Is the Greek book crisis now history?
A look at Greek literature and the book market offers real grounds for hope
By Manolis Piblis
The Greek book market is small, but interesting. Historically speaking, the end of Greece’s military dictatorship - which lasted from 1967 to 1974 – marked a major turning point in the story of modern Greek publishing. In 1974, everything changed. The foundation stone of democracy was laid, and with it came a freedom of expression never previously experienced. New publishing houses emerged, while those that had already existed prior to the dictatorship era all disappeared save for a few – albeit significant – exceptions. All of today’s most important Greek publishing houses came into existence in the ensuing period, and are now celebrating their 30th, 40th or even 50th anniversary.
In the course of the following years the initial fervour of the publishers – which to some extent had been politically driven – steadily gave way to developments reflecting the increasing maturity of the market: policies evolved within publishing that sought to grow the book market through entrepreneurial initiatives. Most of the larger publishing houses still being family businesses, however, that early enthusiasm continues to make itself felt. It expresses itself particularly in their support for efforts to promote reading, and in their passion for ventures in the publishing area that go well beyond the narrow confines of ordinary business activity.
The growth of the Greek book market reached its peak in the period from the mid-nineties right through into the second half of the noughties. Newspapers started publishing book supplements, the quality of the books themselves noticeably improved, book rights were increasingly well protected, and chains of bookshops began to appear on the scene. A number of booksellers proved to be over-ambitious, however, and some of the new multi-storey bookshops closed just as rapidly as they had opened.
Readers remain one of the major unknowns. Prior to the dictatorship period there was only a slender readership, limited to a small educated sub-group. Their number increased after 1974, though the school system unfortunately failed in its task of instilling a love of reading in its pupils. Thus while the number of readers has indeed increased, Greece still has relatively few readers compared to other European countries.
The largest growth in the book market took place in 2008. 11,000 books were published that year, compared to 7,500 in the year 2000. The Greek financial crisis then began, setting the book trade back by years, together with all other sectors of the economy. The number of new books decreased year on year, reaching a nadir in 2014, when only some 6,200 books were published. The number has gradually increased since then, and in 2017 once again reached a total of 7,600. It is expected that 2018 will have seen a further rise, though the actual figure is not yet available.
Following the years of crisis and the reforms and financial-sector restructuring necessitated by Greece’s national debt, the indicators in this current phase are encouraging in numerous sectors. The book market has seen a wide range of new publications, encompassing all book-types and text-genres - and they are of a conspicuously high quality. Good translations of high-profile works are appearing in excellent editions, while the publishers that used to turn out low-grade translations, often without having paid for the foreign rights, are gradually disappearing. The severely competitive environment during the crisis and the emergence during the years since then of small but ambitious publishers have further enhanced the quality of the books now coming onto the market. However, the increase in the number of new books has not so far been accompanied by any increase in the number of readers.
The market remains unclear, and the repercussions of the crisis are still making themselves felt in people’s pockets. As a result many books are still being sold at discounted prices. But the situation has begun to show some improvement. Booksellers are expecting to see a 30% increase in turnover at the end of 2018 compared to the same period last year (though here, too, precise figures are not yet available). It remains to be seen whether this positive development will hold good. The book market is still volatile, and will remain so for one or two more years.
The book crisis thus seems to have come to an end, and a few important changes have become apparent with regard to the production of books and also to their readership. One striking development is the increase in the number of non-fiction books, which used to be far less in demand than fiction. Much better non-fiction books than before are now appearing on the market, original works written in Greek as well as translations, and readers are proving far more responsive to them than used to be the case. One reason for this appears to be the need that people feel to understand the Greek crisis, and the uncertainties currently manifest throughout the entire world. A further reason for the enhanced interest in non-fiction books may lie in the fact that the proportion of the population with a first degree or a master’s has greatly increased over the last few decades.
Another interesting development is the fact that Greek translations of literary works by international authors are also increasingly finding readers. Translations of foreign-language books have in fact always been a central feature of Greek publishing, and over the last twenty years 30-40% of books appearing on the market have accordingly been translations; what has changed, however, is the attitude of those readers in Greece who until recently chiefly favoured works written by Greek authors, but nowadays are much more inclined to read international literature.
A third development is the increasing popularity of crime novels, which for decades had not been considered ‘literature’ in Greece and in most people’s eyes had had a distinctly bad reputation. Sales figures for foreign crime novels are now showing strong growth, and the number of Greek crime writers is steadily growing (though so far their books have not found all that many buyers).
A further notable feature is that sales of coffee-table books have almost completely collapsed. Greek middle-income earners now scarcely ever buy even moderately priced books of this kind, and as a result the only ones appearing on the market are extremely expensive editions aimed at wealthy readers or else funded by organisations of one kind or another.
A final detail worth mentioning here is the steady growth in the sales of children’s books. Children’s books already held a 20% share of the market many years ago, and even managed to increase their market share during the years of the financial crisis. This was due to the view taken by many parents that in times of austerity it was better to buy books for their children rather than for themselves. Also, children’s books were often bought as presents during the crisis years.
Looking at the overall picture, we can clearly say that whilst the Greek publishing industry certainly suffered considerable knocks in the course of the economic crisis, it also demonstrated remarkable resilience, staying true to its modernising course despite the enormous economic challenges it had to contend with. In line with this, the retail price agreement, abandoned during the Memorandum years, was reintroduced a few months ago, and it is expected that as a result the smaller bookshops – which have suffered the most in recent years – will gradually return to stability. There are also proposals in the air to re-establish the National Book Centre, which also fell victim to the crisis some years ago.
To sum up: all the preconditions are firmly in place for the Greek book market to feel optimistic about its future. Just how quickly it will grow, however, will depend not least on the rate at which the purchasing power of Greek consumers recovers. Their income has declined by 30-40% since 2010, and the unemployment rate - which rose from 8-10% before the crisis to an incredible 27% in 2013-14 - is still running at 18.3% today.
Manolis Piblis was born in Athens in 1966. He studied Law, and then became a journalist. He worked for some twenty years for the daily newspaper ‘Ta Nea’ (Τα Νέα), serving as deputy head of the culture section and editor-in-chief of the literature supplement ‘Bibliodromio’ (Βιβλιοδρομίο). He has presented a variety of literary programmes on Greek state television, and is currently in charge of a literary programme on the Greek Parliament’s TV channel. In addition he has worked as a literary translator, and has published poems and short stories. From 2010 to 2014 he worked for the Onassis Cultural Centre as director of the series of events entitled ‘Lexeis kai Skepseis (Λέξεις και Σκέψεις). Since 2017 he has been Director of the Thessaloniki International Book Fair, and the person in charge of Greece’s participation in international book fairs abroad.
Translated by John Reddick