Ukrainian-language literature has always struggled compared to the cultural dominance of Russian-language publications, but Ukraine’s publishing industry has made an effort to promote the work of Ukrainian authors.
NV spoke to Yulia Orlova, CEO of the Vivat Publishing House, to learn how Ukraine’s publishing world is dealing with the challenges of war, and her own mission as a publisher.
“We have cool latest releases ready for printing, but which we cannot give to the printing houses, since the largest printing capacity in Ukraine is located in Kharkiv.”
NV: How did Feb. 24 start for you? Although many Ukrainians did not believe in war until the last moment, did the publishing house have a plan in case of a full-scale invasion?
Orlova: Vivat worked normally until the full-scale invasion. We were preparing new books, not making plans for “what to do with business during the war”, although it would have been worth thinking of it. All we did was talk to our co-workers about emergency kits and many actually had them. Both I and all my fellow entrepreneurs underestimated Putin's obsession because we relied only on reasonable arguments.
I remember how on the night of Feb. 23-24 I did not sleep, and just kept messaging people on Facebook. It was four in the morning, and in the message, I wrote that probably half of Kharkiv was awake today (there was information in the media the day before that at 0400 on Feb. 24, Russia would begin the invasion). And when at about four the sky was as usual silent, I even tried to fall asleep. And about five I heard explosions. It was such an incomparable feeling of concentrated horror and, I am ashamed to admit, panic. I had to pull myself together and make difficult decisions.
We took all actions to save the business after the fact.
NV: What was the most difficult business challenge? Processes, people, financial situation? How have these challenges changed over time?
Orlova: Probably, in the first weeks, the most difficult challenge was the psychological state of people - people were feeling absolute confusion and horror because of what is happening. In general, at the moment, nearly 95% of the publishing house’s staff have left for different parts of Ukraine or abroad.
That is, at first, ensuring the safety of our people was the most important for us, then - a partial restoration of processes, and then - finding ways to evacuate the company's material resources.
As of today, 117 people are involved in work. Very often, colleagues have made an emotional decision to evacuate and did not have time to take their laptops with them, and many work from static office computers. We sent laptops to some people. There are also certain problems with providing employees remote access to their PCs. While a number of colleagues have the technical ability to work, a certain percentage lack this opportunity in full, so not all business processes have been relaunched.
As for our material resources: This is perhaps the most difficult factor. Our warehouses are located in Kharkiv and our inability to dispatch books remains critical. We are working to transfer some of the books to a relatively safe place.
But so far we cannot ensure the pre-war inventory, the frequency of deliveries, and the consistent operation of our online store. We have cool new releases that are ready for printing, but which we cannot pass to the printing house, because the largest printing capacity in Ukraine is located in Kharkiv. Now we are looking for alternative ways to print books.
In Kharkiv, as of April, none of the printing houses are operational. The printing process has completely stopped. We hope that all the printing houses will survive and not suffer from artillery shelling, which our unfortunate Kharkiv experiences every day. This is why we have been unable to send long-awaited latest releases for printing, although more than 50 latest releases have already been prepared that we would like to print for our beloved readers.
NV: Which processes have the publishing house resumed, and which have not yet?
Orlova: Considering the realities of the war, Vivat is gradually resuming operations, although many colleagues have not stopped working since the first day of the war. Returning to pre-war realities is not easy, but we are flexible, and the majority of the team is now doing things they have never done before.
Now our main vector of work is to establish cooperation with Polish publishing houses, focus on the cultural representation of Ukraine in the world through the distribution of Vivat's books abroad, and consolidate with international book partners for a massive cultural ban on Russia. We are opening a company in Poland to distribute our books to this country.
The publishing house has prepared for large-scale cooperation with foreign partners, which includes the sale of copyrights to our books to publishers around the world. We are engaged in the sale of electronic content and the signing of agreements with foreign platforms for the distribution of this content.
While our two stores in Kharkiv are temporarily closed due to hostilities, our bookstore in Lviv is still operating. Books are in great demand, because in this city there are now a large number of migrants, among whom women with children prevail. And kids need something to keep them entertained, so books are a great joy in these difficult times.
In Lviv, we have a two-story shop. On one of the floors, we have initiated a book club for kids, where our children's authors arrange readings for children.
We are also working on the creation of audiobooks for placement on European platforms. Indeed, today many Ukrainians are abroad, and we would very much like our readers, even a few kilometers from their homeland, to have access to Ukrainian books.
The publishing house continues to actively cooperate with foreign and Ukrainian media, to explain what is happening in our country, in Kharkiv, in the publishing house. Now articles about books, articles and interviews are actively published on international platforms.
In general, almost all departments of our company have resumed work to some extent, but not in full. We hold weekly meetings with senior management, where the heads of departments report on the work they have done for the week. Frankly, every week these reports are more and more encouraging.
NV: Many businesses have completely burned their bridges with everything that has even the slightest connection with Russia, either in the economic or in the linguistic and cultural aspect. What has changed for the publishing house in this regard after Feb. 24?
Orlova: As of Feb. 2022, there were no books in Russian in our publishing plan. In the price list of the publishing house, there would probably be about a dozen books in Russian. But this is less than 3% of the total number of books that Vivat publishes. Therefore, in principle, nothing has much changed today. In the very first days of the war, we absolutely officially declared and communicated our position that:
1. we will not publish books in Russian;
2. we will not work with Russian authors;
3. we will not cooperate with organizations affiliated with Russian business.
This pro-Ukrainian position of the Vivat publishing house has long been outlined and understood since 2014. Every day, since the beginning of Russia's war against Ukraine, we have written hundreds of letters to our partners, agents and authors, asking them to support Ukraine and terminate agreements with Russia. We are striving for the cultural isolation of the aggressor country in the world.
In my opinion, the war has become a point of no return for Russian-language books on the Ukrainian book market. We sent out our principled position to our counterparties and agents in Ukraine and abroad and outlined it in social networks. It is – “Russian book, go f*ck yourself!”
Why abandoning contracts with Russia is important for Ukraine and for the world:
1. Russian publishing houses have been publishing propaganda bullshit about Ukraine for years, making books about sub-Ukraine, Novorossiya and evil Banderites. They are part of Putin's propaganda. There are many examples of this.
2. The publishing business, like other businesses, pay taxes, which the Kremlin leadership uses to finance the war in Ukraine, among other things. Russian money is dirty money.
3. Their writers support the invasion. Here you can see an open letter from science fiction writers, here is a wildly nasty interview with Sergei Lukyanenko, one of the most famous Russian science fiction writers. These are just two examples out of hundreds that we can provide.
4. It is unfair that our colleagues and readers are sitting in basements while Russians are enjoying book fairs and latest releases. It's just humanly unfair.
5. Russians chose Putin and tacitly approved of all his decisions. Now more than 70% of the population supports the bloody actions of the Nazi Putin regime in Ukraine. They are not worthy of decent books.
Therefore, our publishing house is so actively promoting the cultural ban of Russia in the world. And I think that after everything that we saw in Bucha, Sumy, Chernihiv, after everything that, unfortunately, we will see in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izyum, there is simply no other position in relation to Russia.
To work with Russia or not is a moral decision for every foreign partner. It's not in the context of business. You yourself choose whether you work with a murderous country, a state that committed genocide, which shot, raped, tortured people in Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel. For many, money is money, but the entire civilized world is watching and making conclusions. Eventually everything will go back to normal life. The Hugo Boss brand still bears the stigma of working with the Nazis.
NV: What is the current demand for Ukrainian books on the foreign market?
Orlova: So far, the demand for Ukrainian books has increased significantly. We are completely rational about this. First of all, this request is due to a large number of refugees, among whom there are mainly mothers with children. In this regard, children's books and educational books are extremely popular (about 80%).
For many refugees, a book in Ukrainian is a bridge between home and abroad. This is first. Secondly, the demand for a Ukrainian book on the foreign market is caused by the extreme desire of foreigners to learn more about Ukraine, its history, customs, our culture and our historical background. And therefore, about 30% of the books that interest the reader in the foreign book market are titles about Ukrainian history, customs, and culture.
NV: Any plans which book will be released first after the victory?
Orlova: We really want to publish a book from our iron Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi. The first rule of Vivat is the author's competence. We understand that now he is very busy, but after the victory, we believe that a book like this would be a bestseller not only in Ukraine but also internationally.