By Edward Nawotka
A version of this article originally appeared in the PW BEA Show Daily.
“Poland is a billion-dollar book market in the center of Europe,” noted Rüdiger Wischenbart, Director of International Affairs for BEA, as he introduced a day of panels and presentations from this year’s Market Focus country, adding “Poland should be of particular interest to the United States, which is home to a large expat community of Poles, particularly here in Chicago,” where it is said the Polish population is second only to that of Warsaw.
With a population of 38 million, Poland lies at the heart of Europe, but was historically isolated by both its language—which is notoriously difficult to learn—and by communism, which held the book market under tight controls until 1990. “A free and open book market has only really existed for the last 25 years,” said Sonia Draga, owner of her eponymous trade publishing house, and the Polish publisher of internationally bestselling authors such as Dan Brown and E.L. James. Draga was speaking as part of the day’s introductory session, titled “Poland’s Book Market: Insights, Trends & Developments.” “The situation is a tough one: we have two strong chain booksellers [Empik and Matras], two professional distributors and a fragmented market of many small publishers, but a concentration of some 15 to 20 larger houses.”
While as is customary in most developing markets, the highest concentration in sales are of professional, STM and education titles. But a government takeover of the printing and distribution of early and middle grade education books two years ago shifted the trade market, noted Draga. “The past several years had education publishers transition into publishing fiction, which sparked a tremendous price war.”
Heavy discounting, both online and in bricks-and-mortar stores of already modestly priced books, has made book sales figures look low, says Draga. “The results are misleading because the books are becoming cheaper, even though customers—who are accustomed to cheap books—still think they are expensive.”
The discounting has prompted publishers to call for the implementation of a fixed book price law, which is still being debated.
Another factor impacting sales is a general decline in book reading with fewer than 40% of citizens stating they have read a book in the last year. Overall, book sales have fallen year on year, from 139.8 million copies sold in 2010 down to 105.8 million in 2015. E-books have had little overall impact on the market and account for just 3% of sales. “The issue that may be holding back the digital market is the fact that publishers don’t hold electronic rights to many of their titles and have not gone back to acquire them, said fellow panelist Marcin Garlinski, CEO of book publisher MUZA. “For example, I only acquired the digital rights to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an author we have in print, just a few months ago,” he added.
Each of the publishers was proud of the fact that they had made strong early moves to hire and develop Polish publishing professionals and also to publish Polish writers. As such, the bestseller lists are often a mix of domestically produced and translated titles, with as much as 60% of bestsellers coming from homegrown talent. The country’s three top-selling titles in 2014 were by Poles, with mystery novelist Zygmunt Miloszewski’s Gniew taking the top slot and selling 150,000 copies. It will be published in the U.S. this fall by Amazon Crossing in a translation entitled Rage and is on display as part of BEA’s new book exhibit. Poland’s top-selling fiction title of the past three years was Houston, We Have a Problem by mystery novelist Katarzyna Grochola, cited as another potential international phenomenon.
If there is one book from Poland that has literally taken over the world it is Maps by Aleksandra and Dienel Mizielińscy published by Dwie Siostry, a large-format illustrated children’s atlas which has sold more than 2 million copies world-wide in some 20 different licensed editions. “The book is much imitated by foreign publishers, who are impressed with the Polish style of illustration and picture books,” said Maria Deskur, managing director of Egmont Poland, the country’s leading book publisher and the firm responsible for publishing many licensed brands, such as Disney and Mattel. “We see a lot of potential in exporting and licensing this type of work abroad,” she said in a follow up session on “Investing in Poland.”
When it comes to Poland, “is the glass half full or half empty,” asked Wlodzimierz Albin, president of the Polish Book Chamber and of the Polish branch of Wolters Kluwer, in closing the morning panel. “It depends on your perspective. Compared to many countries in Europe, our market may seem small. But we also think that we have a lot of potential to grow.”