Featured Article

"Create in spite of fear": launching a publishing house in Ukraine during the war and pandemic

Published on Nov 2, 2023

Ukrainian article of the week published in the the 5th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on November 2nd, 2023. The article was written by Olesya Boyko for Chytomo and was translated for n-ost by Natalia Volynets.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

You can access the original article in Ukrainian under this link. It was first published on October 13, 2023.

Over the past three years, Ukrainian publishers were first faced with the Covid-19 pandemic and then, when they recovered a little, a major escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war. In such conditions, one would expect only the big market players to survive, as they have the power and reserves to resist political, social and economic crises, but no: during this time, at least 23 new publishing houses have started in Ukraine. Now, it is hard to imagine the Ukrainian book market without some of these names, while others are just beginning their development. Media specialist publication Chytomo has asked the publishing houses founded during 2020-2023 about the challenges they faced, ways to overcome these obstacles, and how their experience can help further develop the book industry.

Publishing houses founded during the Covid-19 pandemic

Although now it seems like several lifetimes have passed since the pandemic, it only started three years ago. During this period, the publishing houses Vikhola, Laboratoriya, Ukraїner, Parasol, Creative Women Publishing, Bookraine Publishing House, Vidkryttia (meaning “Discovery” in English), and Blym-Blym launched and preserved.

“We published our first book project with our logo as a publisher — a large study of indigenous peoples and national communities in Ukraine Who We Are — during the pandemic,” says Yevheniia Sapozhnykova, editor-in-chief of the Ukraїner publishing house. “At that time, we all worked remotely, from the first texts and until the book was published. We joked that we even celebrated the book launch on Zoom. For the book’s publication, we received a grant from the state-owned Ukraine Cultural Foundation (UCF), which at the time helped us decide to publish this great work. The book was published in 2021. Then there was a pause, when we were making publishing plans for the future, and forming a team.” According to her, after the start of the full-scale invasion in the spring of 2022, the work of the publishing house was restarted.

The founder of the Parasol publishing house, Taisia Nakonechna, says that the pandemic took away many opportunities, but also created many others. In particular, large and small companies have realised that a significant amount of work can be done remotely. “I was guided by the idea that while the pandemic is on, we’ll have time to study the nuances of the industry at a normal pace and to determine the pace of further movement and development. Unfortunately, it all turned out quite differently since the full-scale invasion of Russia caused significant adjustments,” she adds.

The impetus for the emergence of the Vikhola publishing house was not the pandemic, but formed from the dismissal of a team from another publishing house, Nash Format. “I don't know if Vikhola would have been created if we all hadn’t found ourselves without work at the same point,” says Natalia Shnyr, its co-founder, “but this was extremely timely: on the one hand, we had no work, but on the other hand, we had a huge desire to continue working together and publishing books. At the same time, we realised that no one would be able to hire such a large team, so we decided to create our own publishing house to do what we know how to do and love doing.”

Creative Women Publishing, Bookraine Publishing House, and Portal are among the publishing houses whose first year coincided with the pandemic, but which were founded just before.

"The pandemic came a year after the founding,” says the founder of Portal, Olena Khirgii. “By that time, we already had a plan and a strategy, the authors were writing texts to order, we’d gathered a professional team, but of course, we wanted to have a bit more time to automate the processes and present ourselves on the market.”

Meanwhile, Nataliia Vasylieva planned to launch Vidkryttia mid-pandemic in 2020, but failed to do this in February and decided to postpone the project in March. Later, Vasylieva’s partner in a local history project, Olga Chystiakova, helped her deal with budget planning, contracts and reports. In February 2021, the official history of the publishing house began.

Pandemic challenge: lack of live events

“During the pandemic, the major challenges for us were the almost complete absence of offline events and live communication,” says Yevheniia Sapozhnykova of Ukraїner. “It’s cool that both the book festivals Book Arsenal and BookForum made an online program at that time. That helped us to stay within a professional space and to see and hear about the activities of other publishing houses, albeit online.”

Taisia Nakonechna of Parasol complains about a decrease in opportunities for offline sales and events during lockdowns, because for small publishing houses this is often the only opportunity to help sell more books.

“Due to the shortage of paper and, in particular, lack of cardboard for covers in warehouses in the autumn of 2021, we missed the deadlines for several seasonal projects, which turned out to be unprofitable,” she adds. “The increase in paper prices wasn’t good as well since we make small editions, and under such conditions the cost of books is already high.” According to Nakonechna, the publishing house is still unable to cover its costs, and is looking for opportunities to attract investment. During the pandemic, Parasol focused on online marketing, which helped form the backbone of their readership.

Creative Women Publishing did the same. “The biggest challenge we faced during the pandemic was uncertainty,” says the publisher’s co-founder Iryna Nikolaychuk. “In the second half of 2020, we opened a crowdfunding campaign on the Ukrainian platform Splinkokosht to print our first book, What She’s Silent About. The first book was published on 13 April, 2021 — by that time bookstores began to open little by little, and book festivals began to take place. What really hit the publishing house was a 30 percent increase in the price of paper and an increase in the cost of books in early 2022.”

Anastasiia Minova of Bookraine complains not only about arranging the whole work online, but also about further issues regarding festivals: “It was hardest in the spring of 2021: we already had printed editions of our first books, but there was nowhere to sell them,” she says “Also, in March, Book Arsenal rejected our participation, which could be equated to marketing death. Thanks to another publishing house. Vivat, sharing their stand with us, we kept the remnants of common sense and made some money. However, already in the autumn, after the BookForum in Lviv, which was very unsuccessful for us, my partner decided to leave both Bookraine and the publishing business. The increase in printing services price was another hard blow. Most of the books first had to be published in small editions and then printed again.”

For Portal, in addition to the issues listed above, publication specifics created a challenge as well. For example, material about the history of Ukraine for younger and school-aged children somewhat lost their relevance during the pandemic.

The children’s publishing house Blym-Blym was registered in November 2020. Its two full-colour comics about the Space Postman’s adventures were published in early 2021. “We’ve always had a hard time with paper: it’s either too costly or from Russia,” says Blym-Blym’s founder Yuliya Budnik. “Hopefully, we are not talking about Russian paper now. The cost of a printed book consists of many components; at that time I didn’t have an unexpected sharp price increase as the estimate was always calculated in advance because we need to inform our foreign partner, from whom we buy the rights, about an approximate retail price. In general, I don’t remember difficulties, just an excited anticipation of my book debutsand reviews about them.”

Vidkryttia says that the main issues for them were a limited budget, a shortage of paper, a sharp increase in printing prices in late 2021, and the readership’s loss of interest in publications during the peak of coronavirus.Vidkryttia’s Nataliia Vasylieva says that in order to pay for the layout of one book she had to earn money by editing another.

War as a catalyst: starting an enterprise during a full-scale invasion

On 24 February 2022, the life of Ukraine changed forever: a new phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war began. Nevertheless, the emergence of new publishing houses did not stop. In 2022, the Bearded Tamarin and Olean were founded and in 2023 came Projector, Prometheus, Gravitaciya, Free People Verlag, One More Page, Third Color, and 333 Publishing House [Vydavnytstvo 333].

“We discussed the idea of opening a publishing house for a long time even before the full-scale invasion,” says Maksym Kidruk, co-founder of the Bearded Tamarin. “There were two reasons for that: firstly, I already fully supervised the process of preparing my books, even though they were published by the house Family Leisure Club [Club Simeynoho Dozvillya]; secondly, [my wife and business partner] Tetiana and I are avid readers, but we often felt the lack of a significant number of good fiction and pop-science texts on the Ukrainian market. I was thinking of waiting for a [Ukrainian] victory, but Tetiana convinced me that we should start earlier. Besides, it was the period of a constant increase in prices for printing and other things. Should we drag on, our savings would depreciate.”

The co-founder of Olean, Olena Novitska, says that the opening of the publishing house was a natural move for her. “I noticed the information space getting cleared of Russian-language content, and thought that it should be filled with quality Ukrainian books, so I decided to contribute,” she says. “I already had an unsuccessful experience of creating a publishing house behind me and I decided to try again. Since I’m fluent in five languages, I was reading a lot of business literature in Spanish, Polish and French and decided to try to translate them into Ukrainian.”

The editor-in-chief of Projector, Anna Karnaukh, says that they had primary experience with printed publications during the pandemic, when the team worked on the first issue of the Telegraf magazine about Ukrainian design. “Back then, in the winter of 2022, we experienced a cancellation of the second issue of Telegraf magazine due to the full-scale Russian invasion,” she says. “70 percent of the magazine was complete, but lost its relevance at 5 am on 24 February. In the spring we completely changed the concept and published the long-awaited issue No. 2 in the autumn,” says Karnaukh.

Andriy Nosach, the founder of Prometheus, says that the full-scale war only accelerated their plans to establish an enterprise. The same situation applies to Khrystyna Kozlovska, the founder of the Gravitaciya, and Sandra Konopatska, the founder of the 333 Publishing House.

Oleksandra Saienko, the founder of the Ukrainian-language Free People Verlag in Austria, notes that the creation of the publishing house was a step that has been considered for a long time.

"There will never be a better time than now, because while you are thinking about whether to do something or not, someone else is making your dreams a reality,” says Svitlana Andryushchenko, co-founder of One More Page. “We decided not to stand aside from our dreams, but to act decisively. We found an investor who trusted in us, and that gave us confidence in our actions.”

Nazariy Vovk of Third Color, had a similar motivation: “The idea to open a comics publishing house appeared long before the full-scale invasion. But already during this time it became an impetus for action, the feeling of ‘now or never’ came. And if initially the idea was to only publish translated comics, now there is a greater need to develop Ukrainian art, so we plan to publish Ukrainian authors as well.”

All the “fresh” publishing houses willingly share their ambitious plans:

  • Lviv-based Prometheus wants to publish 10-12 books by the end of 2023 and then expand its network by adding a Kharkiv office
  • Gravitaciya wants to launch new writers in Ukrainian literature
  • Free People Verlag aims to publish a German translation of the opera libretto Vyshyvanyi: The King of Ukraine by Serhiy Zhadan in the autumn, as well as a study on how Ukrainian children adapt to living in Austria in both Ukrainian and German
  • In October, the first book from One More Page will be published
  • Third Color seeks to “focus on a couple of projects only and not bite off more than they can chew”. However, the first purchased publishing license has 14+ volumes of comics
  • The 333 Publishing House is preparing its first book for publication — a collection of historical horror by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, called Khymorody — and plans to expand its portfolio with a niche in “dark literature” and non-fiction.

Publishers’ challenges caused by the new phase of the war

With the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion, all publishers, regardless of their experience, faced new challenges.

“Currently, there are two major risks: the first is Russian shelling, which affects the work of printing houses (most of our books are printed in Kharkiv),” saysUkraїner’s Yevheniia Sapozhnykova. “In turn, this impacts the planning of publication dates. The second risk is a complicated logistics of materials delivery from abroad (for example, specific paper or fabric for the cover). Besides, the prices for all the materials have grown and continue growing, which complicates full-colour printing and some layouts.” Despite air raids, there are now live meetings with readers and presentations, which Sapozhnykova says brings a feeling of returning to normal life.

Parasol complains about the difficulties in evacuating its warehouse in Kyiv in the first weeks after 24 February. In addition, selling books is more difficult now: when the population’s purchasing power is not so high, readers are more inclined to choose large publishing houses or books by well-known authors.

Among the key issues faced by publishers is the constant increase in printing costs. Iryna Nikolaychuk of Creative Women Publishing states: “As of now, printing costs have increased by up to two times, even compared to the prices during the pandemic. This was also influenced by the fact that many printers stopped working due to the war, and those that continued raised the prices of their services. Hence, our books grew more expensive, but we are very happy that our audience understands this and continues supporting us. Since 2023, we’ve started to attract grant funding. We keep open the crowdfunding option with Splinkokosht, but we try not to abuse it as we realise that the primary goal of donations now is the army.”

Other issues faced by publishers include employees fleeing abroad, their dismissal, or their mobilisation in the ranks of the Armed Forces. For Bearded Tamarin, the biggest challenges are caused by the violation of deadlines by publishing partners, while for Olean it is insufficient funding. “Currently, all publishers who publish e-books are faced with the issue of piracy and a non-serious attitude toward e-books,” says Olean’s Olena Novitska. “So far, e-books in Ukraine are perceived as a cheap supplement to paper ones rather than an independent type of content. Besides, consumers are not yet in the habit of paying for digital content, but this is slowly changing.”

Projector experienced delays in materials development and processing due to both personal losses in the team and national tragedies related to the war. They also faced printing delays due to blackouts last autumn and winter.

Other new publishing houses complain about issues with rights holders and a lack of time to implement all the projects. “All the publishing house co-founders are busy with many simultaneous projects — such as creative projects or volunteering,” says Sandra Konopatska of 333 Publishing House. “Issues related to fulfilling the requests of units they take care of are always of higher priority, so for the publishing house they have to carve out time in between.”

“What kept you before, will keep you in the future”: Advice on how to succeed

Ukraїner’s Yevheniia Sapozhnykova advises new publishers to "train yourself in the flexibility of planning and responding to various types of crises. But stick to your team: people who have a common vision and are ready to tackle complex processes together will support each other."

Parasol’s Taisia Nakonechna says that before starting, it is worth studying the market and thinking through the concept and the publishing plan in advance.

Natalia Shnyr, Vikhola co-founder, in addition to the business concept, emphasises the need for startup capital. According to her, risking only one’s own money, rather than investor or grant funds, is an optimal model.

Iryna Nikolaychuk of Creative Women Publishing has a slightly different opinion. “It would be wrong not to admit that the first months of the pandemic indeed exhausted our team,” she said. “In the summer of 2020, we had a feeling that we probably wouldn’t make it further and should just end it all. Splinkokosht crowdfunding became a lifeline, my team and I worked hard for its success, and we involved the media, and facilitated online events. The trust of our readers and the trust of our female authors kept us afloat.”

Nikolaychuk quotes a lyric by Ukrainian ska band Zhadan i Sobaky: “What kept you before, will keep you in the future” and suggests remembering, in moments of difficulty, why the history of the publishing house began. “It’s much easier if there is an already formed community around a publishing house that shares its values,” she says. “It’s not a shame to turn to this community for both financial and moral support. It’s quite okay if a young publishing house writes on its pages: ‘Sorry, we’ve got tough times, and we need your help.’ You should not be afraid to go outside your bubble, attract a new readership, and also understand that at first, if you’re a small publishing house, your activities may be unprofitable, and it may last for half a year or a year.”

Anastasiia Minova of Bookraine advises to always have a plan B and not to rely too much on other people. “If you start a business, be prepared for the fact that it was you who founded it, and it is you who must run it — you won’t be able to quit and go to another job,” she highlights.

Nataliia Vasylieva of Vidkryttia says, “You have two choices: to start with an idea (it’s hard, but support is inevitable if the idea resonates with others) or with investing money in a certain number of published books.” At the same time, she emphasises that, after a successful start, you should be ready to work for a long time with no vacations and weekends. “But good books are worth it. This is the secret to success of everyone who has achieved it — to choose your business and do it every day, with quality and with love for yourself and people.”

Yuliya Budnik, the founder of Blym-Blym, shares that “Book publishing is not a ‘gold mine.’ But it’s a very interesting adventure."

Portal founder Olena Khirgii says that the belief that the publishing goal is more important than any surrounding circumstances helped them endure the hardest times. “One of the most frequent phrases you can hear at Projector is ‘Create in spite of fear’, which has long been my personal comfort,” adds Projector editor-in-chief Anna Karnaukh.

Maksym Kidruk, Bearded Tamarin co-founder, is more pragmatic: “You should once again assess the realism of your idea and make sure that there will be a paying audience for your product. No matter what wonderful books you publish, you must have the resources and skills to inform about these texts and make [readers] interested in them so that, among hundreds of other books, your ones are chosen and bought.”

Olena Novitska of Olean advises finding a niche and studying the target readership in the first place.

Creative Women Publishing note that having government support, especially at the beginning, would have an impact. “I’d be glad to say that the book industry in Ukraine exists not only because of publishers’ enthusiasm, but, unfortunately, that’s the case,” says Creative Women Publishing’sIryna Nikolaychuk. “Government support is quite sporadic and small publishers shouldn’t count on it much. That’s why we need to create our own community.”

“Despite all the financial risks, launching now is part of our resistance and a way to assert ourselves,” adds Ukraїner’s Yevheniia Sapozhnykova. “We don’t know if there will ever be a time when starting something new in Ukraine will be simple, but it will be interesting.”