance, and through that position they would control you.” Writers could not expect an income from books, and had to rely on these Party-appointed jobs for their sustenance. Writers could live comfortably enough, but they were not completely free to write whatever they liked.
It should be noted that Slovenian Socialism was as comfortable and unobtrusive as the system could be—many say that Slovenia was perhaps the only place where Socialism worked well. Many elderly locals still reminisce about the good old days, when there was work for everyone and a good deal less jealousy over the sleek new Audi that one’s neighbor just bought. In fact, Sweden modeled their national healthcare on the Slovene system during Yugoslavia. Borders were open. You could pop over to Trieste or Klagenfurt to do some shopping, and the problems of Belgrade were hundreds of miles away.
Books were published differently back then. The media world was much smaller. Fewer books were published, and any one book was seen as an event, and might well be read by the majority of avid readers throughout Yugoslavia. The public focus on each book was greater, a level that Americans saw only about a century ago. The idea of a small number of books making a significant impact continued when Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia.
“When we started [Beletrina] publishing house back in the 90’s, publishing a book was still a great event in itself. I mean, you could still do the very first Proust translation, or Kafka translation,” says Šteger. It’s hard to imagine that, so recently, almost no Slovenes could or would have read Proust, and then, suddenly, a new publishing house introduces such a renowned author to an entire nation. “These times are over now,” Šteger continues. “There are many titles published in Slovenian now each year, the publishing industry has good, high standards, but at that time, automatically, some twenty years ago, anything you did would draw attention. The paradigm changed now, and we’re players in a societé du spectacle—we have to perform a sort of circus to draw attention to books that shouldn’t necessarily need that sort of attention, which are powerful on their own.”
Some 6,500 new titles were published in Slovenia last year, and Beletrina Press releases between 50 and 100 each year. Commercial publishing houses in Slovenia tend to follow the American standard, wherein a small percentage of the total books published—perhaps 20%—make money. Hopefully, a few big best-sellers cover expenses for the house, and for the other 80% that lose money for the publisher. Literary presses, like Beletrina, can stay afloat thanks to periodic best-sellers, but also thanks to the guaranteed library purchases. Amazing as it sounds, Slovenia’s 50 public libraries, with various sub-branches and a handful of university libraries, can keep the nation’s publishers afloat, allowing books to break even before the first copy is sold in a bookstore. And bookstores are still king here, where there is no tradition of buying books online, as most Americans now do largely through Amazon. In fact, some publishers still employ door-to-door book salesmen, an antiquated system but one that proved its efficacy in the success of Mazzini’s Drobtinice.
But can writers make a living by writing alone? It is rare for a publisher to pay an advance of more than a few hundred euros to a Slovene author, and some even oblige the author to pay to be published, functioning as a hybrid between a vanity press and a trade press. Other authors choose to sell their book and forgo royalty rights for a one-time payment (usually only about 1000-2000 euros), knowing that they will not see another penny, even if their book becomes a best-seller. Only the biggest Slovene authors opt for royalties—after all, even if an author were to receive 5-15% royalties (which is standard in Slovenia), they would make very little, since a normal print run for literary fiction in Slovenia is just 300-500 copies (1000-1500 copies printed for more commercial titles) to cater to a country of two million.
“No Slovenian can have a halfway quality surviving by writing books alone,” Šteger laments. “Some writers can survive and do reasonably well, but they are multi-practitioners. That means they write a novel, then a script, then a sci-fi book, then a children’s book, and so on.” Others balance their checkbooks by writing for newspapers or magazines, but almost always by contract—freelance journalism just doesn’t pay enough here. This means that almost all Slovene writers must be something else first, and write in their spare time. Miha Mazzini works as a computer specialist. Feri Lainšček and Desa Muck are two of Slovenia’s most popular writers (Lainšček writes fable-like novels about rural life in the remote Prekmurje region of Slovenia, while Desa Muck writes for children). Both supplement their book income by writing articles, and Muck also has a career as an actress. Some Slovenes can even earn more by receiving a set fee ghostwriting for someone else, rather than the titular author of a book—the books just don’t sell enough copies.
This system enables, or rather, forces authors to write out of passion and interest. Anglophone authors might think they can write their way into fame and fortune. The size of the market means that, sometimes, they can. But even the most successful Slovene authors are successful on an entirely different, dollhouse scale.
While this is not good news for authorial bank accounts, it is intellectually refreshing. Most writers I meet are purposeful, goal-oriented, and feel the need to frantically “perform,” as Šteger put it, in order to attract attention to their books amid the typhoon of published material. To choose to be a writer in Slovenia cannot be a career-and-finances decision. It must be an act of love, of compulsion to write. I find that lacking from Anglophone authors.
Recommended Slovenian Books Available in English
For those interested in dipping into Slovenian literature for the first time, there are jewels to be found. If you’ve heard of one Slovene, it is surely Slavoj Žižek, now the world’s most famous contemporary philosopher. Perhaps the best novel in translation is Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, written in 1938—a truly astonishing tale set in 13th century Persia, around the indoctrination of Hashashin, a drug-fueled cult of Islamic assassins. Written as an analogy to Mussolini’s Fascism, it is also analogous to contemporary fundamentalist terrorism. It is lyrical and fable-like, reminiscent of Salman Rushdie, and is probably the best place to begin, although, aside from the author’s nationality, there is nothing Slovene about it. Several books by nonagenarian, Trieste-born Slovene, Boris Pahor, are available in English. Pahor is a concentration camp survivor whose masterpiece on the subject is Necropolis. He has been long-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Two new translations came out this November with Guernica Editions (full disclosure—my wife is the translator): a best-selling contemporary novel by Luka Novak (The Golden Shower, or What Men Want) and a moving collection of poetry by Slovenia’s leading folk-rock musician, in the vein of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen (Instead of Whom Does the Flower Bloom by Vlado Kreslin). Below you’ll find a further selection of recommended Slovenian books that are available in English. Novak and Kreslin just toured the United States and Canada, which included a performance by Kreslin at the Kennedy Center in DC. You can see me interview Kreslin in a short video here.
Alamut by Vladimir Bartol
The Golden Shower, or What Men Want by Luka Novak
The Cartier Project by Miha Mazzini
Northern Lights by Drago Jančar
The Succubus by Vlado Žabot
Necropolis by Boris Pahor
The Man Who Counted Infinity by Sašo Dolenc
The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl
Twilight of the Idols by Aleš Debeljak
The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger
Without Anaesthesia by Aleš Debeljak
Instead of Whom Does the Flower Bloom by Vlado Kreslin