Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999

Poster image B O O K S:
Hungarians Read Their Way To Success

Carolyn Chapman

Hungarian films had been showing in the film museum since May. Eight fine arts exhibitions featured Hungarian artists and Hungarian collections. Hundreds of articles were written about Hungary in German newspapers and there were countless hours of television coverage, from interviews to news stories. Every afternoon and evening Hungarian writers gave readings and participated in discussions in the Literature House. President Arpad Goncz and Prime Minister Viktor Orban even stopped by. There was a Budapest coffee house and a Hungarian restaurant and Hungarian folk music and the sounds of Liszt and Bartok could be heard at venues throughout the city. Then there were the books - thousands by Hungarian authors and many more by foreign writers about Hungary. The city of Frankfurt had basically transformed into a "Little Hungary" when Hungary was the guest of honor at last month's Frankfurt Book Fair. "It's a very good public relations move for Hungary to be seen like that, in a very professional setting and as a model country about to join Western Europe," said David Young, who has long been involved in publishing in Hungary and has worked most recently for Kozgazdasagi es Jogi Konyvkiado Kft. "There are certain Hungarian publications that clearly could be marketed in the West and clearly there are good Hungarian authors who are worth translating into foreign languages."

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the most important book and multi-media publishing show in the world, so it was quite a big deal for Hungary, whose publishing industry has undergone a complete transformation in the past ten years, to be chosen first among the former Socialist countries as guest of honor. Ninety four Hungarian publishers had booths at the Fair and it was an ideal opportunity for Hungary to promote its writers and publishing houses, as well as the culture and country as a whole. "The German press was full of articles on Hungary and Hungarian literature for a whole week," said Istvan Bart, president of the Hungarian Publishers and Booksellers Association and director of Corvina publishing house, which specializes in art books and foreign translations of Hungarian books. "That was the kind of coverage that we would never have been able to buy." However, he also noted that the event was more important for Hungarian writers than for Hungarian publishing houses because the writers (not the publishing houses like in many countries) own the rights to their books and were able to sell them. "We were there to represent the country's cultural life and its intellectual products," said Bart.

The book publishing industry in Hungary is at its most successful point yet since the collapse of Communism, and according to Bart, business has been booming for two years and new money is being invested on all levels. The Frankfurt Fair is good for a small country like Hungary because it places Hungarian literature in the spotlight of the international book world, therefore prompting foreign translations of Hungarian books. Three hundred new translations have been published for the Fair, according to Katalin Budai, literary advisor at the Frankfurt '99 non profit organization (established by the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage to organize the Fair), which was possible because of a fund organized to boost translations of Hungarian literature. "Hungary was the first guest country ever able to produce so many titles," said Budai proudly. "It was a very good start for writers who aren't known yet in German and English speaking countries."

Almost two thirds of the world's annual turnover in publishing is contracted at Frankfurt. The buying and selling of rights is one of the main activities, but the Fair is also important for keeping abreast of the international markets. "It's a huge market out there and Frankfurt was a key time to reach the international market," said David Kelly, sales and marketing manager of Central European University (CEU) Press, which specializes in publishing in the English language. "It was very important for the buying and selling of rights and if they have the right book and they do it properly, the rewards can be huge."

Hungary has an extensive history of book publishing and books have always played major roles in Hungarian culture- kings have held fabulous and widely admired book collections and Hungary was one of the founding members of the International Publishers Association, which is "the oldest institution in Hungary after the Catholic Church" according to Bart. Take a walk around any Hungarian city and the importance of writers to this country of prolific readers will be revealed-they are immortalized through monuments, tiny museums, and street name after street name.

Hungarian writers, poets, and intellectuals have traditionally been elevated to the stature of heroes and the most important cultural authorities. Unlike the Western literati, in Hungary they have often held more prestige than entertainers and more influence than politicians. "There is a moral authority that goes with being a writer," said Bart. "When there was censorship, writers could convey the kind of information that could not be conveyed in the press, in other words-the truth." Writers have been called upon during Hungary's many upheavals and revolutions to be the catalysts of social change, and sometimes, have even lost their lives doing so. Most recently, in 1989, the work of writers and artists was helpful in overthrowing the Soviet regime. But even before the 1989 climax many writers, such as Gyorgy Konrad and Gyorgy Petri, had been testing the limits of open criticism.

Under the Communist regime, which was comparatively unoppressive in Hungary, the publishing sector wasn't a competitive business, but basically a tool for the government to educate the masses by publishing large amounts of desirable books and banning undesirable authors and subjects. Publishers, booksellers, and printers were nationalized and books were heavily subsidized to make them plentiful and cheap. Almost unlimited resources were available for academic publishing, more people worked in publishing than ever before, book production rose, and consequently many distribution networks were developed. However, The Book Commission, the publishing sector's controlling body, provided publishers with annual plans detailing required authors, subjects, and production figures. "There isn't any comparison between then and today," said Gunter Giffels, general manager of Nepszabadsag, previously a Communist party newspaper. "It was totally different ten years ago, we had a fixed number of pages and were told what to write."

When Communism collapsed, a huge flood of new literature and periodicals poured through the printing presses. Everything that couldn't have been published in the previous 40 years was printed and hundreds of new publishers appeared to cope with the demand. The first several years of the transition were difficult ones: the distribution system collapsed when the state run companies went bankrupt, many publishers and booksellers went out of business, and the system of tax relief for publishers and distributors was abolished.

The publishing industry has recovered from those difficult years and is now the leading branch of Hungarian cultural life. Since 1996 (one of the toughest years for the industry) major changes have occurred: the last of the state-owned distributors were privatized; many new book stores opened (now there are about 700, but many were forced to shut down in the early 1990's because of competition from street vendors who illegally sold 40 percent of books); turnover began to increase; and about 10 thousand titles are now published annually.

Up until the late 1980's there were only 26 state-owned publishers, now there are over one thousand, which seems disproportionate for a country of ten million people. However, the hundreds and hundreds of small publishers only produce from one to 20 titles a year, while the 20 largest houses produce 60 percent of the new titles. Turnover has been increasing by 20 percent for the past two years (a real growth of eight percent after inflation), according to Bart. In figures it has increased from Ft 20 billion in 1996 to Ft 30 billion in 1998, but at the same time the number of copies being printed has decreased from 120 million in 1989 to 50 million last year. Ironically, the success of the industry is growing while government subsidization is decreasing. According to Bart, subsidization is only about one third what it was a few years ago, but "it has not really been noticed how much it has dropped because we don't need that kind of support anymore. What feels like a fantastic period is just that we have reached our normal level," he said. "We are now where we were ten years ago in sheer figures, but of course behind these figures we are now an entirely different industry."

This increased revenue can be explained by the huge increase in book prices due to rising paper costs, production costs, and the VAT. Fiction books cost eight times what they did in 1990 and scientific books cost ten times more, although Hungarian books remain a bargain compared to other European countries. Under Communism Hungarians got used to paying artificially low prices for books and have resisted further price increases. Publishers don't seem willing to raise prices out of fear that book sales will decrease. "Book prices are no where near in Hungary to what book prices are in Western Europe," said Young. "They are one of the few items in the Hungarian marketplace that have a significantly lower price than in Western Europe."

At the Frankfurt Fair, publishers were exposed to the new technology that is quickly developing in the publishing world. One of the biggest challenges can be adapting to this technology. "The Frankfurt Book Fair is always a good opportunity to meet international publishers and a good occasion to get a deeper and more in-depth knowledge of companies around the world," said Ferenc Doktor, director of Semic Interprint publishing house and press, which specializes in children's periodicals, "but what the Hungarian companies will do with that knowledge remains to be seen."

The internet forces publishers to quickly react to changing customer demands and to make crucial changes to compete in this increasingly electronic world. It's changing the publishing industry in almost every area, from the development of e-books and online publications to the distribution network (online book stores) and advertising patterns. One current trend, according to Young, is towards the client shaping his own product through printing-on-demand. This allows publishers to quickly print the exact material they need in smaller runs, for example excerpts from different text books. And although no one seems worried about the extinction of the printed book, e-books are now being developed (but are still in their infancy according to Kelly). The CEU Press is already involved in internet libraries-they sell their books electronically to University libraries for students to access over the internet. "If that's what the public wants, then we have to cater to it," said Kelly. "We also have to appreciate that libraries are running out of space and that the way students are studying is changing."

Newspapers and magazines have already been losing readers to the internet. Last year in Hungary, according to a recent survey by the Sondor Ipsos polling company, internet access increased by 77 thousand people and is now at about a million. During the same period, readership of newspapers decreased from 39.3 to 38.74 million. In the first half of this year daily paid newspaper readership has already dropped by five percent and monthly magazines by four percent. "Unfortunately the falling number of readers is true for every country because there are more types of media competing for people's attention," said Giffels. "But, it is happening pretty slow, so it won't be as if there will be no newspapers in five or ten years."

Even discounting the internet, the Hungarian newspaper and magazine industry (mainly controlled by foreign investors) is crowded and competition is tough for advertising money. "There is a contradiction in the industry because it is too crowded for the advertising money, because in Hungary advertising expenditures are still low," said Gyorgy Szabo, chief executive officer of VNU Budapest lapkiado, among the largest publishing houses in Hungary, "but it is not crowded enough for the readers-there are still not enough choices for the readers." Advertisers and Advertising agencies in Hungary are beginning to adapt their marketing strategies to the internet. The difference between advertising in the printed press and on the internet is that the internet is a direct medium. "You are not offering your services, somebody has to want them," explained Peter Burian, chief executive of Leo Burnett Budapest advertising agency. "Internet advertising is much more targeted-a hit on a web site is much more valuable than somebody walking into a store and buying a magazine."

Internet magazines and news sites, many of which are getting thousands of hits a day, are increasing in Hungary. "The future is in online news," said Istvan Sas, formerly of Magyar Netlap and now developing a new news web site. When asked if the internet is having an effect on newspaper readership, he enthusiastically replied "I hope so, but in fact I don't think there is much impact yet. It will take a few years for the internet to have a big impact on print in Hungary." He predicts that in the coming years the internet will be part of everyday routine for more people in Hungary. "Soon many people will only read their news on the internet, not in newspapers," he said. "It will be even more important in the future-not now and not next year, but in the long term."

Even with the increasing demands on their time, Hungarians still spend more time reading books than any other nation in the world, according to a study last year by the Gfk Hungaria market research company. The demand for quality literature by previously banned Hungarian authors has given way to a boom in American style blockbusters like Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, and Jackie Collins. "Ten years ago the big area was political memoirs and non-fiction, nowadays it's romance and foreign best sellers," said Margit Kertesz, marketing director of Europa publishing house, which specializes in popular foreign literature. "There is always a greater interest in other people's stories. After 1989 we were a poor country and it was much better for us to read about another, better and nicer world."

However, quality literature still accounts for 3.17 percent of sales, which is considered high on the international market. "There is a definite swing back to quality reading and non fiction is tremendously booming," said Bart. "Although we now have light reading, which we did not have before the changing of the regime, its popularity is noticeably dropping and people are turning back to serious reading." With the attention and media coverage that Hungarian literature got at the Fair, perhaps people around the world will turn towards Hungarian literature as well.

Carolyn Chapman is a freelance writer living in Budapest.


More on the Hungarian theme of Frankfurt 1999.

The beautiful (but graphics intensive) Hungarian home page for Frankfurt 1999.

A list of Hungarian exhibitors can be found in the Frankfurt 1999 exhibitors index.

The Frankfurt Book Fair 1999 virtual site.

The Frankfurt Book Fair: General information.



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