Past and Present in Hungarian Book Publishing
1. From the beginnings to the Communist take-over in 1948
The first books came to Hungary via travelling monks and clergymen from areas along the Rhine and the French Marches not long after the Magyar tribes had conquered and settled the Carpathian Basin. Most of these early books have been lost in the Mongol invasion of 1241 and other wars, or, due to the fact that they were mostly liturgical, have been worn away from constant use. At present there are approximately 1200 medieval codices in Hungary but only 190 of them are of Hungarian origin as most of them were collected during the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the illuminated manuscripts extant before 1526 (when the Ottoman armies overran a great part of the country) only half of a per cent survives. Nevertheless, a medieval book culture did exist here, predominantly in the royal court, in monasteries and the Episcopal sees, and by the 14th and 15th centuries it equalled that of contemporary Europe.
The Renaissance gave a big boost to intellectual pursuits that reached their zenith during the reign of King Mátyás (Mathias), one of the great book collectors of his time. His library Bibliotheca Corviniana -- in size second only to the Bibliotheca Vaticana -- was known and admired throughout Europe. The Royal Palace in Buda is estimated to have held 3000 wonderfully designed and richly illuminated manuscripts and codices, including those made expressly for the King (the Corvinas) and those in the private collection of his Queen Beatrix.
Tragically, this library was scattered right after the death of Mátyás. His successors Ulászló II and Lajos II gave away the most valuable pieces to emissaries from foreign courts as well as to humanists and scientists from all over Europe -- but this way at least many of them survived. What ultimately destroyed the Bibliotheca Corviniana was the Turkish invasion under Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman ruler looted the collection to such an extent that only 22 codices are known to have remained in existence from that period. Today there are 215 Corvinas extant in 49 libraries, 43 cities of 16 countries around the world.
Two decades after the invention of the printing press, Hungary was the 6th country in the world to start its own printing establishment. In the year 1472 the German monk Andreas Hess (Hess András) came to Buda and under the sponsorship of the Primate of All Hungary printed the first book in the land entitled Chronica Hungarorum with its fine Latin characters brought from Rome. The trade of printing and publishing has been continuous ever since, and only half a century after Hess there were several shops active throughout the country, mostly under the protection of noble houses. The printed book was no longer a rarity in Hungary.
1590 is the next stepping-stone: in that year the first full translation of the Holy Bible was printed in three bulky volumes on the initiative of the translator himself. A Lutheran minister, Gáspár Károli thus became the first publisher in the Hungarian language and undoubtedly the first to bring out a best-seller. The rapid spread of the Reformation created a large demand for widely affordable books, and that in turn meant a livelihood for a number of itinerant printer-publisher entrepreneurs during the century. Between 1571 and 1600 a total of 605 titles were published, either in Latin or in Hungarian.
By the beginning of the 17th century locally printed books -- though of rather poor quality, however closely emulating in design Italian and German books imported by merchants -- had become frequent and inexpensive. Popular calendars, i. e. compendiums of useful knowledge concerning weather and agriculture, of household advice, of simple stories and descriptions of contemporary events (best-sellers for the next two and a half centuries), could be purchased for less than the price of two pounds of beef at any village fair.
Apart from such popular publications, Hungarian publishing until the close of the 18th century was dominated by various Bible editions, textbooks, esoteric religious works in Hungarian, Latin classics, legal books both in Latin and in Hungarian.
With the Turkish wars after one and a half centuries of continuous warfare coming to an end, and new, public (i. e. not ecclesiastic) schools proliferating, the first "real" booksellers appeared during the late 18th century. Their stocks, however, apart from locally printed Latin and Hungarian language books, consisted mainly of imported French and German publications as German was widely spoken among educated people. These booksellers initially operated outside of the traditional framework of commerce defined by established guilds, but in 1795 they set up the first booksellers' association in Europe, calling themselves The Commonalty of the Booksellers of the City of Pest, first chaired by István Kiss. (Thirty years later it was a Hungarian bookseller, Károly Keresztély Horváth, who at the Leipzig Fair initiated what was to become the Börsenverein.)
Towards the end of the 18th century, with the spread of literacy among the lower classes and the upsurge of the national revival, the demand for books in Hungarian was growing so rapidly that the booksellers of the City of Pest started publishing, too, thus sponsoring a whole new era of Hungarian literature that was to produce the great national classics of the 19th century. Many of the firms of this first generation of booksellers turned publishers survived until the 1870's. Messrs Lampel, Emich, Wodianer, Trattner, Hartleben et al became the publishers not only of the Hungarian romantic movement but also of the first dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and scholarly and technical works.
During the late 19th century the spectacular growth of capitalism gave rise to a new breed of tough commercial companies catering for a new public: the town-dwelling bourgeoisie and the literate urban masses. The new age was characterised by large editions of popular fiction and cheap paperbacks, by decorative series of "complete works", and, most significantly, by the influx of translations which made contemporary world literature available to a public eager for models of life-style and ideas for the spiritual and political modernisation of the country. The exceptionally high number of translated titles has been characteristic of Hungarian publishing ever since. By the turn of the century Hungary became one of the leading "book countries" of Europe and was one of the first countries of the continent to be admitted into the International Publishers' Association. In 1913 Budapest hosted an international conference of publishers.
During the interwar period the scene did not change significantly, except for the appearance of pulp fiction -- "yellow novels" as they were called. The trade was dominated by a relatively small number of prestigious large publishers, Athenaeum, Révai Brothers, Pallas, Singer & Wolfner etc., all of them established in the last decades of the 19th century. Around them operated a few medium-sized companies (Cserépfalvy, Dante) and a lot of small publishers, some of them still booksellers, producing the great majority of titles in small editions. On the whole, apart from fiction, reference and the social sciences, publishing was still a small industry, with practically no art publishing and little music publishing, and not much professional and technical publishing to speak of.
2. The Communist Era, 1948--1989
The ravages of World War II and the Communist take-over changed the picture beyond recognition practically overnight. In 1948 all publishing houses, booksellers and printers were nationalised and "reliable" communist managers appointed, with no knowledge of books or experience in publishing in most cases. A new copyright law was introduced which stripped the publishers of their rights (all rights reverting to the author after each edition). While smaller publishers were closed down, the larger firms were amalgamated into yet larger "socialist" companies, each of them with a rigidly defined field: one for children’s' and juvenile books, one for technical books, one for academic publications, one for legal and economic subjects, one for contemporary Hungarian fiction and poetry, one for Marxist literature, one for textbooks, one for Soviet authors etc. An "ideal" world was created in which there was no competition, books were subsidised to make them affordable for the masses, and, if "desirable" for political or educational reasons, issued in hitherto unheard-of print runs. Over this "socialist" trade the Ministry of Culture's book department (called the General Directorate of Publishing) ruled as censor and lord of printing and paper supply -- both of which were always inadequate, partly because of the huge increase in production. Supreme power, however, was in the hands of the Communist Party and its almighty controlling body The Book Commission. Not only were the long lists of banned authors and books prepared there (and brought up to date from time to time in true Orwellian fashion) but The Commission also put together equally long lists of desirable (read obligatory) authors and subjects which were then "sent down" to the publishing houses, together with annual plans detailing the required subject matters and production figures.
Publishing was not a business in any sense of the word but rather a kind of service paid for by the government with the aim of "educating the masses". Under such conditions book production soared, huge distribution networks sprang into existence, and more people were employed in the trade than ever before. Yet through the decades the regime slowly mellowed and also needed to placate the intelligentsia by giving more intellectual freedom. After a time it was not only ideologically biased books that benefited from the system. Almost unlimited capital resources made possible the development of hitherto insignificant academic publishing, the production of comprehensive reference works, the costly textological editions of the classics, a refinement in literary translation -- practised by some of the best novelists and poets who were banned from publishing their own work and had no other livelihood -- the growth of science, medical, art and foreign language publishing. Sharpened by close censorship, a new editorial professionalism emerged, the editors themselves often being distinguished intellectuals in their own right, finding shelter in publishing houses.
On the whole, as an ideologically sensitive sector publishing "enjoyed" special attention which also meant that all changes in the higher spheres of politics were immediately reflected in publishing policies, too. And the regime, though the system itself remained unchanged, did undergo important modifications during its forty years: ideological control was gradually eased, censorship became more and more lax, economic difficulties led to dwindling subsidies, and by the mid-70's this forced publishers to start thinking in terms of market and profit. The 1980's saw a publishing industry that was technically well developed, intellectually strong, prestigious and perfectly able to satisfy all requirements of the reading public of a country by now quite confident of the impending demise of Communism.
The overall performance of Hungarian publishing from the late 70's also serves to explain the fact that samizdat books (as opposed to journals and periodicals) were never numerous and that by the time they did appear in large numbers and editions there was very little to distinguish them from "official" publications.
For the protection of authors' rights a semi-official agency was set up in 1955. Now called Artisjus, it is a legal bureau, a "collecting society" and a rights agency active mainly in the fields of music, literature, the theatre and computer programs. It used to represent Hungarian authors at home and abroad and also mediated between foreign literary agencies/publishers and Hungarian publishing houses by force of law and had censorship functions as well.
Today there are several literary agencies but it is mainly due to the activities of the Artisjus agency (a member of WIPO) that piracy is not a major problem. Hungary has for decades been signatory to the Bern Convention.
Export and import of books, equally centralised, closely controlled and, whenever it was deemed politically necessary, subsidised, used to be handled by one giant company called Kultúra. Stripped of its monopoly, the overstaffed, clumsy organisation soon went bankrupt under the new conditions and its role was taken over by numerous small ventures. Reliable statistics are not available but, since the currency became virtually convertible, the import of Western books has vastly increased -- growth was especially dynamic in English language teaching materials now used in the state school system -- while the export of books by Hungarian publishers, with the loss of the "Socialist markets" and without the subsidies, has lamentably dropped.
The Hungarian Writers' Association, once the only, and grimly official, organisation to control authors, had by the beginning of the 80's become not only a stronghold of dissent and protest but also one of the centres of the nascent political opposition and developed into a kind of unofficial parliament whose leaders played a prominent role in the movement that led to the end of dictatorship, among them Árpád Göncz, a playwright and novelist, and also a very fine translator from English, the first freely elected President of the Republic. Under the conditions of parliamentary democracy, however, the Association has quickly lost its outright political importance, most writers having withdrawn from politics, but it is still the largest and most important organisation of authors with a membership that covers the whole literary scene and is now seeking a new role as a kind of trade union. Some of the more internationally known members of the literary community though, notably the novelist and essayist George Konrád, the poet Sándor Csoóri, and the playwright István Csurka continue to make their voices heard in the political arena.
3. Publishing Today, From 1989 to 1996
The collapse of Communism swept away most of the old rules of control and support. Censorship ended and it was possible to publish and read everything, although the exact date of a new beginning is almost impossible to pinpoint now. The Party did relinquish its exclusive power in 1989 when it reluctantly allowed free elections to be held in 1990 but some publishers were already breaking out of the confines well before that: Szabad Tér in 1987 and 1988 brought out two now-famous anthologies of Russian dissident writing, while Európa published Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak in 1988 and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell in 1989, all in excellent translations, which meant that preliminary work on them had to have begun much sooner.
In early 1989, a short official notice in the press announced that any legally registered company or organisation was now permitted to engage in publishing without prior consent or charter from the authorities. After half a century, the freedom of the press was restored. In the romantic and feverish months and years to follow everything that could not be published since 1948 was printed and sold in huge editions. Neither the "official" publishing houses nor the "official" distribution system could cope with the demand. Hundreds of new publishers appeared and books were sold by street vendors instead of bookstores. The flood, of course, receded soon. Most of the new publishers and booksellers, enthusiastic intellectuals mainly, disappeared. Previously banned literature gave way to popular fiction.
One of the most significant factors of the post-Communist crisis of the book industry was the collapse of the distribution system. Under Communism both wholesaling and retailing was operated by three enormous state-controlled companies which went bankrupt during 1990-1992 due to debts, huge stocks of unmarketable and unsold books and competition from private distributors and street traders. This left distribution in disarray. The traditional division between wholesalers and retailers has disappeared and they have merged into one chaotic system. The familiar channel between publishers, wholesalers and readers disappeared. Both wholesalers and retailers began to reject titles with low sales potential or took only minuscule parts of the print run and pushed profit margins up. This new situation put severe cash flow pressure on publishers since small distributors tended to be late in paying which in an economy of high inflation was a substantial financial burden.
The severest blow to the book trade came from the Pre-privatisation Act of 1990 under the provisions of which nearly two-thirds of all bookshops were offered for privatisation without discrimination. The majority of the shops sold in open bidding were lost to the trade for ever. Villages and sometimes whole towns were left without a single bookshop. Those that remained had to compete with street stalls suddenly mushrooming all over the country, stalls that were situated in public areas, in underground stations and underpasses, stocked largely with best-sellers, operating semi-legally, more often than not refusing to pay taxes or even public area rental fees. Likewise, what remained and regrouped of the old wholesalers had to compete with new, regionally based, usually medium or small-scale "demigros" networks of dubious origin focusing almost entirely on best-selling books.
Privatisation of the big state-owned publishing houses also became a serious issue after 1990. The managers and staff of these firms saw their nominal ownership as a burden and thought that rapid privatisation would be best for the companies and the market. However, the first post-Communist government did not have a clear policy on the issue. By the time the first privatisation took place in 1993 the situation of the publishers worsened, their financial problems deepened, and potential investors were discouraged. The biggest single question of the privatisation process was the valuation of these companies. The existing copyright law has long favoured the author over the publisher. The author could impose a number of restrictions on the publisher which greatly reduced the publisher's possibilities for commercial exploitation of the work. With copyrights reverting to the authors after each edition the backlists of the state-owned publishing houses were virtually valueless and could not be counted as assets in the privatisation. This also greatly discouraged potential investors. In the end, a few of these companies were acquired by foreign ventures, one or two by Hungarian buyers, several of them had to be shut down and those left took advantage of a government initiative for management-and-staff buy-outs financed through preferential bank loans. These buy-outs meant, of course, that there was no capital injection, though sorely needed, at a time of sudden economic change.
Another factor which contributed to the post-Communist crisis of the book industry was the system of taxation. In 1990 the 80 per cent tax relief on the profits of publishers and distributors which helped to cause the boom of 1989 and 1990 was abolished. Moreover, the 1993 introduction of VAT on books placed further financial pressure on publishers. 6 per cent VAT was levied on books which was then increased to 10 per cent in 1994 and to 12 per cent in 1995. In addition, the general level of company taxation and social security contributions is very high in Hungary, approximating that of the Scandinavian countries.
The only way the post-Communist governments have helped the book industry long accustomed to state subsidies was to establish funds for the publication of culturally valuable books. One of them, The Hungarian Book Foundation is allocated yearly sums from the budget, while the National Cultural Fund draws its capital from a charge levied on all cultural products. This levy was introduced in 1993 as an average 1 per cent tax on the price of books, theatre and cinema tickets, rented videos, museum entrance fees etc. Private foundations have also helped the industry, the most important being the Soros Foundation.
4. Publishing Today, From 1996 On
The ambiguous situation of the industry in the first 6 to 8 years after the "changing of the regime" (as the Velvet Revolution is usually referred to in Hungary) has undergone a dramatic change since 1996. Not unconnected with a shift in government policy as to the funding of different segments of book production and consumption, publishing in general seems to have recuperated. Indeed, it has become the leading branch of Hungarian cultural life. Two of what remained of the previously state-owned big distributors were privatised at last, i. e. restructured and streamlined to meet modern needs. As a consequence, new, large and well-appointed bookshops began to be opened again, their number (sadly depleted in 1990) reaching 500 in 1997. In the same year, turnover increased by 25 per cent, far exceeding the rate of inflation. There were (and continue to be) about 10 000 titles published per year and the number of copies sold approximates 50 million. Although this latter figure is far lower than that of 1989, it proves that Hungarians are still prolific readers -- indeed, only in two of the Scandinavian countries do people buy more books per capita in the whole of Europe.
After years of uncertainty and confusion, the market seems finally to have settled into shape. Fifteen large publishers control the lion's share while about 60 others divide up the rest between them. There are also 200 to 300 very small companies that usually publish four or five titles annually. Initial fear of the big international "multis", too, has proved unfounded. Bertelsmann, Readers' Digest, Julius Springer, Axel Springer, Wolters Kluwer have gained ground and are here to stay but their combined share of the market is below 30 per cent. Moreover, they have helped establish the rules of fair trade in an industry that has seen much foul play in its free-for-all beginnings in the new era.
The future of Hungarian publishing and bookselling is looking up and their achievements are starting to receive international acknowledgement. In Spring 1998 the Hungarian Publishers' and Booksellers' Association (MKKE) was the first in Eastern Europe to be admitted into two top trade organisations, The European Publishers' Federation and The European Booksellers' Federation. This venerable body with its 200-year past has since 1929 been the organiser of the Festive Book Week, the major annual book event in Hungary, and, since 1994, together with the Board of Directors of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the organiser of the nationally and regionally important Budapest International Book Festival.
Hungary is the first country from Eastern Europe to have been chosen as Focus at the Frankfurt Book Fair -- owing, undoubtedly, besides the more obvious reasons, to the close historical ties between Hungarian and German publishing. One of the founders of the Börsenverein was a Hungarian, while organised book-selling in Hungary was introduced by German traders. Also, at the beginning of the 1980s the Hungarian trade offered two separate opportunities for German publishing to show-case its production and display several thousand titles for a very interested Hungarian public.
Frankfurt '99 is a great opportunity for Hungarian publishers, booksellers, and belles-lettres in general, to display the state and quality of our book industry in one of the leading countries of the European Union. We wish you a happy and informative visit to the Focus Theme Pavilion of Hungary.