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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » October 27, 2011
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Spreading the Word
October 27, 2011   
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Grzegorz Gauden, Director of the Book Institute, talks to Marcin Mierzejewski.

The Book Institute’s mission statement includes making access to information on the Polish book and publishing market more readily available to foreigners. How does this pan out in practice?
You can keep yourself up to date through our website (www.bookinstitute.pl). We have information in English, German, Russian and Hebrew. This is where we put the latest information on what’s happening on the Polish publishing scene and on literary awards being granted to Polish writers here and abroad. Apart from that, we publish catalogues in various languages throughout the year. We offer excerpts from the best prose and poetry books released in Poland. These are sent out to the world’s leading publishing houses and distributed at major international book fairs. We now maintain a presence at most of these events, including the Frankfurt, Paris, Bologna, London and Moscow fairs. This is the classical way in which Polish literature is promoted. This would be ineffectual, however, were it not for the financial assistance we provide to get Polish books published abroad. ©Poland is a special program we conduct to have Polish books translated into other languages. Polish writers would face an almost unwinnable battle to make it outside the country without this program. This is because very few publishers are keen to chance their arm on unknown authors from Eastern Europe. A thousand Polish titles have been released outside the country in recent years as a result of this program.

Which countries show a particular interest in Polish books?
Germany is far and away the country most interested in Polish literature and has been for many years. German interest might not be quite what it was but it is still significant. Ukraine shows a great deal of interest as well. A lot of Polish writers and thinkers are published in Ukrainian. And this is something we support financially. There have been dozens of titles over the last few years. It’s wonderful to see that the younger generation of Ukrainians are interested in Polish books. These people are frequently fascinated with Polish culture and history. They use Polish political writings to try to come to grips with Ukrainian history. But Polish books are being published in just about every language. We really want to get them out there in English. Once a book comes out in English it has a greater chance of grabbing the attention of publishers from other countries.

What type of literature do readers most want translated from Polish? Any flavor of the month?
Nobel prize winner Wisława Szymborska is way out in front when it comes to poetry. There’s always been a demand for Czesław Miłosz to be translated. Seeing as this year is the Year of Miłosz, 50 or so of his books are being published. Some are reprints and some are being translated into a variety of languages for the first time. Names like Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz likewise spring to mind. There’s no denying that Polish literature is a poetry powerhouse. On the other hand poetry is the most complicated type of literature to translate. We have another arm that deals in popular literature, e.g. fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and crime thrillers by Marek Krajewski. Within this spectrum are diverse figures. Olga Tokarczuk and Andrzej Stasiuk are very popular, but so are some writers no longer with us, like Stanisław Lem and Witold Gombrowicz . The latter is extraordinarily popular in Sweden, where everything he ever wrote has probably been translated.

How would you rate the state of reading in Poland?
The numbers speak for themselves. We don’t read many books and we read very few newspapers and periodicals. Poland’s daily press readership has hovered around the 30 percent mark for years now. By comparison, it’s around 90 percent in Sweden. This should give you some idea of the gap between the two cultures. This situation is extremely worrying when it comes to books. People who don’t read have no way of acquiring knowledge. This is one of the greatest cultural challenges confronting Poland today. We can either be an increasingly literate society and take our place among the wealthier countries in Europe – those that boast the most creative economies – or we can settle for being a semi-educated country of laborers. This is the challenge facing the current generation. We run a program called Biblioteka + (Library +) which aims to rectify this situation by setting up a network of well-stocked public libraries in towns and villages of up to 15,000 people.

What are the main publishing trends in Poland? What types of books are most in demand?
The Polish book market has a lot to offer. Textbooks and academic works make up a huge chunk of it. Handbooks and reference manuals of all sorts are evidencing very impressive growth. People like to teach themselves and learn about things for themselves.

Poetry usually gets a minimal print run and this segment of the market is shrinking. While the market as a whole has been growing steadily for several years, serious, intellectually challenging literature is accounting for an ever decreasing share of it. But Poland is by no means an exceptional case; this is a universal trend. There is also the question as to whether books will be electronic in the future or whether they will continue in paper form. The jury is still out on this one. There is no doubt that e-books and audio-books are comprising an increasing share of the market. It is just as certain that paper books will be with us for many years yet, although they might become luxury items. Just bear in mind that the e-book is already a cheap and convenient format for distributing books.
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