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Ukrainian books cross the borders, or how international distributions works 

Despite all the difficulties related to business relocation, establishment of production and working to air-raid alerts, Ukrainian publishers keep working. According to them, it is too early to talk about reaching the pre-war production figures yet. However, the interest in Ukrainian books abroad has grown – both in terms of purchase of rights for the books and buying paperbacks in Ukrainian and in English. Interest in the latter is shown not only by temporarily displaced people and Ukrainian diasporas, but foreign academic communities as well. Large public libraries, which previously purchased only literature in russian, are opening Ukrainian shelves more and more often, and thus a different view of Eastern Europe.

As a part of the Literature for Export project Chytomo media tells where to find Ukrainian books, how international vendors work, and how Ukrainian publishers enter new markets in order to turn export from a temporary solution into a new and sustainable direction for their business. 

Who distributes Ukrainian books?

Some of the biggest distributors of Ukrainian books among world libraries are East View (USA), MIPP (Lithuania), and a lot of books on Ukrainian issues are provided by Lexicon (Poland). 

East View Information Services is one of the biggest vendors with its headquarters in Minneapolis. Their catalogue contains 57 thousand Ukrainian titles, from the 90s to the most recent Ukrainian books. So one cannot say that Ukrainian books are not represented in distributors’ catalogues. Separate catalogues with Ukrainian literature are also offered by MIPP. Ukrainian literature was present in these catalogues even before the war. What changed is that other distributors started expanding their Ukrainian assortment or including Ukrainian titles in their catalogues more often, like Polish company Lexicon did, for example. 

Lexicon is a family-run distribution company established in 1990 in Warsaw. The company specializes at distributing Polish books on Arts, it also works with universities and state institutions.

“Recently, we’ve noticed the increased interest in Polish books on Ukrainian issues and Ukrainian-Polish relations. And we sell a lot of books like that now. We are not selling Ukrainian books yet, though we’ve placed one test order through one of Ukrainian distribution centers [Knyharnia Ye – author’s note] to see if our foreign partners are interested in such an offer,” says Małgorzata Żebrowska, Lexicon’s project manager. 

Lexicon’s Polish books that are most in demand are «Czas samotności: Ukraina w latach 1914-2022», «Dzieje Ukrainy» by Leszek Podhorodecki, «Krym jako przedmiot sporu ukraińsko-rosyjskiego» and «Zełenski: biografia». You can find other titles at their website.

Among the first ordered Ukrainian books, there are Donetsk Airport. True Story. Part 1. New Terminal, Donetsk Airport. True Story. Part 2. Cyborgs by Iryna Vovk, A Month if War. Chronicle of Events. The Speeches and Addresses of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, Fierce February 2022. Chronicle of Events. Statements about the First Days of Invasion by Daria Bura and Yevheniia Podobna (all books from Folio Publishers, 2022 ISBN) and Travelbook. Independent (Knigolove, 2022, ISBN). 

Truth be told, search and selection of Ukrainian  books is still a bit problematic: the catalogues of some distributors contain transliterations rather than translations of the titles, thus in order to find a book author needs the ISBN of the necessary edition. 

In response to numerous requests from partners abroad who want to work with Ukrainian books in one or another format, Ukrainian PEN, Ukrainian Book Institute and Chytomo regularly publish selections of Ukrainian literature that may be of interest to both the academic community and a wide range of readers abroad.

From Skovoroda to Present Days: 100 Notable Books in Ukrainian

Some librarians mention another problem: not all academic editions they are interested in are available not only for distributors but for internal market as well, cause they are only distributed by authors. That’s why some libraries resort to the services of private parties who conduct “purchase tours”. Though during the war this practice had to stop.

However, the biggest problem for publishers that want to present their books outside Ukraine remains the lack of employees. For instance, Smoloskyp Publishing that used to maintain contacts with the libraries from Canada, USA and Europe basically through its American representational office, according to their Assistant Director Olha Pohynaiko, has recently cut down the number of books they are selling to foreign libraries or distributors. “Situation after the beginning of the war hasn’t changed much, but the problem is the lack of human resources,” she notes. 

Despite the growing interest in Ukrainian books, many libraries continue to order Russian propaganda books from the list that falls under the categories of “promoting inter-ethnic and inter-national hatred” and extremist literature, citing the fact that such publications are a “valuable source of research”. This is what Ksenya Kiebuzinski, coordinator of Slavic resources and head of Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre of the University of Toronto Libraries says. 


“WorldCat (the biggest library catalogue in the world) contains 37 out of 50 anti-Ukrainian books published in russia and represented in North America”.


Ksenya has no optimism regarding this sort of documenting anti-Ukrainian pro-war sentiments in russia, and has no illusions that it will serve for the good: What have 60-70 years of gathering soviet propaganda changed? I think a few institutions gathering such material are enough. Preferably, these should be establishments with the programs of studying political extremism and propaganda. Spending limited resources of budget allocations on purchase of propaganda materials, on the other hand, is nothing but investing into propaganda and war treasury”.


Ukrainian publishers: export of paperbacks and relocation of business

The majority of Ukrainian publishers didn’t see the export of Ukrainian books as the direction of their business  apart from those publishing books in English (such as a universal publisher Osnovy Publishing and a publisher of art literature Rodovid). 

A good example is the case of niche publisher IST Publishing, that distributes its English books and photo books through Dutch distributors Idea Books and MottoBooks, that work with selected bookshops, galleries, museums and concept stores all over the world. They take care of communication, packing, delivery and reporting to European stores. We also take part in international fairs, such as OffPrint and P.A.G.E.S.,” mentions Anastasiia Leonova, a co-founder and director of IST Publishing.

Other Ukrainian publishing houses, which were mainly limited to the sale of rights, had to rethink their work directions in the last months of the war. Kharkov Publishing house Vivat, for example, after relocation has chosen Poland as their site for development and diversification of their business. The decision was made not only because Poland is the country that actively supports Ukraine in its fight against invaders, but also due to the fact that most people that fled from the war abroad settled in Poland. 

“Right now, Poland is a convenient hub for us in terms of future cooperation with other countries. In fact, Vivat books are already available for sale in many European countries, such as Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Baltic countries,” says Artem Litvinets, Development Director of Vivat.  Apart from that the publisher is getting ready for their first shipment to the United Kingdom. “Even before the full-scale invasion, negotiations were held in the company about scaling and other areas of business development, so the opening of a firm in Poland for Vivat is not a temporary phenomenon,” he adds. 

Despite good orders, the volume of which the company does not disclose, they cannot be compared with those lost during the war, since the local book market remains the main source of sales for each Ukrainian publishing house.

Entering a new market is a long process, but during the war publishers (especially those in the war zone) had to react instantly. “Searching for partners (“a hundred letters sent two answers received”), correspondence, negotiations, agreement on commercial terms, all these processes are not fast and quite time-consuming. But, in fact, there is nothing complicated about it: yes, there were things we have not done before, we had to deal with some nuances for the first time,” the company says.

The Polish market interested a lot of Ukrainian publishers. During the war Kyiv family-owned publishing house of children’s literature Chas Maistriv also opened their representational office in Poland. 

Due to that, Chas Maistriv’s books became available in local bookstores Bonito, Matfel, Tania Książka, Tantis, Gandalf, Smak Liter, Edu books and others.

The biggest challenges for Chas Maistriv Publishing House were the search of foreign partners for distribution, settling the publishing and editing process remotely, building coordinated work of Ukrainian and foreign teams. “In a situation where everything needs to be done yesterday, when you can’t spare a minute to restore the publishing house, provide work for employees and at the same time take care of their safety. It’s all like riding a bicycle that’s on fire, but it’s hurtling forward,” says Mila Radchenko, representative of the European department of Chas Maistriv Publishing House. Other pressing issues are book printing, their transportation, and search for funding of new projects.

Chas Maistriv Publishing House are also sending their books to bookstores and libraries in Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania, Finland, France, Sweden and other countries, gradually expanding their market. They are preparing for shipments to the USA.

There are certain success for small and quite young publisher Crocus from Kharkiv. “Due to the initiative Adopt an Ukrainian Children’s Book from Moritz Verlag our books have been published in Europe, among them: Najmoisha Mama by Halyna Kyrpa with illustrations by Hrasya Oliyko published in Germany by Moritz Verlag, аnd Dyktuvala Tse Soroka, a Zapysuvav Jizhak by Oleksandr Podoliak with illustrations by Kateryna Reyda published in France by l’école des loisirs,” says the co-founder of Crocus Nargis Gafurova. 

Apart from that, since the beginning of the war Crocus has been participating in the project of Ukrainian Book Institute “Books without Borders”. The publisher gae their original layouts of their books for printing and free distribution among Ukrainian refugees in European countries. Within this project Limericks by Sashka Dermanskyi was published in Poland, Sweden, Ireland, and Japan, as well as Dyktuvala Tse Soroka, a Zapysuvav Jizhak by Oleksandr Podoliak and Kateryna Reyda in Poland, Sweden, and Japan.

These are not the only examples of international activities of Ukrainian publishers. Yet they give the reason for cautious optimism regarding the future of publishing business in Ukraine. 

In times when Russia keeps destroying Ukrainian libraries, printing houses, retrieving and burning Ukrainian literature on temporarily occupied territories, Ukrainian publishers keep trying to support Ukrainian  readers. How successful they are in it largely depends on foreign partners. Supporting the distribution of Ukrainian books being rights for translation of Ukrainian books and partner projects with  Ukrainian publishers will help them withstand the war, and will give the readers the opportunity to read more books published by restored Ukrainian publishers.


Author: Iryna Baturevych