The publishing company “Astrolabe Publishing” is one of the most influential intellectual players at the Ukrainian book market. The selection of the authors and of the books that are published at this editorial house is a controversial one indeed. It includes Freidrich Nietzche and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Joseph Conrad and the textbook of the guerilla war written by Swiss military man Hanz von Dach that is extremely popular in the US and Europe. Such particular books and authors can hardly be defined as the pulp fiction stuff. But they are sold successfully at the Ukrainian book market. What is the secret of the success? About this as well as about the trends of the Ukrainian book market we are talking with the head of the editorial house “Astrolabe” Oleh Feschowetz.
Tell us please, what was the start of your editorial activity and what had inspired you to do that?
I had no special intention to become an editor. I looked for myself in archeology in history, in philosophy and editorial business was chosen by me almost occasionally. Probably, the main impulse was in the readiness to take responsibility for the things around me. Thus, working as the vice-dean of the faculty of philosophy of the Lviv University and elaborating the course of the lectures in the modern Western philosophy I found out the lack of the Ukrainian translations of the basic philosophical texts. That is why, I initiated to set up the “The Philosophical Project” Foundation and to translate the most necessary authors (as for me) – I have found money and I have got an agreement with the publishers. But publishers appeared to be the weakest part of the project. Because of it, I made my mind up to set an editorial office up in order to keep the further publishing activity of the Foundation under control. For certain period of time I mixed the teaching activity with the publishing one – but soon it turned out to be rather complicated. I had to choose. And I had chosen the publishing. So, if to sum my activity up – it is a part of my own way just and only the time makes me know what is to be done next.
You have carried out the translation of such book as “Total Resistance” by Hans von Dach. Were you made to do that due to the tragic events in Ukraine in 2014?
No, not due to the events of 2014, but due to the forecast of them. Looking after the policy of our elites that systematically postponed «for tomorrow» the solution of the crucial problems in the domestic and foreign political activity and taking into account the peaceful and escapism-oriented trends in our society, I started to realize that someday these crucial problems and the total peacefulness will provoke the invasion.
The start of war appeared to depend only on time. But the intellectual-publisher is restricted in the tools of the influence. Usually, these tools are words, texts and books. That is why in 2010, we – me and some of my friends – decided to set up a military magazine in Lviv named as “The Citadel”, in order to “correct mentality” of our compatriots. It is evident that 10 years ago the professional military books could hardly be allowed for publishing. The publications mostly were dedicated to the military history and military science. But as the Japanese military writer Yamamoto Tsunetomo used to emphasize “no matter what a good hand in a military science you are, you could be mistaken when it comes to understanding the way of thinking of the prominent military commander”. For example, what can understand about the way of thinking of the Napoleon the average historian that during all his lifetime never left the classroom or the academic institution he worked at? Which peculiarities of the “every day life” could be clear to him? A suit or a hair dress?
Because of it we started to explore the professional books of military science. It turned out to be useful as soon as the war broke out. If we talk about the books of Hans von Dach, we must know that they are regarded as the best samples of the military handbooks in the world. And there is no wonder that his «Total Resistance» was popular and remains popular in the world. That is why we have started the publishing of the professional military literature by this book. And it turned out that the edition planned as non-commercial project, became the sales leader among all our books. This success enabled the free distribution of the 20 thousands samples of this book. I dare to think that it was a good contribution into the defense capacity of our country.
Was it difficult to provide activity in publishing before 2014 and what has changed with it after the changes in the state governing?
The material our world was created of is rather resistible, that is why to say “difficult” to start anything is the same as to deny the necessity to act in general. But – anyway – we should understand everything that undermined and keeps undermining our book market. First of all, we should mention that due to the post-colonial status of our country as well as due to (partially) the non-outspoken compromise of our elites, the book market was divided into two parts. That is why the editorial companies that published books in Ukrainian language had rather restricted access to the readers of the Eastern and Southern Ukraine. These regions were under control of the influential Russian editorial companies. Thus, this territory had been occupied before the war broke out. We were permitted to act there almost illegally. Now, the situation has been changed a bit but not because of the new political elite, but because of the war that made the access of the Russian books to Ukraine more difficult and – very often – because of the patriotic motivation of the Ukrainian readers.
But it does not come about the eff orts of the political elite and it does not depend on the changes in the consciousness of the society. I would say even more – the majority of our people does not understand perfectly well what has been happening and the transformation of the changes into real policy has been facing rather serious resistance. If the state does not carry out the regulative functions at least (without these functions the state has no value) – we will continue to act at our own market in semi-legal way. So, if to say in military slang we are in a lack of heavy arms in the competitive struggle with the Russian domination at our market. The heavy arms are to change the situation.
Do you agree with the statement that before the Revolution of Dignity our publishing business was discriminated in favour of the Russian one?
The main peculiarity of our position at the competent struggle with Russian publishing business is that ex defenitione we are in the unequal situations – even if to take into account the different sizes of Russian and Ukrainian book markets. Any attempts to appeal to the free market look funny thereafter. The absence of the well-established state policy that would improve such situation conserves this inequality. Maybe, some publishers do remember the interesting coincidence – the visit of one of the most influential Russian publishers to Ukraine and abolishing of the privileges to pay value-added tax. Both events coincided in the time of ruling of Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. The abolishing of the privileges did not improve the competitiveness of Ukrainian publishers. We had to get accustomed with that up to the Revolution of Dignity. We have got accustomed, so to say, with the certain guerilla war in our own territory and we are good at that, but any guerilla fighter dreams about total uprising and about sinking of the enemy in the sea, does not he?
You have overcome at the competition “The Literary Translations”, that was proclaimed in the framework of the European Commission Program “Creative Europe”. What is your attitude to this triumph?
Exactly so, at the end of 2017 the Publishing Company “Astrolabe Publishing”, was the first one amidst Ukrainian publishers to get the grant from the program “creative Europe”. This fact has been flattering, at least, our “warrior-like” perception of life — we are glad to be among thirty winners chosen from more than two hundred European publishing houses-pretenders (9 of them were Ukrainian ones). But the most important is that we have got rather significant resource for the development of our publishing program. Usually, I do not care about any grant programs, because their requirements must be met and these requirements quite often do not correspond to the demands of our book market and to the demands of our readers. So, we did not try to come the world-view expectations of the donator up, as it is common to happen. We just offered a part of our publishing program and we had elaborated the offer in a serious way. Among the authors included to the projects Sappho, Geoffrey Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Miguel de Unamuno, Raymond Queneau, Ursula Poznanski and some others must be mentioned. Thus, it is a triumph of our style of existence and of our readers whom such style impresses either.
How do you cope to sell specific books? I mean Freidrich Nietzche and Saxon epic literature …
The successes of these books are different ones and this cannot be measured by the commercial scale. Sometimes, the contribution into the life of the community should be done. Can you imagine the valuable functioning of any European culture without classical philosophy of medieval epic literature? I cannot. So, we have done our contribution – we have prepared and we have published the first Ukrainian translation of the old Saxon epic story “Beowulf”. Without any exaggeration, that is a titanic job, but we have coped with that. It was unprofitable project. Rather, it had been reputational and autodidactic one. In the commercial sense the philosophical and psychological texts have much more attractive perspective. Generally, in this case we use the rule of the compensation of the less attractive products by less competitiveness. That is why owing to the well thought-out tactics such genres can be successful ones. Though, they should be compensated by more popular literature at the same time…