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Greek readers rely on economic literature

28 December 2010 / 19:12:11  GRReporter
5656 reads

Anastasia Balezdrova

In severe crisis times when reduced salaries and high prices and taxes empty the thin wallets of the Greeks even small pleasures are increasingly being left aside. Could be the book placed among these things that are being bought with difficulty?

I chose to ask in one of the big bookshops located in downtown Athens and daily attracts visitors not only with readings, but with various cultural events. Economic readings like The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein and the Big Plan by Stephen Hawking stood on the book-shell alongside the best selling books like Victoria Hislop’s The Island and other novels.

Vassilis Hadjiakovou, publisher and director of the Ianos bookshop, described very clearly the current situation of the Greek book market and explained why and when the reader’s interest was captured by the less known and boring till yesterday economic publications.

What is the status of the Greek book market today?

There is a fanatical readership in Greece, which is small, but of high quality. Many times we hear comments that people in Europe read more than people in Greece. But I think the essence is not in the number of books read but in what those books are. We see many people in the subway, in the public transport, in trains and cafes to read what we would call "books from kiosks" and what the Greek book lover would not read at all.

Moreover, there is great production of ideas and literature in Greece, whether fiction or poetry. Writers are many, especially poets. The two Nobel prizes are not at all coincidental. We observed a small increase in readership in recent years but we also recognize that new technologies have led to certain problems because the young generation and students mainly use technology rather than traditional books. But on the other hand and in view of the common situation, people who at some point in their lives were close to the book rediscover it now. This is possibly one of the best effects of the crisis.
People who usually read do not have high income but they will read whatever happens. They are accustomed to living with the book. I think the crisis has a greater impact on expensive things: houses, cars, expensive gifts. It has made goods expensive and the book has become an inexpensive gift. Now books are sought by people who have always done it and others who find them to be a cheap gift. So, I think things are not so bad as far as the book is concerned.

Does this mean that the crisis has not affected you?

The crisis has hit the publishing houses. This does not mean that we in the bookshops do not feel the financial problems of the people. We are aware that they have difficulties. But I would like to explain the situation in publishing houses, for which we heard to have closed or are about to close. First, many of them publish university textbooks to be distributed for free to students. This is a core activity for some and covers a large part of the overall work for others. We know that the problem in Greece is in the state. Not businessmen but the country is getting poor thereby creating a chain. Publishing houses are waiting two years to get their money and this causes financial problems to them.

On the other hand, we witnessed a boom of new titles in recent years – especially in those we call "the years of prosperity". Average 1500-3000 books per year were published in the mid 80s when I entered the book market. The number of new editions exceeded 10000 in recent years. This is good for the mind and the book on the one side. Moreover, it filled many gaps because many works of world literature and science were not translated before. Of course, many gaps remained. For example, very few Bulgarian books were translated into Greek. I published a book of poetry by Cyril Kadiyski few years ago and because I was engaged with this a lot I realized that there are real diamonds in Bulgarian literature which unfortunately were not translated. But it is likely Bulgarian books to be published because the recent years’ trend is towards the literature of the Balkan countries.

I meant, however, that the Greek book market with its small audience can not hold these thousands of books. This is a problem for some bookshops too. How to decide which of the ten thousand titles to choose, what to put on the stand, what to recommend? But this is insignificant compared with the problems of the publishing houses.

What books do people prefer?

Let me say first that there is fashion in books too and it varies with the conditions and overall situation. The needs of people determine it or it is a sign of luxury. I remember that art albums were fashionable back in the 90s and all rushed to buy them. There was a run on them. Crime novels were also fashionable. History books and similar publications attracted great interest when the changes in the Balkan countries started and people began looking for their appearance, traditions and cultural heritage. I would like to stress that the historical literature is always of the day. Certain types of literature are fashionable sometimes. For example, "women’s" literature, i.e. books written by women for female audiences. In other cases, books on specific topics are modern. Topics such as the clash between civilizations, the East and the West, Islam and Christianity were hot too. The crisis and the economy have been in the highlight more recently. We see that people who had no interest in economy need to read something about this in an attempt to understand why these things happen in their lives. So, many readers who had read very different things turned to this literature. They read books by economists awarded Nobel prizes written in a simpler language, by analysts from Greece and abroad. The topics are the crisis, economy, financial systems, banks, businesses, the economy as philosophy and the various views, ideologies, etc.

When did this trend appear for the first time?

It appeared two years ago when the global financial crisis started. We that are downtown Athens every day noticed that people began to look embarrassed and thoughtful and the whole situation was unprecedented almost from the beginning of 2008. Therefore, tensions erupted in December. We lived through these events very closely and saw that all people participated in the protests; they were not only youth’s reaction. People continue to be interested in books on such topics as things become more difficult and they try to find out what the memorandum is and etc. The interest in topics related to labour relations is growing not by chance. These are books read only by experts in these fields before that were distributed only to university and faculty libraries.

What is the book market status before Christmas?

First, let me say that unfortunately we have not yet felt the coming holidays. This is because strikes and protests blocked the centre of Athens for second week in a row. As far as I know, the holiday period has not yet begun in the province either. Either way, holidays are becoming less year after year. I remember that Christmas began in early November. Then it shifted in the middle, then at the end of the month and early December and now it is limited within the last few days. I see that people are looking for cheap books and cheap albums as gifts. They are increasingly looking for lower prices and publishers are trying to keep the prices as low as possible or to offer expensive editions at reasonable prices. Furthermore, they offer titles that are in their warehouses at very low prices and in many cases these are very good books. The fact that a book is not sold does not mean it is not valuable. Often bad books were sold like a hot cake. We in bookshops also try to offer all types of books at very good prices thereby helping the readers. We do this during the Christmas holidays and hope for better days.

Unfortunately, we saw that some stores offering books such as the French chain FNAC closed. What is the reason according to you?

FNAC stores sell electronics, stationery and books. Of course, when the first stores were opened in France books were the first. This kind of stores did not succeed in other European countries like Spain and Portugal, not only in Greece. How could they, since stores of other European chains that deal only with the sale of electronic equipment were opened here at the same time? Regarding books that have very small audience, as I said, we the Greek companies have tried to do something new and interesting. It is not a coincidence that the FNAC store and our shop were opened at the same time five years ago. But we knew the book and the reading audience in Greece far better than a multinational company could know them, resulting in FNAC closure.

We created a large bookshop on two floors. The people employed know the work very well. We created the hall which is widely known already. Many events take place every day there – music concerts, theatre performances, exhibitions, conferences etc. – and we believe we introduced something new in the market of books and works of art we offer in the art shop.

What would you recommend us to read in these difficult times?

I think people need very good literature especially in this period. Many valuable Greek and world fiction books are on the market despite the crisis. I even dare say that we had no so many new titles the last year and the year before the last. So, fortunately, we have many suggestions for the people wishing to escape from the problems for a while and to feel better.  I also think we could turn to some books on self-consciousness to consider where we are and what we do, because I think this awareness as well as the crisis itself will help us become better people. We have forgotten what it is to be good and treat others well and we sought only our own welfare and wasteful consumerism. I very often tell young children that "you become better people through books and good music". I believe that we offer just that.

Tags: LiteratureBookshopsBooksCrisisIanosReadersEconomic publicationsBlakan fiction
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