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Analysis & Opinion
04.07.11 A Disappearing Habit
By Svetlana Kononova

Russians may be on the verge of losing their reputation as the world’s most enthusiastic readers, if a recent survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Foundation (VTsIOM) is anything to go by. According to the survey, 49 percent of respondents have less than one hundred books at home, up 20 percent since 1990. Furthermore, almost one in five respondents owns no books at all, indicating that Russians are reading far less on average than they used to twenty years ago. While residents of Moscow and St Petersburg read an average of five books per month, the rest of the country showed less interest in reading. Traditional books remain the most popular, with only 28 percent of respondents asserting that they prefer e-books and 11 percent that they prefer audio books. These alternative methods of reading have still not reached the majority of the country’s population.

The downturn in Russians’ reading habits is having a negative effect on the country’s publishing industry, as a recent government report showed. “The Russian Book Market. Condition, Trends and Development Prospects: 2011,” published by the Federal Agency of Press and Mass Communications (Rospechat), found that the book sales have fallen by six to eight percent annually since 2008.

Some experts estimate that the market is undergoing an even steeper decline. “In general, the demand for books has dropped by 10 to 15 percent since last year,” said Svetlana Polyakova, head of promotion and branding at the AST publishing group. “It is difficult to predict what will happen in the future. The crisis in the book market is complicated. It is linked to changes in the country’s economy, the development of modern technologies including the Internet, and to the law, mentality and accessibility as well. In terms of attitudes to copyright – downloading pirated books from the Internet is quite typical in Russia.”

“People now really are buying fewer books for their home libraries than they used to in the past. Collecting books and having large home libraries is becoming a rarity. But this factor doesn’t determine the demand for books. Many people are buying books, especially bedside reads, to read quickly and hand on to a friend. Pocket-sized books are often simply thrown out after reading,” Polyakova added.

Decreasing demand for books is unlikely to be linked to a decrease in Russians’ purchasing power. According to official statistics, the average Russian salary grew by 15 percent last year, while retail prices for books increased by 12 percent. Therefore experts believe that book sales are declining for non-financial reasons.

“Interest in reading is decreasing because other activities are attracting attention. It is much easier to watch a film or to find an overview of the story on the Internet than to read the book the film was based on. Reading books is an intellectual task,” said Alexandra Shipetina, vice-chairman of the Russian Book Union, an NGO which promotes educational and cultural programs to support reading, publishing, libraries and literature. Her opinion correlates with data produced by the research company TNS Russia which found that on average Russians spend about nine minutes reading books per day, while they watch television for about four hours and listen to the radio for more than three hours every day.

Shipetina said that reading habits should be formed in early childhood. “Parents of children age three to five should read aloud to them. This tradition existed in the Soviet Union, but now it is going to disappear, so parents should encourage children to read. Research conducted in western European countries found that if teenagers do not read regularly when they are12 years old, they will probably never like reading,” she explained.

“As a result, many young people have so-called ‘video clip’ thinking. They can perceive bright colorful pictures from TV and the Internet but they can’t create visual images in their minds after reading a text. But pictures on screen are the same for everybody, while pictures in a person’s imagination are individual. So people who don’t read regularly beginning in childhood lose a part of their creative abilities,” Shipetina added.

However, experts also see a more positive trend – a growing interest in reading serious intellectual literature in Russia. “In the early 1990s the most popular books in Russia were love stories in the style of Brazilian soap operas. After that, the era of detective novels and thrillers arrived. Later, the reading public showed an interest in fantasy novels. This interest has continued until the present day. But last year we noticed a new trend: the growing popularity of intellectual prose. Foreign and Russian authors who have won prestigious literary prizes are in strong demand,” Shipetina said.

“Usually trends on the Russian book market are three years behind those in the West. Now the trendiest books in Western Europe and the United States are the ‘true stories’ of average people who went through unusual, dramatic or adventurous experiences, for example living in Islamic countries. Dystopian novels which try to predict the future are also popular. These books will probably be in demand in Russia soon as well,” she suggested.

Polyakova said that the most popular books in today’s Russia are still detective stories, urban romances, fantasy novels and how-to books about topics like running a home, cooking and raising children. “One of the main factors that makes a book attractive is the popularity of the author. When an author is nominated for a literature award or has already won one, we expect a growth in sales,” she explained. Polyakova also pointed to increasing sales of children books. “Beautiful printed books with lovely, colorful pictures attract parents. They are associated with happy families,” she said.

A promising but controversial area is e-books. While Amazon, the largest online retailer in the United States, reported this spring that sales of e-books exceeded sales of printed books for the first time in history, Russian consumers are also showing an interest in electronic books. Digital copies have already overtaken printed books. Active Internet users can download pirated e-copies of popular books from Web sites without even going to a bookstore. At best, they buy books online. “Currently, there are several online shops that legally sell e-books in Russia, but their share is very small in comparison to the larger ‘pirate’ Internet,” Polyakova said.

“The current audience for e-books in Russia is probably from 10 to 20 percent of the total reading public, and up to 30 percent of young readers aged up to 30. But it doesn’t affect people who don’t read, but watch TV and listen to the radio,” she concluded.

Shipetina believes it is necessary to promote reading on the national level. “One way to do that is to popularize family reading. Books should be presented on social networks and on portals with easy downloading systems; they should be available for sale in cinemas, shopping malls and leisure centers,” she concluded.
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