Tauno Vahter
chief editor of Tänapäev Publishers and board member of the Estonian Publishers’ Association


Just as a new fashion or revolution never emerge from an empty place, the Estonian publishing life of the 2010s has been mainly defined by a moment from an earlier time. When, after decent Christmas sales, the sales data of January 2009 became available, it was clear that the economic crisis had reached the publishing world as well. Compared to the previous year, the book sale had come crashing down by about 40%.

One quarter of the whole volume vanished in a decade

By the end of the last decade, the Estonian-language publishing had reached the pinnacle of its naïve living beyond its means – this, of course, was true for many areas of activity, as the constant growth seemed almost unstoppable. Although the print runs of that period cannot be compared with the candy floss style publishing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when any plumber could issue a crime novel or adventures of Tarzan in a lousy translation, and sell thousands or even tens of thousands of copies. As for the choice of titles, the publishing rally peaked in the last pre-crisis year, i.e. in 2008, which saw 4685 titles with the print run of 7.2 million. Last year, the equivalent number was 3597 and the print run 3.3 million. During a decade the number of the titles therefore fell by one quarter and the print run by two thirds! This difference is so drastic that it needs some reflection. These numbers were taken from the general statistics of printing production compiled by the National Library, including all manner of small printed matter, which at least partly are now appearing in electronic form. The picture is a bit different when we look at the number and print run of books issued by bigger publishers. In 2009, five publishing houses brought out over 100 books a year (Ersen, Varrak, Koolibri, Tänapäev and Egmont); in 2019 there were six (the same five plus Sinisukk). The total number of titles published by all of them was in fact bigger than in 2008. What are definitely smaller are the print runs – the normal print run in September 2008, for example, at Tänapäev, was 1000, whereas in September 2020 only 3-4 books reach that number. Depending on the topic, the normal print run has fallen to about 700–800 copies, although occasionally only 400–500 copies are printed.

The crisis eased a bit in the second half of 2009 and the initial 40% fall in most publishing houses stopped at 20-30%. The publishers threw themselves into reworking their plans, trying, in other words, to push overboard the projects they considered as ballast, just like from a balloon that is losing height, or reduce the publication of books that predicted too heavy financial losses.

Thematic changes

The next theme under attack was foreign fiction. The 2008 crisis was certainly not the only reason why it shrank, although it hastened the decline in this field. There had been an overproduction already for many years, sped up, among other things, by the project of kiosk books introduced from Spain, represented in Estonia by the publisher Eesti Päevaleht. It is typical during a crisis that readers stay faithful to domestic literature and children’s literature, and this time was no different – part of foreign fiction readers disappeared. A number of book series came out less frequently or stopped altogether. As the sales of foreign-language literature have gone up during the recent decade, one part of the readers increasingly focus on the original rather than wait for an Estonian translation. And it is no wonder, considering that as a result of decreasing print runs and increasing prices, a foreign-language paperback is often half the price of the Estonian translation.

A significant factor was the declining format of encyclopaedia. The case of TEA Publishers is an example here. Their new project coincided with an incredibly unfortunate period of time – economic crisis on the one hand and on the other, the experience of other countries showed clearly that the time of compiling extensive paper encyclopaedias is definitely over. Of the planned 24 volumes, only 12 were published and this undertaking was a major reason why TEA publishing house collapsed. It seemed in 2009 that a considerable wave of bankruptcies among publishing houses was very likely, but in reality this did not happen. However, various well-known businesses in the early decade vanished in the 2010s: TEA, Ilo, Eesti Päevaleht Publishers, Olion, Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, Elmatar, Kunst, Ajakirjade Kirjastus. The reasons varied, although they were all influenced by the changing market situation and a number of bad commercial decisions, in some cases also personal choices.

Still, old publishers and trademarks were replaced by new ones. The earlier decade in Estonia saw more independent publishing houses (which are not part of a larger group), whereas some consolidation and grouping occurred in the 2010s. Some trademarks connected with newspapers and magazines gathered under the new trademark Hea Lugu, which belongs to Ekspress Grupp. The daily Postimees who had been considering the field of books and buying a few publishing houses for a long time, finally established their own publishing house. The third with a significant market power was Rahva Raamat, who had previously operated as a retailer. The impact of the activities of the first two raised concerns about the content of cultural pages of newspapers, dried up as they were, whereas in the sense of market situation turning shop chains into publishers was a keyword of the decade, as it caused a great deal of annoyance – when one publisher holds the sales data of books published by all other publishers, it is certainly an embarrassing advantage in certain areas, let alone additional possibilities in marketing.

E-book steamers still missing

Rumours about the success of e-books on American markets spread across the world in 2009–2010, and soon enough people began turning to publishers practically every week, offering to cooperate in that field. Additional rumours about the amounts of money involved were strongly exaggerated. The field of e-books suddenly attracted also those who had been selling women’s underwear or worked as IT experts in an enterprise or another. When a taxi driver starts playing the stock market, it is time to leave it. As Estonia had acquired world fame as an e-county, it was quite normal for awhile that representatives of various big foreign IT and telecom companies visited Estonian publishers and introduced their business plans. After calculating the numbers, however, it was in most cases clear that it was not worthwhile. E-books did reach the market in 2010, although optimistic predictions of gaining at least 5% to 10% of the market in five years have not been fulfilled. The percentage achieved in ten years is about 3, and paper still dominates. New hopes are connected with the arrival of audiobooks in 2020, but something in that optimism resembles the tales linked to the arrival of digital books. The market share of both will undoubtedly grow, but arduously, and a bit in the vein of Luddites we should mention that the survival of paper books is perhaps not so bad after all.  Instead of the USA, Great Britain or even Finland, we have more in common in this field with, for example, Slovenia where the situation is pretty similar to ours.

New oddities

As for the number of titles, the bigger publishers reached the 2008 level only in the second half of the 2010s. As has been the custom, new publishers started playing around with new series of fiction in translation, some of which have already faded away or closed down. Fully prepaid books have increasingly become a separate niche genre, with a small print run and a small readership, but through the existence of some kind of support mechanism, their publishing (or translating, editing) is significantly more profitable than in the case of ordinary books. Some such books constitute a cultural correction of mistakes, as they are part of international cultural field and should finally appear also in Estonian, others raise doubts that they are no more than someone’s random idea or an opportunity to earn more money than usual for work that nobody actually seems to need. It is no wonder, because price pressures and diminishing print runs hold back the income of people in the book world; the highest fees are now paid by state budget institutions (and in the press). These are small cumulative signs, showing that the Estonian book market is a bit sick, and there is again evidence of oversupply. Whenever a new correction occurs, it is naïve to hope that the most sensible part of published literature suffers the least.

Estonian literature also failed to break through into world literature in the 2010s. True, Andrus Kivirähk’s “The Man Who Spoke Snakish” was translated into French, and gained some success. Also, together with Latvia and Lithuania, we were the main guests at the London Book Fair. However, translations of our literature still largely depend on friendship. Introducing Estonian literature has at least become more systematic (Estonian Literature Centre) and the number of translations has grown, mainly by small foreign publishing houses.

There are no major success stories; in addition to the above, mention should perhaps be made of translations into Latvian of Estonian children’s literature, which have sold quite well, and among individual authors, the success of Piret Raud. A curious nuance is Estonia’s position as a so-called net payer, because interest in grants for translating Estonian literature has shot up. There is a growing number of cases where a Lithuanian, Bulgarian or Macedonian publisher wishes to publish ten Estonian books, with the obvious aim of applying for grants.

What might the following decade bring? The first act of corona virus passed with surprising ease, what happens next depends on the duration of the pandemic. In the course of the coming ten years or so several publishers will probably disappear or change owners. This is mostly capital within Estonia as there have been few international deals in recent years; on the other hand, the huge Russian publisher EKSMO allegedly has plans to invest in Estonia. A few new publishing houses will emerge. The print run of books quietly keeps falling and the prices go up. If it falls at the same speed as it did during the last decade, I honestly cannot imagine how it will be possible to continue in the same way. It will become clear when we come to that. The library system will be cut back as happened with post offices and cash machines, the share of digital publications gradually grows, although in books it will certainly not reach a half in a decade. Although print runs diminish, Estonian original literature continues to thrive. Considering how small the Estonian language is, the number of published books is amazing, and in 2030 people wish that life could be just as simple and naïve as it was in 2020.



* The article will be published in the magazine Vikerkaar (October, 2020)