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09 May 11

Ailing Book Trade Faces Bust in Bosnia

Publishers face terminal crisis in country where incomes are dropping, taxes on book sales remain unacceptably high and government doesn’t seem to care.

Zvjezdan Zivkovic

23rd International Book and Teaching Aids Fair, Sarajevo (Photo: Zvjezdan Zivkovic)

Bosnia’s best-known writer, the Nobel prize winner, Ivo Andric, once said: “Remaining indifferent to books means recklessly impoverishing your life”.

Fifty years after Andric won his prize in 1961, Bosnia is in danger of ignoring his warning, as book sales plummet and the publishing industry hits a crisis that some see as terminal.

This year’s International Book and Teaching Aids Fair, held on April 20-15, had a lower attendance and fewer exhibitors than usual - a decline blamed on both the economic crisis and official indifference to the book trade.

Tajib Sahinpasic, one of the fair’s organizers and director of Sahinpasic publishing, said the government’s failure to sponsor organized visits to the fair by students and young people was indicative of its attitude.

“Publishers don’t expect direct state support - but the government could at least set aside more money for libraries, so that they could purchase more books,” he said.

A major headache for the publishing trade is VAT, which at 17 per cent applies to books as well. VAT on book sales in Serbia is far lower at 8 per cent, while in Croatia it is zero.

“We tax books in Bosnia like they’re coffee, alcohol or petrol,” Nenad Novakovic, president of the Association of Publishers and Booksellers of Republika Srpska, complained.

“The cost of postage is another factor,” he added. “If you want to send a book from one city to another, the stamps are often more expensive than the book itself.

“In the cross-border, international, book trade, books are taxed at the full tariff rate, which only Bosnia does,” he continued.

Damir Uzunovic, head of Buybook publishing, says that of all the economic sectors hit by VAT, publishing has suffered most.

 

Damir Uzunovic - owner and director of the publishing firm “Buybook” (Photo: Zvjezdan Zivkovic)

 

“What VAT ought to mean is taking money from citizens and then returning it in the form of funding, or increased living standards,” he said. “But unfortunately that’s not the practice in Bosnia.”

Igor Gavran, project manager in Bosnia’s Chamber of Foreign Commerce, agrees. It is absurd to tax books along the same lines as groceries, he said.

“Depressingly, several years after VAT came in, the situation in publishing has still not been resolved,” he said. “The main reason is the government’s constant hunger for more budget income,” he told Balkan Insight.

Miso Nejasmic, from the Association of Publishers and Booksellers in neighbouring Croatia, said he sympathized with the plight of his counterparts in Bosnia.

Miso Nejasmic - director of publishing firm “Jesenski i Turk” and program manager of the Croatian Association of Publishers and Booksellers (Photo: Zvjezdan Zivkovic)

“This 17 per-cent-tax in Bosnia show that they don’t understand the essence of the book and its overall role in the education process,” he said.

“All countries should have a zero, or lowest possible, rate of tax on books,” Nejasmic told Balkan Insight.

In neighbouring Serbia, where VAT on books is “only” 8 per cent, the tax is still seen as the cause of much grief.

Serbian publishers want it cut to zero, Nenad Atanackovic, of Alnari publishing, said.

“I hope we succeed, especially having in mind that Serbia’s new culture minister Predrag Markovic is a man from our branch,” he said.

Nenad Atanackovic - PR manager in publishing firm “Alnari”, Serbia (Photo: Zvjezdan Zivkovic)

The industry still faces an existential crisis in Serbia, too, however low the tax rate on books, he added.

“People in Serbia just don’t read much,” he lamented. “Over the last 15 years, many middle-class book lovers have emigrated to other parts of world.

“We and our fellow publishers face a challenge in trying to re-educate people and rebuild public interest in books,” Atanackovic added.

Back in December 2000, aware of the deteriorating situation in publishing, the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina established a Foundation for Publishing, which last year disbursed around 225,000 Bosnian marks (around 115,000 euros).

Although the Foundation funds are significant, obtaining them, some writers and publishers say, is an opaque business.

Writer Veselin Gatalo says corruption plays the same role in the Foundation as it does in most areas of public and cultural life.

Veselin Gatalo - Bosnian writer (Photo: Zvjezdan Zivkovic)

“The cultural scene in Bosnia matches the cultural scenes in Sierra Leone or Burkina Faso - the level of corruption is similar,” Gatalo claimed.

Uzunovic sees the Foundation as ineffective rather than corrupt. It “doesn’t know how to help or whom to help,” he said “and as a result, in about 10 years of existence, many publishers went out of business.”

An additional burden on the publishing trade in Bosnia is the country’s bitter political and ethnic divisions, which mean unified policies are rarely put forward, or agreed on.

In publishing, as with other aspects of life, opinions differ sharply between the country’s two autonomous entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

According to Uzunovic some publishers from the Republika Srpska are quite happy for publishers from Serbia to dominate the local book trade.

Currently, more than 60 percent of the book traffic in Bosnia, including both entities, comprises publications from Serbia.

“I respect Serbian publishers - they have great industry - but Bosnian publishers need to develop as well,” Uzunovic said.

“We have to find our own place in the market because if we don’t, we can’t protect our own culture and society,” he added.

Ibrahim Spahic - president of the Association of Publishers and Booksellers of Bosnia and Herzegovina  (Photo: Zvjezdan Zivkovic)

Ibrahim Spahic, president of the Association of Publishers and Booksellers of Bosnia and Herzegovina together with Culture Forum of Bosnia and Herzegovina initiated the document “The Strategy for Cultural Policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” that was accepted by the country’s Council of Ministers in 2008. But Bosnia’s state parliament has yet to verify it.

“What we are demanding is … intensive work on changing the perception of culture,” Spahic said, “and of the need to invest… in our future cultural, social, and economic development.”

One question looming over the book trade is whether people are simply too poor to buy books these days.

Bosnia’s economic transition has seen the number of unemployed and poor citizens grow sharply.

The beginning of 2011 saw new taxes and price increases imposed on staple items such as flour, bread, oil, butter and sugar.

The gap between average incomes and outgoings continues to widen.

In February, average monthly net earnings for people in work amounted to 799 marks (about 400 euro), the Agency for Statistics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says.

During the same month, the food basket for an average family of four cost more than twice that figure - about 1,700 marks.

In spite of that, publishers insist that many people in Bosnia still have enough money to purchase a book “at least once a month”, says the former editor of Svjetlost publishing, the author and literary critic Jasmina Musabegovic.

“The price of books is not the reason why people aren’t buying them,” she insisted.

“Money is clearly not the only problem because the bars are full of people,” she added. “If someone can spend two marks (1 euro) on a coffee, can we say a book costing 10 marks is expensive?”

Neglect of books reflects the general culture in Bosnian society, Tajib Sahinpasic said.

Most of the country’s politicians had no real interest in creating a more literate society, he said. “If the state continues this ignorance, I’m sure more than 50 percent Bosnian publishers will soon go bankrupt,” he added.

Economic expert Svetlana Cenic says both publishers and readers in Bosnia need to start asking hard questions about the price and value of books, if the publishing industry is to survive in any form at all.

“People complain when the price of bread and milk goes up,” she noted, “but when it comes to books, few people ask questions about why they are so expensive and inaccessible to most people.”


This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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