The Future of Storytelling: Looking at the Children’s Publishing Market in Ukraine

  • The Future of Storytelling:   Looking at the Children’s Publishing Market in Ukraine
Issue 58, June 2013.

The Future of Storytelling:
Looking at the Children’s Publishing Market in Ukraine

Stories are a part of every culture, every generation and every family. All that changes is how we share them. After attending the Lviv International Children’s Book Festival, I started thinking about whether our children will read stories the same way we did as we grew up. It seems that every few generations there is a fundamental breakthrough in how we exchange our stories. Was it the invention of paint in our cave days, the advent of the printing press in the Middle Ages, the popularity of the paperback novel in the last century, or the proliferation of electronic media that we see today, the fact that people love a good story doesn’t change; it’s only the medium that differs. So just what is in store for the book industry? Will our children read differently than we have? What can the children of Ukraine expect? In this month’s article, Lviv Today explores the future of the children’s publishing industry in Ukraine.
 Surely most readers will remember growing up in a time when you had to find a land-based phone line if you wanted to make a phone call, you needed to go to the library and find the right book if you wanted information, and you needed to watch a TV programme when it aired if you wanted to see it at all. With the advent of the internet and mobile computing, these experiences are foreign to children today. A phone is in one’s pocket, the internet has all the answers, and you can watch your favourite TV programme on the TV, internet, or even the phone in your pocket. But just how do these technological advancements affect book publishing? Are the days numbered for our traditional hardcover friends?

E-readering breakthrough

Certainly there is a growing use of e-readers – devices that allow you to carry an entire library in something that can fit in your jacket pocket. For example, as early as 2011 electronic titles for Microsoft’s Kindle e-reader were already outselling hardcover novels 3 to 1 and were also outpacing paperback novels. Moving stories from the paper to the screen is only the beginning though. Imagine reading a story as if it were a Wikipedia page, where all it takes is a click of a word and you could see pictures of the street where the story is set, find out background information on the characters, or read book reviews from newspapers across the globe. In fact, this is already available from companies such as Oceanhouse. Technology has also allowed us to move beyond reading only words. For example, instead of reading the lyrics of a song in a story, now all you need to do is click a link and a music video will start playing so you can hear the song instead. These advancements lend themselves very nicely to the children’s book market. For example, instead of just reading words, young children can now press a button, hear the word, see it pop up and do a little dance, and even be tested as to whether they are pronouncing it properly. Another company has developed software that allows you to record yourself reading a story so that your child hears your voice as she reads. This is just the beginning. Companies have already tapped into the smartphone application market, with hundreds of different reading apps. In addition to the learn-to-read apps, other apps popular with children include the choose-your-own-adventure series where a child reads a story and makes decisions for the characters involved while trying to solve a mystery. The possibilities are really only limited by our imaginations.
So how do all these technological improvements affect the children’s book market here in Ukraine? Before answering that, let’s first take a look at the Ukrainian market. Children’s books are the second most popular genre purchased in Ukraine after fiction. Unfortunately, Ukrainian language books published by Ukrainian publishing houses offer an unreasonably low proportion of titles offered for sale. The Association of Publishers and Booksellers estimates that only 13% of literature is published in Ukraine and in Ukrainian. This is primarily due to the massive influx of Russian literature and is especially pronounced in the children’s book genre. For example, check your own library at home and see how many children’s stories you have that were published in Russia compared to Ukraine. Or ask your child to name his favourite story or character to see just how much influence and popularity Russian literature holds. Several reasons account for this. First, as the Russian market is nearly three times larger than the Ukrainian market, publishing houses can publish larger orders which bring down prices. There are import duties in place, but Russian books often make it to the Ukrainian market by evading the duties says Ivan Malkovych, president of one of the leading children’s publishing houses in Ukraine – A-Ba-Ba-Ha-La-Ma-Ha. A second concern surrounds the issue of quality. Like finding healthy foods that your kids find tasty so that they want to eat healthy, we need to present stories that will appeal to our children if we want them to want to read. With much fewer publishing houses than in Russia, it can be difficult for Ukrainian publishing houses to match the quality of their Russian counterparts. Finally, a culture of reading is still only emerging in Ukraine. For example, as of 2007, there were only 370 bookstores in the entire country. For comparison, Canada, which has a population that is roughly equivalent to Ukraine, has over 2000 stores while Russia has over 3000.

Today’s figures and facts

While some of the statistics may seem bleak, the industry does have some bright prospects. For example, according to Alexander Afonin, President of the Ukrainian Association of Publishers and Book Distributors, the number of children’s literature publications in Ukraine last year was 2554. Compare that number to 2011 when 1282 were published or to 2005 when only 787 books were published and you can see a clear upward trend. In addition, Ukraine has been well represented at the International Youth Library’s White Raven Awards recently with 5 books being honoured over the last 3 years, including The Tale About the Old Lion by Lviv’s own publishing house Staroho Leva. In fact, there are several publishing houses that are regularly producing high-quality children’s literature year after year including, A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, Grani-T, and Bohdan. Their books can be found at new bookstores popping up around Ukraine, which are more and more resembling Western establishments with tables and chairs for reading and sometimes even a restaurant inside. This is where the government can help. According to a national survey conducted by the Fund for Central and Eastern European Book Projects, the Government of Ukraine can significantly impact the industry through purchasing books from Ukrainian producers for schools and libraries and by creating tax incentives to continue to spur growth in the Ukrainian publishing sector. This is something that Lviv’s own lyrical superstar, Okean Elzy’s Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, took note of when he donated $10,000 to a charity devoted to distributing new children’s books to orphanages and libraries around the country. Another significant factor in the industry is the need for stricter enforcement of tariffs on the importation of Russian literature. Finally, the study notes that publishers would like to see a greater marketing push designed to highlight Ukrainian authors and books and to attract new readers. Recent internationally-recognized Ukrainian titles such as The Tale About the Old Lion, Ripka, or Eight Days in the Life of a Chipmunk could be marketed country-wide and taught in schools in an effort to support the local industry.

What's Next?

So how is the Ukrainian market adapting to the emerging technologies? Will we see an e-reader in every person’s hands by the end of the decade? Likely not, but there are a few products available for the Ukrainian market. There are a number of e-reader options available, including the Kindle and other tablets. Kyiv-based company the Atlantic Project produces educational games for children on subjects that include Ukrainian history, animals of Ukraine, and notable Ukrainian people. The company animates the software and works with the Institute of International Relations at Shevchenko State University to ensure its contents are thoroughly vetted for errors. Interbaby was the first Ukrainian company to develop an electronic book specially designed for children. The unique, child-friendly designed tablet features over 20 built-in illustrated audio stories and the capacity to download more. It is becoming easier to find Ukrainian literature offered in electronic format as well, with local publishing houses beginning to offer their products in the e-book format.
Overall, the Ukrainian children’s book market is relatively small but has significant growth potential. Care is needed in protecting the market from being overrun by Russian literature. However, the publishing industry has shown great growth in quality over the last few years which has been matched by an increase in the number of bookstores across the country. E-readers are becoming a more common site and some Ukrainian companies are entering the world of electronic publishing. While Ukrainian children will likely still grow up learning Russian tales, the likelihood of there being quality Ukrainian tales alongside is ever-increasing. While protecting the market is vital, it should be remembered that Ukraine is not alone in trying to protect its literature from foreign competition. Other examples include American literature in the Canadian market or British literature in the Irish market. What is important is that there are increased opportunities for Ukrainian publishers to sell their products in Ukraine and continued growth in quality. As Okean Elzy has proven, if the product is strong it is possible for Ukrainian culture to succeed even in the Russian market. As far as the Ukrainian market adapting to emerging technologies goes, so long as smartphones, tablets and e-readers continue to proliferate it can be expected that Ukrainian publishers and other companies will adapt. Traditional hard/soft cover literature will still be around, but our children will have a bevy of other opportunities to read, learn and enjoy stories.

• LM Reaney