Steve Bercu’s Transmissions From Russia

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Steve Bercu, the CEO and co-owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, and ABA’s vice president, recently took part in the Moscow International Book Fair as an invited member of the Read Russia 2012 Advisory Board.

While at the fair, Bercu met with other members of the Read Russia Advisory Board, visited a museum honoring 20th-century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, attended a very different kind of Book of the Year Awards ceremony, and participated in panels on genre literature and promoting e-books. Here are several excerpts from Bercu’s “Transmissions from Russia” travel log, which is posted on the BookPeople blog.

August 1 - 22, 2011 — Getting Started: I was very pleased to get an e-mail inviting me to be a member of the Read Russia 2012 Advisory Board. The advisory board is charged with promoting modern Russian literature in translation in the United States. Russia is the country that will be honored at the next BookExpo America, to be held in New York in early June 2012. The Read Russia invitation included being invited to a meeting of the group’s Board at the Moscow International Book Fair this September (2011).

So, I started off reading modern Russian novels as fast as I could to give myself a chance of being able to discuss their merit with Russian authors and publishers in Moscow and then promote them later here. I quickly moved through The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin; Day of the Oprichnik by Vladmir Sorokin; 2017 by Olga Slavnikova; and Paris Weekend by Sergei Kostin. Paris Weekend was the only one set in a place and time I was familiar with (Paris in the early 2000s). The other three took me to a dystopian future-Russia loaded with references to Russian history, myth, and folklore that left me wondering whether the old Soviet Union is the common vision of the future for most Russians. The writing was good, crisp, and provocative. Slavnikova is translated by Marian Schwartz, who lives here in Austin.

September 4 — Arrival: We were welcomed to Russia a few seconds after getting off the plane. Crowds of people surged out of all the planes and were directed to Passport Control. After several turns and winding up and down stairs, we got to the large room where they check your passport. There were probably 1,200 people in the room and only seven posts. I noticed that the Russians don’t form lines. Instead everyone pushed forward until they were standing on the heels of the person in front of them, and then they started shoving. It only took an hour and a half to get to the little booth, and then we found that after we cleared we had to go to the next “line” for customs. Thirty more minutes and we were in the arrivals hall where we were met by Maria.

September 7 — First day at the book fair: The halls are more or less like BEA, but the booths inside are not. The book fair is a consumer fair so the vendors and publishers plan to sell books to the public. It looks more like an immense school book fair than what we are usually accustomed to seeing. The stalls range from just three or four feet wide with a little table to sell from, to “large” booths that are probably 30 or 40 feet long. The show was going to open at noon so we had a little while to look around before the doors were opened. Noon brought a short speech outside the main doors and then people began streaming in. The Read Russia group went to the International Lounge [a space dedicated to communication and co-operation between Russian and foreign publishing professionals], where we will be on panels for the next three days. After that, I wandered the floor for an hour or two until the opening of the International Lounge at 2:00 pm.

Some of the other members of the Read Russia group here showed up just before the 2:00 p.m. opening. There were Peter Mayer, president of The Overlook Press; Steve Rosato, director of BEA; Rudiger Wischenbart, BEA International; George Slowik, president of Publishers Weekly; Peter Blackstock from Grove Atlantic; Michael Barron, editor at New Directions; Mark Krotov, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; John Silbersack from Trident Media Group; and Peter Kaufman from Intelligent Television and the leader of the Read Russia Advisory Board in the United States. They represent a wide range of expertise that they will present to our Russian colleagues over the next few days.

After the first panel, we continued the discussion until it was time to return to the hotel and get ready for the evening. Our evening was planned around attending the Book of the Year Award ceremony at the Stanislavsky Theater. I had no idea what to expect so I was thinking about the book award ceremonies I have attended in the U.S. We sat down in the wonderful auditorium and suddenly something quite different started. The show opened with a band playing big band music and then a lot of Las Vegas-style dancers came out and pranced around the stage for a while in skimpy costumes that looked like Christmas ornaments and flamingos doing kicks. The emcees took over and started announcing some of the winners in different categories. The winners were broken up with more performances (an operatic singer, a group of about 10 women singing and dancing). The show ran on for about an hour and a half to the grand climax of the announcement of the Book of the Year -- Olga Slavnikova's 2017.

It was all in all a terrific day and great start to the book fair part of the week.

Mayakovsky Museum

September 8—Book Fair: The fair was packed with consumers buying books and crowding around the booths. We headed for the International Lounge where I participated in a panel about marketing genre literature. There were a group of Russian authors and critics and three Americans Peter Mayer, John Silbersack, and I. It became apparent immediately that the Russians did not want to talk about marketing but, instead, wanted to talk about whether genre should be considered literature and who should get to decide what is what. Their take is that novels should be novels and that segregating anything by genre instead of by author diminished the author and his writing somehow. The Americans disagreed. Peter tried to talk about how it works in the U.S. and the value we place on many different types of writing, but it looked to me like it did not impress too much.

The next panel was about the use of electronic means to promote books—e-books, blogs, etc. This panel included the three of us and Mark Krotov from FSG. The other three talked about the macro picture from the publishers’ viewpoint, and I talked about the micro picture from the booksellers’ viewpoint. The discussion was lively and generated several questions from the audience, but I had the overall feeling that the topic has not yet become of major importance to the Russians.

September 10 — Last full day in Moscow: After visiting the Armory, we wandered around the Kremlin and finally Peter Blackstock suggested visiting the Mayakovsky Museum. Peter also served as our guide and gave us the full story of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s life and works and untimely death. The museum is sufficiently odd to make it extra interesting (on top of the description of Mayakovsky’s life that is there). They had the actual room where he killed himself — a little macabre (though the room was plain enough). Ginger and I went on after that to buy some gifts, get some dinner, and then return to the hotel to get ready for our wake-up tomorrow to get to the airport and head back to Washington.

The trip has been a wonderful learning experience and opportunity to meet some incredible people. It really pleases me to know that the Read Russia Board will continue to meet so I can keep up contact with all of them. There are many people to thank for this opportunity — Vladimir Grigoriev from the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications; Svetlana Adjoubei from the Yeltsin Foundation; Kirill Shaskin and Inna from Academia Rossica; and, of course, Peter Kaufman from Intelligent TV for getting me involved in the first place.

Visit the BookPeople blog to read the entire Part I, Part II, and Part III of Bercu’s “Transmissions From Russia.”