The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent political, legal, economic, and social changes that swept across the Eastern Bloc and the former Soviet Union mark a major turning point in 20th century European history. The repercussions will roll well into the new millennium. Before 1989 Christian literature was usually published either secretly and illegally in the country or smuggled in. Since the situation varied from country to country, a few cameos might be helpful.
In Romania every typewriter had to be registered with a local magistrate. Samples of letters typed on these machines had to be produced under the observation of the secret police so they could trace underground publishing activity. Newspapers were strictly censored. The state controlled all book publishers, distribution networks, 1,200 bookshops, radio, and television. There was no freedom of expression. Some material was laboriously produced by dissidents using typewriters and carbon paper. Through imaginative engineering and prayer, Christians eventually devised a successful vehicle system capable of delivering 40,000 books per visit.
Hungary, Poland, East Germany
In the years leading up to 1989 some amount of Christian publishing was allowed in Hungary, Poland, and East Germany. Catholic and long-established Protestant denominations were permitted to print small quantities--three to five titles each year. A few visionaries worked their way around these deterrents. Printers were found who would let their machines run past the stipulated print-run, so long as money was left to pay for the paper. Omnibus editions of several unrelated titles were produced and titles changed to bear no relationship to content. But such efforts could not satisfy demand. The majority of Christian titles came in from abroad, often poorly translated, frequently irrelevant, and distributed without charge. This practice met some needs then, but also sowed the seeds for problems today.
Bulgarian titles could only be produced outside and the process was hazardous, expensive, and extremely time-consuming. In June 1984, at the request of national believers, a copy of John Stott's Message of II Timothy was smuggled in. A young man agreed to translate it but he was unexpectedly called up for military service. He had translated most of the book but left it at home. His parents found it, decided it was too dangerous to keep, and destroyed it. Time passed and another enthusiastic person started over again but was arrested nine months later due to other Christian activities. The manuscript, again nearly completed, was discovered and presumably destroyed. Then in early 1990 a young Bulgarian pastor was able to finish a third translation. Finally, 5,000 copies were printed in Bulgaria in October 1991, nearly seven years after the project began.
Before the Berlin Wall came down, Christian publishing in Eastern Europe was difficult, frequently heartbreaking, accomplished at great personal and financial cost, often of poor textual quality, inefficient, often dangerous, but widely appreciated. Despite this, God used Christian publishing to preserve His Church during this difficult period of history.
Initial Responses to Change
The shackles of Communist control and oppression were broken [in 1989]. Anything and everything was possible to enthusiastic visionaries--including publishing. Christian periodicals sprang up in several countries almost overnight. By August 1991, 36 Christian periodicals had been launched in Romania alone. One of the first was Alo, a magazine for young people, which reached a peak circulation of 30,000. In March 1992, it was the last periodical to go out of business (it was later re-launched). All 36 failed. Editorial content was good, but business acumen and planning were poor or virtually non-existent. Copies were dispatched without invoicing or any other records being kept, in the naive hope that customers would pay. Funding promised from abroad failed to arrive or soon ran out as donors lost interest.
Christian periodical ministry has since been enormously helped by the Eastern European Magazine Training Institute, set up in 1993 by Sharon Mumper with her strong background and experience in journalism and publishing. Its conferences in many countries now train writers and editors in all aspects of periodical work, and comprehensive teaching manuals are being produced in several languages.
Print Runs, Permissions, and Pricing
Under Communism, print-runs of any approved titles tended to be huge. [After 1989] printers, most of whom were still state-controlled, were only interested in producing large print-runs. This, combined with local ministry enthusiasm and generous start-up funding from the West, predictably resulted in huge print-runs of Christian titles, numbering in some instances up to 100,000 copies. Leftover stock of some titles still sits in depots and warehouses.
Prior to 1989 it had not been wise or even possible to secure copyright permission for translated titles. Inevitably, there was some duplication. At one point in Poland there were six different editions of Ken Taylor's Illustrated Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes. None of these had copyright for either text or pictures. After 1989 publishers were required to negotiate proper contracts; not doing so led to difficulties and lessons learned the hard way. Today, publishers still continue to invest time and money in translations, only to find out that rights have already been granted elsewhere. [Instead], publishers must identify, train, and employ more national writers.
Another characteristic of early post-revolution Christian publishing was the lack of realistic pricing, due to a number of factors. The Communists were renowned for their use of literature. Books were produced for propaganda and hugely subsidized even below print cost. Over a period of several decades this had the effect of lowering the perceived value of books. Additionally, in several countries the believers had grown used to receiving free Christian books brought in through supra-legal channels from the West. Most of the population expected cheap books, but Christians expected them for free. Most new publishers sold books far too cheaply, at levels that could not sustain their activities unless they could attract continuing outside subsidy. Most could not and went out of business, hence also out of ministry. Well-intentioned but ill-thought-through missionary subsidy contributed to the problem. Stories abound of whole editions selling out in a few days at far below cost and then further funds being requested for reprints.
What of the Future?
If life is full of opportunities brilliantly disguised as problems, then our colleagues in Eastern Europe face a future bursting with opportunities! Many Evangelical communities continue to expect books to be sold at unrealistic prices. Distribution is also deterred in some countries by increasing hostility to Evangelicals from the religious establishment and by excessive denominationalism among Protestant groups.
Political and economic change has been so rapid in a few countries that the legal system lags behind. New tax laws have been hastily enacted without the repeal of existing legislation. In one country, the current total legal tax levy on businesses exceeds 100 percent of profits! In other words, no one can legally be in business if one makes a profit. This state of affairs naturally gives rise to all sorts of ethical grey areas, not to mention the opportunity for bureaucrats and criminals to demand bribes. Corruption and bribery are a problem within the region. The banking system in some countries has been penetrated by the Mafia.
Despite these problems, the progress made by some national publishing houses is encouraging. Their distribution is slowly increasing, editorial standards remain high, cover design is improving, and market research is more sensitive and accurate. Print-runs and sales predictions now correspond more closely to distribution achieved. Advance is being made in financial management and forecasting, although there is still a ways to go.
The church under Communism was in a survival mode, inward looking and withdrawn into its own subculture. Christian publishers have a prophetic role in calling the church out of its ghetto. The church must live and proclaim a Gospel that is both attractive and relevant to the community around it.
Gerry Davey is director of the Eastern Europe Literature Advisory Committee.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from "Eastern Europe: Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall," Interlit 36 (December 1999): 4-6.
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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report