By Ed Nawotka

Americans were first invited to attend the Moscow International Book Fair in 1977, but U.S. interest has steadily waned since then, and at this year’s fair, held September 7–11, there were no American publishers in attendance. Among European publishers there, only the German and Greek ones had stands (Greece was the guest of honor).

A modest-size event, taking up a single hall on the grounds of the colossal VDNH Exhibition Center, the fair officially had 400 exhibitors and is reported to attract 120,000 visitors annually, though traffic seemed sparser than that. Among those exhibiting, the stand of Eksmo-AST, the dominant publishing house in Russia, was the largest, followed by the collective Chinese stand.

In an effort to revive international interest in the fair, the MIBF invited a coterie of foreign journalists to see the revamped event and to spread a message: Russia wants you back. Now in its second year under the new leadership of Sergey Kaykin, the MIBF has added extensive professional programming and is looking to spark more rights sales of Russian books abroad. A seminar on the topic on the first day of the fair revealed one of the problems in selling rights: Russian publishing contracts traditionally last just three years, and then the rights revert back to an author. This has not only nearly eliminated the backlist for publishers, but it also means that almost any foreign rights or translation deal needs to be struck almost immediately after publication in Russia. Authors also tend to jump frequently between publishers who lure them away from competitors with promises of bringing older titles back into print as part of deals for new books.

A half-dozen literary agencies that are active in the country offer some points of contact for foreign publishers. Among the best known of these are the AK Agency, Andrew Nurnberg and Associates, Elkost, and Banke, Goumen & Smirnova. At this year’s fairs, the MIBF had no traditional rights center, though the idea of establishing one is being considered.

These underlying issues aside, efforts to promote translations of Russian works through programs such as “Read Russia,” which offers sample translations and subsidies, have resulted in 640 translations from the Russian that have been published with state assistance over the last five years.

Going the other way, Russian publishers have been eager to acquire translation rights. “Readers are still very curious about American culture, both high and low,” said Shashi Martynova, a prominent translator who also runs the Dodo Bookstore, which specializes in translations. “Sometimes, the weirder the book, the better—as we are living a little like Alice in Through the Looking Glass here.”

Among the latest rights deals reported prior to the fair was Alpina’s acquisition of the Russian rights to astronaut Mark Kelly’s Endurance—underscoring that the two nations do still have some shared interests.

It can be difficult to quantify Russian publishing, however. For example, LitRes, the country’s top e-bookseller, claims as much as 99% of Russian e-books are pirated; others say this is exaggerated to scare foreign publishers into only working with LitRes.

But some things are obvious: Russia is, for example, 90% a hardcover market, a legacy dating back to Soviet times. And reading—though on the decline—is still valued, something that was confirmed by Denis Kotov, CEO of St. Petersburg-based Bookvoed (“Alphabet Eater”), one of the country’s largest bookstore chains: “People like to read in Russia very much, but as booksellers we are competing with television, the Internet, and alcohol.”

At the MIBF, alcohol did appear, but only in the occasional glass of Georgian sparkling wine to mark the presentation of various book prizes. Initially, the tone of the fair was all very serious, as a crowd composed mostly of professionals and students listened to lectures and panel discussions (in which there was no discussion, just position statements) about various aspects of the book market, but as the weekend—and members of the buying public arrived—the focus shifted to bookselling and author readings.

For American publishers looking for opportunities, all this might suggest that the Moscow International Book Fair is worth a look—but you will have to put in plenty of work. There are cultural and linguistic barriers to cross, as well as a marketplace that can be something of a black box to outsiders. Internal contacts are a must, not only to conduct business, but just to get into the country—U.S. visitors still need a visa to visit Russia, and one must be “invited” in the first place to apply. Until the visa requirement changes, the MIBF is not for the casually curious.