Still a nation of bookworms in the era of the shopping mall

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

We are in the middle of the huge and very modern Novy Smichov shopping complex, one of many that have sprung up in Prague and other Czech cities in recent years. This country's consumer appetite seems insatiable. Around me there are shops selling clothes, electronic goods, fast food and toys, but there are also a couple of big bookshops that seem to be doing a pretty good job of attracting the attention of passing shoppers. In the Czech Republic it seems that the book is alive and well. For the rest of the programme I'm going to be talking to one of the most successful Czech booksellers, Jan Kanzelsberger - who should be able to tell us which books are selling this Christmas and whether, as it seems, Czechs are still a nation of bookworms.

Jan Kanzelsberger
"First of all we have to say that a book is a traditional gift for Christmas and the main season in the Czech book market is the last two months of the year. Generally we can say that during Christmas demand goes towards more expensive books and the bestsellers are in very strong demand. Talking about bestsellers, there was published a well known title by a Czech author living in France, Milan Kundera. His novel 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' was published a few weeks ago and it became a number one bestseller. But unfortunately at the moment it is out of stock - sold out."

That's an extraordinary story, isn't it, because Milan Kundera wrote the book in exile more than twenty years ago? It instantly became a hit around the world, but it was never published and he never wanted it to be published in the Czech Republic in the original Czech.

"The reasons were probably that Kundera, living in exile, wanted to punish his former country a little bit. I think the Czech readers understood this as a decision by the author, and he had the right to do it, so the book was published in the Czech language twenty years after its first edition."

How about other books by Czech authors on the Christmas market? Are there other books that are selling particularly well?

"There are, of course, Czech authors on the bestsellers' list. First of all we have to name Michal Viewegh, a contemporary young author; we can speak about Petr Sabach, writing about the time of communist totality in our country - with tragic-comical stories. He is very popular among Czech readers. We have to say that we have maybe four or five bestselling authors, of whom you can guarantee that their books will always be on the bestsellers' lists."

You mentioned the writers Michal Viewegh and Petr Sabach. They are both writers whose works have been made into films. Do you think that's a sign that readers are much more drawn by writers who have a high media profile?

"Absolutely. Such an author is more popular among people who are not regular readers or regular visitors to bookshops, and such an author has a kind of more general popularity. It means that his books sell better than the others."

What about less well known authors? There is a lot of writing going on in the Czech Republic. How do you as a bookseller deal with the fact that you know that you're probably not going to make much money out of these books?

"It is very problematic, because we as booksellers have to offer our readers first of all books that are in demand, and it is up to readers what they like to read and what they prefer. Sometimes we feel the lack of promotion on the side of publishers, because the publishers in the Czech Republic traditionally don't put too much money into promotion. From my point of view it's a bit of a pity, because a lot of interesting and good and promising books are forgotten, because readers simply don't know about them."

And what about foreign titles - books that are translated into Czech?

"There are a lot of translated books into the Czech language. It's a big tradition and from my point of view I think that, generally speaking, translated books are more in demand than Czech authors. That's unfortunately a fact. So there are a lot of interesting titles and upcoming big bestsellers..."

Can you name a couple?

"Well, first of all we have to point to the books of John Irving. Also, of course, we cannot forget one of the big bestsellers of recent years - that's 'The Da Vinci Code' of course. It is in great demand and it's a very interesting title from my point of view as a bookseller, because it's not usual that there is such stable demand for a title over months and years."

How do you explain that? Do you think it's just a very well written, gripping book, or is there some other reason?

"I don't think that it's any kind of super, extraordinary book, but I think that all the circumstances around it and maybe good marketing, combined with its worldwide success, made money around it, and I think that people who normally would not read this book, had to read it because it was fashionable."

A lot of the things that you have been saying about what is selling in the Czech Republic are probably very similar to the trends in other countries around Europe. Are there any respects in which you notice that the Czech reader - or the Czech book buyer - is in some way different or specific?

"From my point of view I think that Czech readers are much more conservative in their reading tastes than maybe in other countries in Europe. It means that it is more complicated for publishers to start up with a new author and bring a new author into the Czech Republic. Czech readers prefer to read books by already 'checked' authors from their point of view, and from the publishers' point of view it is maybe a little bit more conservative. It is a little bit of a pity, because a lot of authors that are hugely successful in the United States or other English-speaking countries have little success in this country and nobody knows why. On the contrary, other - very traditional - authors, like Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Dick Francis, they are still on the bestsellers list and nobody knows why."

Do you think it might be that the market is quite provincial in its outlook?

"I think so, and especially the market is very small. You have to consider that the Czech Republic has around ten million inhabitants, so the Czech language is very specific. It is spoken practically only in the Czech Republic. So this limitation of the market probably means that to start up with a new author is quite problematic."

I remember just after the fall of communism that there were a lot of very gloomy predictions that people would stop reading and books would lose their importance. If I go down to Wenceslas Square, the main square in Prague - where you also have a shop - there are several big bookshops, they are always full of people. Books seem to be selling in large numbers.

"The book has a traditional position in Czech society and even in readers' minds. Of course it is changing. There is a lot of competition for the book: there are a lot of magazines, newspapers, television, cinemas, PC games and internet. All these things are competition for books. So, from the bookseller's point of view we see that people read less, but it doesn't mean that they are buying fewer books generally.

"What does it mean? It means that people are more busy than fifteen years ago. They have to work on their career, they have hard jobs or whatever. Time for books is limited. On the other hand there are a lot of new fields that practically did not exist fifteen years ago - like popular sciences, languages, technical fields. In all these fields there are more and more titles published, and people have to buy these titles because of their work, their education and so on. So it means that we are now selling far more books in comparison with fifteen years ago, but my feeling is that people are reading a little bit less."

Your family is very specific in that you are a well known Czech bookselling family. You must have seen many changes in the decades that your family has been in the business.

"Absolutely. The tradition in our family is quite deep. My father was one of the big booksellers during the communist time, when all the bookshops in the Czech Republic were organized in one state enterprise. After the fall of the communist regime my father was one of first two private booksellers in the Czech Republic. Bookselling is a kind of life in our family. So it means that when I was quite a small boy I remember that people - readers - would stand in a queue in front of bookshops and wait for the new upcoming title to buy it, and they practically did not know what title it was. Actually they would just say, 'Here is a queue for a book so it must be something special, so I have to queue.'"

You mentioned the communist days. There must have been a huge amount of political control over booksellers and the publishing business, because propaganda was so central to the regime's very existence.

"Yes, of course. Mainly in the publishing field it was completely tied up with a lot of restrictions and limitations, and finally even from the economic point of view it was limited, because the communist economy was built on a different basis and practically all the books were what we call low-profile. So it means they were very hard to get in the shops. It means that you had a hundred people queuing in front of your bookshop from the very early morning and you had twenty copies of the book in your bookshop. You would sell them in a few minutes, and to all the remaining people you had to say, 'Unfortunately we've sold out.' So such a situation was very bad for customers and for readers. On the other hand that is one of the things that caused people to think of the book as something very extraordinary, something valuable, because to get a very good book was not normal. You couldn't just go to a bookshop and buy a bestselling author."

One of the things that I remember vividly from the old days is that people would be sitting in the metro reading books, and every book would be very carefully wrapped up in newspaper to protect the cover.

"Exactly. And that is still reflected in one specific feature of the book market. Czech readers prefer hardback covers, and practically the paperback market is not developed in the Czech Republic as it is in Germany and many other countries. People have always felt the book to be something extraordinary, not just a consumer item."

I'd like to ask you as a person who sells books, who is your favourite author, or your favourite Czech book?

"I don't have any problems reading Michal Viewegh. I like his books. They are funny and quite relaxing. Of the traditional Czech authors I prefer Karel Capek who was a big humanist writer living between the two world wars. His books were so forward-looking that they are still current and can still say something to the reader, sixty or seventy years after Capek's death."