Mihai Mitrică is executive director of the Association of Romanian Publishers [Asociația Editorilor din România, AER]. He is the representative of Romanian publishers in relation with national and international legislative institutions, AER being a member of the Federation of European Publishers. Since 2012, Mihai Mitrică has been coordinating the organisation of Bookfest book fairs all over the country, but also in Chişinău. He started his career as a journalist, then worked in two large press trusts. However, he changed his profession in 2011, and made it his personal mission to make the Romanian book industry a better and more advantageous environment for both publishers and readers.
What is and what does Asociația Editorilor din România [the Association of Romanian Publishers] do?
The Association of Romanian Publishers is the main representative association of publishers at guild level, founded in 1991, which aims to defend the rights of publishers and to publicise their work and interests to decision-makers and the general public.
You took up this position in 2011. What was the book market like then, has anything changed in 11 years?
I applied for and obtained this position in 2011, not being very familiar with the book market because I came from the media industry. And entering this world was terribly nerve-racking. Because there's so much you have to learn, and I can say that I'm still learning something and repositioning myself every day even now, trying to figure out what to do. So it's a kaleidoscopic market in terms of information. There's a lot, a lot of information to take in and I don't mean just at international level. Even in Romania, which is a very small market, there are a lot of nuances and things that need to be understood, comprehended and adjusted.
If at institutional level it was like that, what was it like to enter this, I suppose, full of ego arena on a human level?
I've never had any problems. I was fortunate to have an AER board that took my hand and patiently accompanied me until I took my first steps on my own. I stood on my own feet pretty quickly, I pretty much knew what I had to do within half a year. After I organised the first Bookfest in Timișoara, in March 2012, things started to move and to clear up in my mind. Then came the first Bookfest in Bucharest, which, by chance, was a massive one, with France as guest of honour, with Michel Houellebecq, Bernard Pivot present in Bucharest to meet Romanian writers, with dinner organised at [Mircea] Dinescu's Lacrimi și Sfinți restaurant, with Bernard Pivot eating...
Sarmale [cabbage rolls]?
Not sarmale, but a carp fish. A Danube carp, which Mircea Dinescu had prepared at the time and served with his own hands. It's an iconic view that is stuck in my mind. It was after the first Bookfest that I realised how much effort is involved in organising a book fair. But I didn't have much to do with publishers' egos, at least not towards me. Of course, everyone has the right to defend their work, to try to monetise it. At the association level, there were no interests that constrained me or pushed me into a corner. People got used to the Association being a partner. And we try to keep that line of partnership.
How many people work in AER?
Me and my colleague next door.
That's us. We had a colleague, an office administrator, who left right after the pandemic and this year we did the large Bookfest, as well as the Bookfest in Timișoara, Chișinău, Târgu Mureș, Cluj, and Brașov on our own - With all the deductions, which are a bit of a pain, but we have no choice.
You were talking earlier about the international component. AER is a member of Federația Editorilor din România [the Romanian Publishers Federation], which is part of the Federation of European Publishers (FEP). What does this mean and how does it translate concretely into the book market?
It's a chance to keep up to date with discussions on a whole new level about publishers' positions on legislative changes. Often in Romania, our interest as a market in the future is measured in days. There, at the EFP, we discuss issues that will have an impact in a few years' time, as directives and international treaties are being discussed. The FEP is as important to us as an electronic billboard is to someone moving through an airport. You have to look there because that's where you get the most relevant information that impacts you. We tried to make the importance of the Federation known. In 2013, we invited the whole FEP delegation to Romania, we had two days of very substantial meetings and I think we managed to show the Romanian publishers who wanted to be present how complicated this world is, how fine-tuning you have to be when it comes to legislation at European level. Because Romania is in total chaos. Legislation, including copyright law, has become more and more dense, and Ordinance 51 [no. 51/1998, aimed at improving the system of non-reimbursable funding for cultural projects, ed.] has been amended, which has made things terribly complicated. I don't even know how next year's Bookfest will be able to take place with support from the Ministry of Culture if the provisions of this Ordinance 51 remain as they came out of the Government. On the other hand, Law 8/1996 [on copyright and related rights] is not clear either. We are now stuck with the distribution of compensatory remuneration for private copying, because a legislative provision has appeared giving "press publishers" the right to receive more money from here, in addition to government and political advertising. Although they are not organised in associations and do not go to ORDA, (Oficiul Român pentru Drepturile de Autor, n. ed. [the Romanian Copyright Office]) to claim this right, they are entitled to receive this money. And because they don't ask for it, everyone is stuck.
There is some money that collective management bodies collect but do not distribute, so we cannot receive it. Although we ask for it, we can't get it. It's a very complicated situation, like a kind of chess bed - nobody can make a move, because they are not allowed to by another force, which is now Law 8/1996.
There are about 75 members on the AER website. At the book market level, is this a small number, is it a big one? How does the dynamic of this list work - do new publishers come to AER or does it also work the other way around?
Publishers come to AER. Right now, for the next meeting, we had two requests for input. Since I came, I have tried to make the work of the association as transparent as possible. We always have activity reports, which we submit to the general assembly. Personally, I didn’t want to leave the impression of being unapproachable. Anyone can call me, I don't have a problem with that. If I can do something, I do it; if not, I can't.
I think Bookfest is the best way for AER's work to become known to publishers, and obviously to the general public, but to publishers, who have seen that there is no favouritism, first and foremost. We don't have biases, the stands are set up so that everyone benefits as much as possible, first of all the public and then the whole publishing world. We wanted there to be a democratisation of access to the stands, both for the public and the publishers. For example, the objective we had when we moved Bookfest to the big pavilion, B2, was to try to attract the public to all parts of the pavilion. Because if all the big publishers were at the entrance, it would have choked everything there.
What are the advantages of being a member of AER?
We keep them updated about the latest legislative information and we ask for their agreement regarding the Association's various positions. There is no intrinsic financial stake, because AER members do not benefit from any kind of facilities when organising Bookfests. But the fact that they choose to stay in the Association shows that they find a raison d'être.
One of the points of AER’s statute mentions that the Association is an intermediary between publishers and other partners, such as suppliers. Is there a strategy in this regard?
The AER statute is made in 1991 and has been amended in several vulnerable points, such as the registered office. But one of the goals is to develop a strategy for relations with suppliers and to set up an ethics committee, because I think there is a growing need for one. I've wanted the Association to have something like this for a long time, but I haven't yet found the right formula that the General Assembly can agree on.
A committee which would intervene in cases of unfair competition, for example?
Not necessarily unfair competition, but when there is a breach of common sense editorial principles, which unfortunately still happens.
In interview I conducted with Mr Mircea Martin, he explained how, after AER was founded in the 1990s, he managed to obtain funds for the association from taxes paid by importers of copiers. Does that still apply?
It is the compensatory remuneration for private copying that is paid worldwide by importers of paper and copying machines. More recently, the legislative provision that we fought for and which was tabled by two parliamentarians with links to the book world, Vlad Alexandrescu and Dan Lungu, has been passed and now, in theory, we also receive remuneration from importers of mobile phones, which also allow photocopying. Actually, we could receive it, because in reality we are stuck, as I said earlier. That is to say, this money is collected but not received by the Publishers' Association.
And how do you survive?
Harder and harder now. Bookfest 2022, the first one after the pandemic, was an attempt to help the publishing world recover, so we kept our costs very low, although our bills to our suppliers went up a lot, from 30% to 80% in some cases. We didn't increase our rates at all, not even by 10%. So we are fighting for survival; Just like everybody else in the market.
You spoke of Bookfest as the most important and most visible AER activity. What is actually involved in organising a book fair in terms of costs, collaborators, logistics?
Firstly, there are some partnerships that we have already cemented. For example, I don't have to sit and search every year for the printing press for the materials, the venue for Bookfest - because I already know. Contracts have a certain rhythm. We have already developed some relationships: There are people whom we just tell that we want to organise the Bookfest and they know what they have to do whereas we know what we have to do. We can boast that we haven't had any late payments to our suppliers and I think that has made a big difference. Honouring the invoices that we receive has been one of the main goals that we've been working towards, and I think that's contributed a lot to the credibility of the Association: To show that you're able to follow a letter of the law in a contract that you've entered into. Although it happens less and less around us, it is a behaviour that makes your life easier in the future.
So, having pretty much the whole network of logistical partners, it's relatively easy in terms of selection, but the awfully laborious part is the bureaucracy behind it: Adjustment of the stands on the plan, discussions with the architect, discussions with the exhibitor, that's the most nerve-racking work during Bookfest. At the same time, we also do the promotion within the Association - we don't work with advertising agencies, because there are some nuances that I don't think an advertising agency, which has not worked in the book industry, can perceive and translate into the messages we want to bring to the public. So we also do the promotion, the logistics (setting up stands), the invoicing, everything.
Each edition of the book fair in Bucharest has a guest of honour, a country presenting its cultural products. How are these guests selected?
The AER Board decides. A list is drawn up and we contact them. We have not been turned down very often and I am very happy about that. We also try not to repeat the guests of honour. Bookfest started with Spain in 2010, then Hungary in 2011, France in 2012, Germany, Austria, Switzerland - i.e. German-speaking countries, in 2013, Poland in 2014, Czech Republic in 2015, Israel in 2016, Sweden in 2017, then the USA and the UK in 2018 and 2019. In 2020-2021 there was no Bookfest, and this year the guest of honour was Japan, which was supposed to be in 2020. The next guest of honour in 2023 will be Italy.
One of the strongest federations in the industry is the International Publishers Association, with members from more than 70 countries from around the world. Would there be any possibility or interest for AER to join the IPA? Would it be useful?
From my personal point of view, there are two issues here. One of them is the costs involved.
Does it cost?
Of course. Even the membership in the FEP costs. And not a small amount. We pay over 3000 euros a year to be a member of the FEP. That association has to pay its people. They have more employees than we do, but they also work at a different level.
Another problem is time. I don't even have time to get to the FEP meetings I would like to go to. Just like I couldn't make it to the Frankfurt book fair this year. So we wouldn't be able to attend IPA meetings, which are held all over the world, as they are an international association. Moreover, the discussions there are much less relevant for us as members of the European Union than the things that are discussed at the FEP. For us, the AER, what is discussed at the FEP is important because it affects us and will affect us. The issues discussed at the IPA are more about international positioning, there is more of a political balance there. The FEP is a much more technical association, much more focused on unravelling the bureaucracy, whereas at the IPA there are some issues related to the members’ quality. Russia is also a member there, and China, and Turkey.
Which institutions support the work of the AER? You mentioned the support of the Ministry of Culture.
The support of the Ministry of Culture has begun since the second Bookfest. It provided free access to the public. Bookfest does not have an entrance ticket because the Ministry of Culture agrees to support us no matter who was in charge and this is a big thumb up I would like to give to the Ministry of Culture. As far as the other state institutions are concerned, we have not been able to find a common ground with the Ministry of Education, for example. We had ad hoc support from the Presidential Administration on many issues. Otherwise, some local authorities helped us. For example, the Bookfest in Târgu Mureș is funded by the local and county councils. When we have support from the local authorities we do not charge for the stand, so AER does voluntary work there, the exhibitors come for free, they have the stand for free; also, when we could, we also provided the travel of the authors, the promotion obviously being included, so pretty much everything related to those funds is transformed into benefits for the public and for the publishers. Obviously, when I have funding from the local authorities, and I don't charge the publishers for the stand, they will come with a much better price for books and therefore the local public also benefits. Plus the publisher will then be more willing to invite an author, perhaps even at the publisher's expense, if I don't manage to cover the costs, and it makes the programme of events more diverse and attractive to the public. That way, pretty much everyone wins. And the Association serves its purpose.
What are AER's medium to long term plans for the future?
Hiring a colleague to help us unravel all the bureaucratic parts. This year has been terribly difficult for us; not that we've been sitting idle for two years, because, in the pandemic, AER has had a lot of work to do in terms of the lobbying mission, of advocating for the interests of publishers, who for the last 30 years have always been leapfrogged by governments. We have also managed to obtain public utility status for the Association, something that should have been done a long time ago, but now it has been possible and we have obtained it not out of any real estate interest, as many of the holders of this title do, but because legislative changes have taken us out of the area where we should be represented. The law governing Institutul Cultural Român [the Romanian Cultural Institute] was changed under pressure from certain guilds so that only public benefit organisations could be represented on the board of the ICR. So, for a few years now, publishers have not been able to participate in the decisions of the Institute, where they had quite an important role in the normal times of the ICR.
So we continue our work. And if we can find more than one colleague, we want to increase the number of Bookfests, which should have reached other cities too. I have an open wound because I haven't been able to do a constant Bookfest edition in Iași, the city from where I moved to Bucharest. I want to have a Bookfest in Iași that has continuity; there have only been four editions, in two years at a time, and the experience has not been very happy. But I hope that things will settle down and that we will go to Iași with a constant edition. Maybe in other cities too, because people who see us around the country and see how Bookfests look like are calling us. I want them too, but unfortunately we are just two people and we do what we can. So if we don't find someone else to help us, it will be very complicated to grow. And I think it's going to be very complicated to do another year like the one that we're ending now.
With the email address and the phone number made public on the AER website, I imagine the moments when you can just take your breath are rare. But when it all goes on mute how do you relax and recharge your batteries?
By sitting with my kids, cooking, reading, driving; I love to drive. I try to read more so I can better understand the authors I bring to Bookfest.
Can you recommend the last books you liked? Or what are you reading now?
I'm currently reading Scrisori către fiul meu [Letters to My Son] by Gabriel Liiceanu. Before that I read Serotonin y Michel Houellebecq. I want to start reading Radu Paraschivescu's novelAcul de aur şi ochii Glorianei [The Golden Needle and Gloriana's Eyes], because I feel the need to get more into Romanian literature. I've been reading mostly foreign fiction so far, but I promise myself I'll catch up with Romanian literature too. I hope to find the time. Now that the Bookfest in Brașov is over, once I'm done with all the book reviews and all the deductions, I hope to dive into some books I've been hunting for a long time.
[The photos are part of Mihai Mitrică's personal archive.]
[The interview was audio recorded and transcribed.] [Translated into English by Simina Barna.]