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This item is taken from PN Review 95, Volume 20 Number 3, January - February 1994.

In London last September the British Council and the Soros Foundation sponsored a conference for publishers and editors from Eastern Europe at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. The subject was copyright: how to buy and sell and, with the minority languages, how to market. I was not the only delegate to come away with a sense that the law of copyright, devised to protect the author, has become a crude instrument in the world of cultural disparities which we inhabit.

The conference was the second initiative of its kind this year. In January as reported in these pages, a conference for journal editors was held at St Antony's College, Oxford, to discuss ways in which cultural and specialist journals could survive in an Eastern Europe in which disciplines of the market place, often with grim consequences, have displaced an old order for which there is a growing nostalgia - so potent in Poland that, adjusted and 'made answerable', it is back in the ascendant.

These British Council initiatives serve British interests in the long term and are of inestimable value to the participants. Trust and contact are established between publishing cultures even less congruent than one might have imagined them to be after fifty years of travelling in different structural directions. In addition, the delegates learn from one another at leisure, away from their hectic desks, and gain new perspectives on the problems they share with other East European publishers. It may indeed be at this level that the conferences will prove to have been most decisive.

State and private patronage, subsidies from foundations, adverting: all the panaceas proposed at the January conference for magazine editors skirted the central issue, that there is not a sufficient market at home or in the larger diaspora of Hungary Rumania, the Slovak Republic, Latvia and the rest, to provide a stable commercial base for the kinds of journals these editors had run, with notable success, in earlier times. Enabling funds from virtually any source are likely to come with strings attached, as direct state subsidies did in the bad old days; only now the strings might resemble those which the IMF and the World Bank impose, to effect irreversible adjustments in the orientation of the beneficiaries. The step from addressing a stable and committed readership to wooing an always volatile market with wider, if not better, choice, is a fundamental one, a cultural adjustment affecting editors, readers, and writers themselves.

The irony is that in the old market economies such adjustments are not required. There are institutions and individual patrons who enable journals, such as this one, and publishers in certain areas, to stand clear of the more reductive 'market forces; This freedom imposes responsibilities: a necessary austerity, a coherence and consistency of purpose. Yet creative and critical interests which for generations have been perceived to be crucial are served in a generally responsible and independent fashion.

At the September book publishers' conference, the issue of copyright law as an instrument of censorship, left unresolved at Frankfurt fifteen years ago, came into focus once more. The cost of acquiring translation rights in the blockbusters on which the prosperity of independent publishing industries in Eastern Europe - imitating ours - will have to be based leaves publishers hamstrung at the outset. Western agents and the large international publishing houses find it costly to negotiate a contract for Estonian rights in the latest offspring of Gorky Park. And as for more, specialist titles - technical and scientific works, literary fiction, biography and (some mentioned it) poetry -the sums involved are derisory It can cost more to raise a contract than advance and royalties together are worth. Yet agents and originating publishers will not allow a 'waiving' or 'nominalisation' of fees on specific categories of book to empower the new industries to resource hungry universities and colleges, not to mention the general reader. Editors from the big countries, from Hungary and Poland, not just Estonia and Albania, had tales of frustration to tell. I was put in mind of an experience I had at Frankfurt some years ago, when I approached a French publisher to discuss the work of Rene Char: 'We do not come to Frankfurt to negotiate poetry rights.' I had approached her because she had not replied to letters. Evidently poetry rights were not worth so much as a stamp. With the publishers of Eastern Europe, mote than 'just poetry' is involved.

Here is a proposal for the Soros Foundation, which already acts as a sort of roving Department of Education, Science and the Arts for the whole of Eastern Europe. With its uniquely responsive contacts throughout the area, can it not create an agency to establish a copyright lend-lease arrangement with bona fide imprints and, with agreement from the originating publishers and authors, extend its cultural programmes? The benefit to the emerging industries and to institutions would be inestimable. If Western authors and publishers are as keen as they say they are to see independent imprints built on the ruins of the state publishing industries, they might consider, with due prudence of course, putting their copyrights where their mouths are. This would serve their long-term interests and forge newbonds with cultures which were once continuous with our own.

This item is taken from PN Review 95, Volume 20 Number 3, January - February 1994.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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