Bellagio Publishing Network  

BPN Newsletter Issue No 20, Autumn 1997 


Academic Publishing for Small Markets: the challenge in Central and Eastern Europe

Philip G. Altbach

Philip G. Altbach is director of the Research and Information Center of the Bellagio Publishing Network, School of Education, Boston college, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167, USA. Fax: +1 617 552 8422

A version of this article has appeared in The Bookseller

Scholarly publishing is difficult enough to sustain in the United States or the United Kingdom in the current period of technological change and fiscal austerity in higher education. The problems are almost overwhelming in central and eastern Europe. Political and economic upheaval characterises countries that have small internal markets and use languages with little or no export potential. Yet these societies have an especially urgent need for scholarly books, since many of the titles published during the years of communist rule have little relevance today. The combined challenges of a lack of government financing for higher education, the limited purchasing power of the potential audience for scholarly books, severe problems both of capitalisation of publishers and of book distribution are combined with the inherent difficulties of `small-language' publishing to create a very unfavourable climate for scholarly publishing.

Yet scholarly publishing is perhaps more important in central and eastern Europe than anywhere else in the world precisely because of the active academic, scientific, and intellectual sectors that have long been denied adequate outlets for scholarship and analytic writing. During the communist period scholarly books were published, but there was little intellectual freedom and many topics and methodologies were taboo. Further, little attention was given to the relationship between the economic viability of book publishing and the production of scholarly books. Now, the realities of an emerging capitalist market economy have made scholarly publishing virtually impossible without subsidies and assistance.

The Regional Publishing Centre of the Open Society Institute in Budapest has actively assisted in developing scholarly publishing in the nations of central and eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union through direct assistance to scholarly publishers and training and related programmes to upgrade skills. Local offices of the Open Society Institute, which is funded by the Soros Foundation, operate in most of the countries of the region. They have directly assisted publishers and provided subsidies for locally produced scholarly books, especially translations of key texts into the languages of central and eastern Europe. A May conference in Budapest brought together publishers from the region and counterparts from western Europe to discuss common problems and to analyse models to assist scholarly publishing effectively. Conference organiser Dr Frances Pinter, executive director of the Regional Publishing Centre and a former British publisher, noted that this is an especially important time because of the need to consolidate the several initiatives that have been implemented.

The Problems

The problems of academic publishing are multifaceted. Major distinctions in the region between countries with under two million population (e.g. the Baltic states), larger countries with severe economic or political problems (e.g. Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and several of the central Asian republics), and somewhat larger nations (e.g. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland) must be made since publishing realities dramatically differ. The emergence of an independent, economically viable publishing sector for scholarly books in very small countries whose languages have no export potential (such as Estonia or Lithuania) presents almost overwhelming problems stemming from size and scale. Nations faced with continuing internal political unrest and conflict like Bosnia and Herzegovina also face very difficult odds. The larger countries have significantly greater potential for scholarly publishing. It is impossible to generalise about the countries that are making the transition to market economies often under quite difficult circumstances.

The issue of corruption was mentioned by several participants at the Budapest meeting as an unanticipated problem facing scholarly publishing. Corruption and favouritism in the selection of titles to be published under the auspices of official agencies or universities, or in the allocation of funds for publishing from academic bodies or assistance programmes were cited as problems. Meritocratic criteria sometimes give way to personal connections.

The language of publication is also a contentious issue. Should scholarly books be published in local languages or in an international language? Some argued that this is a transitional period when national languages are quite important, but that in time most in the academic and scientific communities will be able to use English, and scholarly publishing might then use English as well as the national languages, thereby providing the potential for export. There was agreement that English is the only international language worth considering.

Book distribution is a key problem in all the countries of the region. The bookshops that existed in the communist period did not, in general, survive the transition. Few entrepreneurs have opened bookstores, and access to books of all kinds, especially to scholarly books, is difficult. Alternative means of book delivery, such as direct mail, have not yet been set up.

The entry of multinational publishers into central and eastern Europe is beginning, with very serious implications for local scholarly publishing. In Hungary, for example, Wolters Kluwer has made significant investments and is now a major player in scholarly and reference publishing, and has also purchased bookshops. Kluwer is expanding in other countries as well, and other western firms are sure tofollow. Whether local publishers can survive this competition is unclear. It is especially problematical when the multinationals gain a significant part of the reference and textbook markets - which they generally are able to do - leaving local publishers cut off from the most lucrative part of the market.

The implications of the new technologies are only beginning to be understood and to affect the region, but the time is not far off when the Worldwide Web, on-line document delivery, and other aspects of the information revolution that is transforming western scholarly and scientific communication will affect central and eastern Europe. The region's infrastructures so far are fairly underdeveloped despite efforts by the Soros Foundation to assist. Inevitably, however, information technology will be a central issue.


It is clear that scholarly publishing cannot flourish in the region without assistance. In all the countries of the region there are programmes in place for assisting scholarly publishing. Governmental agencies and universities, even with the other problems facing them, have implemented a variety of programmes, from subsidising the publication of scholarly books to assisting with book distribution. The Open Society Institute also has a number of support schemes in place through the region. It supports translations of important western texts into the languages of the region as well as the publication of these translated works. It has provided training to publishers and others involved in the knowledge distribution system. Other agencies have also been involved, although Soros-related activities are the most important and most widely dispersed in the region.

A variety of support models exist. Authors can be helped to complete research and then to prepare manuscripts. Translators and publishers can be subsidised so that books with limited market potential can be published at prices appropriate to the local market. University students can be given funds to purchase books. Grants to libraries help the publishing industry by creating a market for their products. These are examples of assistance programmes that are in place in one or more countries. Some argue that it is a mistake to interfere in the marketplace, that all subsidies inevitably distort the market, and that there is the potential in the region for the emergence of a fully market-based publishing system. Most felt, however, that assistance is necessary, and it was pointed out that many subsidy and support arrangements exist in western Europe.

Providing a supportive policy framework in central and eastern Europe for publishing and knowledge distribution is a key priority yet is frequently ignored. The transitional economies of the region urgently need legal and administrative arrangements for copyright, taxation, import of paper and technology products, and related topics, i.e. national book policies. Without a set of rules that provide a favourable and consistent context for publishing, a successful book industry will be impossible to establish, especially where there are few traditions to support a market-based publishing infrastructure.

High rates of literacy, strong literary and intellectual cultures, and traditions of reading do not guarantee a successful publishing industry. In all the countries of the region there are programmes in place for assisting scholarly publishing.


High rates of literacy, strong literary and intellectual cultures, and traditions of reading do not guarantee a successful publishing industry. The problems facing the countries of central and eastern Europe are daunting. A lack of capital for publishing, small markets, inadequate distribution mechanisms, corruption, and inconsistent legal arrangements for publishing beset the region. Added to this are the growing impact of multinational publishers and the coming complexities of the new technologies. In much of the region, small populations using local languages are a part of the difficult publishing landscape. Political uncertainty in the states of the former Yugoslavia, and continuing economic crisis in Romania, the central Asian republics, and to some extent Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus add to the difficulties. Yet, progress has been made. Open Society Institute initiatives have provided valuable assistance and have brought issues relating to publishing to the forefront. Despite seemingly overwhelming problems, scholarly books are being published in all the countries of the region, and among the publishers participating in the Budapest meeting there is a sense of commitment to a cause and a belief that, despite the odds, scholarly publishing is possible. [end] [BPN, no 20, 1997, p. 17-18]

^^Back to top

Return to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 20, 1997 >>

home about us news resources subscribe
newsletter forum search

© Bellagio Publishing Network 2002-2005.

Go to Top Go to top
Go to top Go to Top