In Turkey, book publishers face agonizing choices to survive | Art and Culture News

Istanbul, Turkey – According to some of Turkey’s most reputable publishers, Turkish publishers are increasingly struggling to release new books and face agonizing choices to survive amid the country’s economic crisis.

Runaway inflation in Turkey, which officially hit 70 percent in May, has sapped the purchasing power of Turkey’s bookworms.

Meanwhile, as the Turkish lira has fallen to record lows, books are getting more and more expensive to produce.

According to data from the Statistics Institute of Turkey in February 2022, the annual increase in paper prices was a record 168 percent.

“We have to decide on an almost daily basis which titles to kill or at least postpone indefinitely because we only have so much paper,” Cem Akas, editor-in-chief at Can Publishing, told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, many smaller publishers are on the brink of collapse.

Last month, opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet wrote on the front page: “Publishers are no longer allowed to print books.”

These are worrying developments for a $1 billion industry – more than 87,000 different titles were published in Turkey last year, ranking the country sixth in global publishing rankings.

And publishers say the industry is also vital to Turkey’s cultural vibrancy and as a space for freedom of expression.

The prices skyrocket

After the closure of domestic paper mills in recent years, Turkey’s publishing industry is now turning to imported paper – the price of which skyrocketed when the lira lost almost half its value against the US dollar in 2021. In the meantime, the international supply has also been affected by supply chain problems in the midst of the pandemic – which led to acute bottlenecks.

“A ton of high-quality paper used to cost 600 euros in 2021. Now it’s 1,150 euros,” Kenan Kocatürk, the chairman of Turkey’s Publishers Association, told Al Jazeera.

But he said paper isn’t the only problem.

“Today, Turkish publishers import everything: paper, ink, the glue used to bind books,” Kocaturk said. “Electricity prices, which are vital for printers, have skyrocketed.”

Meanwhile, he says, Turkish publishers are reluctant to raise prices amid a cost-of-living crisis — some have even lowered prices to attract customers and compete with online publishers.

When purchasing power falls, people spend their hard-earned income on basic necessities, and book sales inevitably fall. According to a report by the Turkish Publishers Association, the book retail market shrank by 11.26 percent in 2020. Publishers union YAYBIR found that the number of books published in January 2022 fell by 20 percent compared to January 2021. According to Kocaturk, the sharing of illegal PDF books also peaked during the pandemic.

Medium and small publishers are hardest hit by the crisis.

Secil Epik and Busra Mutlu, co-founders of Umami, launched their boutique publishing company in 2021.

“As a translation-focused publishing house, copyright fees and paper costs are equally challenging for us,” Epik told Al Jazeera. “At the end of the day we earn in Turkish lira and pay both in dollars. It’s getting harder to acquire new titles every day.”

They said that so far this year they have seen a significant drop in sales and that while the first edition of their first title sold out in four months, only half of the second edition sold.

Because it takes several months to pay for the first edition, they’re struggling to reprint titles with the proceeds as costs mount in the meantime – they said the cost of publishing their first book has doubled in just two months.

“This may not be a huge challenge for publishers who publish 100 new books a year and already have dozens or hundreds of books in circulation, but for independent publishers who produce on a much smaller scale and want to explore niche areas, it has become difficult and new names and introduce them to their readers,” Mutlu said.

The publishers Adım Adım and Mikado went bankrupt in 2021. Independent bookstores including Denizler in Istanbul and Tante Rose in Izmir have also closed due to the crisis – the former in 2021 and the latter in 2022.

“Overworked and Underpaid”

To cope with the crisis and reduce costs, Turkish publishers have started to produce books of lower quality material.

“The result is somewhere between a copied book and a regular book,” Kocaturk said. “At least the books can stay in the shops that way.”

Many publishers have also drastically reduced their print runs and are increasingly risk-averse. A new survey by the Turkish Publishers Association, made available to Al Jazeera, found that “Fifty percent of publishers in Turkey have changed their publishing plans and publish almost no new books except for those that sell well.”

Akas said Can Publishing is also printing fewer titles with shorter runs.

“[Publishers are] less enthusiastic about taking risks with new titles and in the end everyone turns to publishing the 19th and early 20th century classics – a sure sell in Turkey,” he said.

The crisis also affects employees in the industry. Akas said that while big publishers still have to make bigger layoffs, “publishers who are cash-strapped are paying less and deferring payments to translators and editors.”

Epik and Mutlu say the crisis has caused publishing workers to work more for less pay.

“Overworked and underpaid cultural workers have neither the resources nor the time to discover, follow and experience what is being produced in the world,” Mutlu said. “Not only culture consumption, but also the participation in cultural production is now a luxury.”

Meanwhile, Kocatürk said the industry’s role as a relative haven for freedom of expression in Turkey is under threat, especially compared to the pressure journalists face from the state.

“As the crisis worsens, I fear that we will lose the plurality of our publishing tradition,” said Kocatürk.

Umami’s Epik said Turkey’s publishing industry will continue to struggle in some form.

“But who can afford to keep publishing and who is left behind will determine how our cultural life is shaped,” Epik said.

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