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Eastern Adventure

by Frances Pinter

originally published in

LOGOS
2001

 

 

pinter with soros
Frances Pinter with George Soros


. EASTERN ADVENTURE
. by Frances Pinter

 


Hungarian by origin, Venezuelan by birth, citizen of the USA and married to an Englishman, Frances Pinter settled in London after obtaining a BA at New York University, and received a PhD from University College, London (in International Relations). She was the founder of Pinter Publishers and was active in various UK book trade association bodies.

In 1994, she left the commercial world to work for the Soros Foundation, for which she established the Centre for Publishing Development in Budapest to assist publishing in transition countries of the former communist bloc. She is currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.


As recently as 1997, Mongolia, a country the size of Europe with a population of 2.5 million, had a publishing industry consisting of half a dozen printers with an annual output of 270 titles. With the help of two outstanding Hungarian publishers, Istvan Bart and Janos Gyurgak, desktop publishing was introduced; courses were run; the Mongolian Publishers Association was formed; an ISBN agency was set up. By the end of 1998, output, consisting mainly of textbooks, had trebled. For distribution, a deal was done with the owner of a cashmere export company. Textbooks were delivered to his ten depots dotted around the country, where herders brought their cashmere. Instead of returning to their villages with just money in their pockets and empty load bags, they took home books. We called it the "Cashmere Road".        

How did I get involved with Mongolia, an experience which included at one stage spending a crisp autumn night sharing a yurt with six men in the middle of the Mongolian Steppes?

It began with a phone call, five years earlier, from the billionaire financier/philanthropist George Soros. As part of the mission of his Open Society Institute (OSI), headquartered in Budapest, he had started the Central European University (CEU) in Prague. He wanted the CEU to have its own press. Someone had suggested that I might he able to assist him. Would I be interested?        

We arranged to meet at his house in South Kensington and for two hours disagreed on just about every aspect of scholarly publishing. I doubted whether I would hear further from him but after several months, he asked me to prepare a business plan. In 1993,1 began, working from London in my spare time, to set up the CEU Press.        

It proved to be a timely initiative. Of all the industries in Eastern Europe, publishing was the one which challenged the old order most radically and swiftly after the fall of communism. New fledgling private companies emerged in market places still cluttered with the remains of unwanted "pre-change" literature. There was a tidal wave of new books and journals. Hungary boasted 400 new publishers jostling alongside seventy-seven old state-owned companies.

In Czechoslovakia, 700 new publishers sprouted, in Poland 2,000. Several thousand new companies burgeoned in Russia, with private enterprise showing its ingenuity as far east as Kampchatka. Who were these new publishers – the poet in Bishkek, the printer in Ulanbaator, the politician in Tashkent, the academic in Prague? Wherever you looked, people were turning themselves into publishers. By the mid-'9Os, thousands were bankrupt across the thirty countries of the former communist world.        

The CEU Press was only a toe in this turbulent water. Another Soros phone call in 1994 asked whether or not it would be possible for the CEU Press to translate all the most important Western works of the social sciences and humanities into all the languages of the post-communist countries, preferably as a series, in the old style of Pelican books.

"Yes," I said, "they could be published, but not as a series and not by CEU Press." If he was really serious about this, such a project would have to be tailored to each country's needs and capabilities and involve local publishers. Furthermore, these publishers should be required to invest as much as they could of their own funds, giving them a stake in selling the books. Otherwise the project might end up as warehouses filled with highly subsidized products.        

As I outlined my initial thoughts, I knew that this was something I wanted to do and that to do it would require a massive upheaval of my own life. I would have to leave Pinter Publishers, the company I established in 1973. But what an opportunity! I knew I could help lots of publishers who were walking into the commercial world with about as little experience as I had in 1973 (none), but with a determination to bring better books to their people.        

"Pinter packs her bags for Eastern Europe," announced The Bookseller. Little did I know then that I would be living effectively out of a suitcase for most of the following five years and five months.  I wish I could say that I set off with a clear mission. That only came later.

Looking at post-communist Europe in 1994 from my new office in the Open Society Institute in Budapest felt a bit like stumbling on a group of people hung over from a very good party the night before. Notwithstanding the universal need for a cold shower and black coffee, each country had to take a hard look at its publishing policies and decide where it wanted to go and how to get there.

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I spent the first six months listening and learning. I wanted to understand the similarities amongst the countries and appreciate the differences. They were all being subjected to sea changes. I thought of publishing companies as ships, large and small, braving the high seas, setting off in different directions, crashing into boulders, floundering on muddy shores and, if lucky, heading for calmer waters that were still some distance away.

The states had protected publishing from choppy waters by subsidies but they no longer had the resources to do so. Reluctantly they began to let go, releasing their charges onto the open seas by way of privatisation programmes. But this did not happen overnight. Indeed, even now there are state-owned companies, particularly textbook publishing houses, ostensibly managed as commercial entities but benefiting from an array of hidden subsidies. Even so, most countries were unable to provide textbooks in adequate numbers during the '90s (and many still do not to this day) due to breakdowns in production and distribution, lack of finance, no policies on who pays for what and content that was sorely in need of updating and revision.        

One day in 1995, I mentioned to Soros that there was a shortage of 100 million books in Russia alone. "Well, can't you go to Moscow tomorrow and fix that?" he asked. "No, tomorrow is Saturday, but I'll go on Monday," I replied calmly. I quickly realized, however, that it was inadvisable for a foreign foundation to step in and take on the responsibilities of the state. We certainly could not "fix" the problem but it was the beginning of an extended love affair I had with the Russian Federation and the beginnings of a Soros strategy on assistance in the field of textbooks.

Soros was one of the first philanthropists to invest in education. Although a newcomer to the field, he quickly understood the critical role textbooks play in the whole process of introducing and implementing new curricula. In the early '90s, the Moscow OSI office ran an open competition, inviting proposals for new books in the social sciences and humanities. The intention was to broaden the pool of authors, involving especially teachers rather than the narrower, older generation of pedagogical specialists.

The concept created a lot of excitement, with over a thousand grants provided for text development. Unfortunately, no one realized what a difficult undertaking it would be. At a time when standards, curricula and teacher training were all undergoing change, it was almost impossible to create textbooks that met the needs of new and old courses. With hindsight, a modest pilot project might have been a better way forward. However, that would not have aroused such enthusiastic participation from teachers on the ground.

In any case, from the final pool of manuscripts we were able to select twenty titles, which along with existing textbooks were printed and sold to local authorities, with bridging finance supplied by Soros. This did not "fix" the Russian textbook shortage but a large World Bank loan kicked in a few years later and benefited greatly by avoiding the mistakes we'd made.        

OSI launched a number of "Education Mega-Projects" in several countries, each consisting of elements of policy development, curricula reform, teacher training and textbook revision. They usually spanned a period of three to five years and were meant to act as demonstration models on how to accomplish maximum local participation in the process of change. By the late '90s, the Foundation network was devoting $125m (20% of total expenditure) to educational projects of one kind or another.

My staff helped prepare government administrations for the introduction of competition, with all the consequences this implied for old state monopolies, and helped in whatever way appropriate the development of private publishing to take part in textbook publishing. In other countries, we concentrated on training authors and designers and contributed towards a radical new way of approaching textbook presentation. We worked with other bodies such as the British Council, the Eurasia Foundation, the World Bank and indeed anyone we could rope into the cause.

And we shared our comparative experiences. In 2000, OSI published a book I had the pleasure of editing called Textbook Rental Schemes. This was based on a conference, masterfully organized by Phil Cohen, where we brought together all the countries that had by the end of the decade up and running textbook rental schemes financed by the World Bank. Everything anyone would ever want to know about textbook rental schemes in Armenia, The Gambia, Moldova, Lesotho and Barbados is in the volume. For any country even thinking about enabling books to be recycled, with the burden of finance being spread out over time and users, this book is a must-read.

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By 1996, the original translation project was under way in a dozen countries, and by the end of the century, we had commissioned nearly 3,000 translations in nearly thirty countries. Many became bestsellers. Most contributed significantly to the restructuring of higher education in the social sciences and humanities. In the meantime, in 1996, I established the Centre for Publishing Development in Budapest. Its mission was to help foster the development of the private publishing sector so as to ensure the availability of a pluralistic collection of reading materials in each country. By this time, the countries were choosing their own roads to democracy and market economies.        

In Hungary, for example, the local foundation set up a model loan programme, which other agencies have now emulated. Twice a year publishers of serious non fiction were invited to apply for low-interest loans. The facility was offered by a bank interested in the small and medium-size business sector. The foundation provided staff training for the bank officers on the finer points of publishing. Publishers, never the favourites of banks in any country, were wary at first. They certainly did not like the long application forms. But they soon came round. The credit committee was a mixture of finance people and academics. Projects were assessed on their intellectual and financial merits set in the context of the health (or otherwise) of the applicant company.

After a few years, the Ministry of Culture offered a similar programme on a much larger scale to a wider range of publishers. I chaired the committee for two years, during which time I watched the academics become even tougher than the money people as they began to appreciate the value of ensuring the long-term financial health of the companies themselves.        

By the mid-'90s, most donors had concluded that pure grants to publishers were simply not cost-effective. One study estimated that nearly 60% of all books printed with 100% grants for production never made it past the publisher's warehouse. I was constantly trying to devise new ways of engaging publishers in projects by insisting on some financial investment on their part. Some models worked while others did not.

One which was a failure was our investment in Cardinal 2000 in Romania. Everyone agreed that improved distribution was necessary. Two entrepreneurs, a publisher and a printer initiated, with the then publishing coordinator of the Romanian foundation, a plan for a nation-wide distribution service for textbooks and other serious reading matter. We were prepared to take a short-term stake in the company which, on the face of it, looked likely to provide good and economic distribution.

Unfortunately, others did not see it that way. Publishers were suspicious of the motives of the two initiators. They wanted to control the operation but not invest. A stalemate ensued and Cardinal 2000 stalled. Much more legwork needed to be done to prepare the ground for such a project, which required more trust than had hitherto been practised in the industry. The timing was simply not right.        

The Romanian project raised a number of issues around the ethics of foundations investing in for-profit ventures. Now much is being written about "venture philanthropy", a concept still without a widely accepted definition, but which in some circles refers to charities taking equity stakes in for profit ventures that in some way further the philanthropic aims of the foundation. At OSI we dealt with the issue by setting up a separate business development programme which was not sector-specific and which worked independently of the national foundations.

In 1997, I received another vintage George Soros phone call. This time he asked whether or not we could do something about the dearth of new books in Russian libraries. If we were to set up a programme that introduced the concept of matching funds with Russian libraries for the purpose of buying new Russian books, would that not also help Russian publishers? Yes, l replied, and in the process develop a model "books in print" type of database. My mind raced ahead. When asked how much it might cost, l replied: "As much as you'd like to invest." "Well, how about $50m over a three year period?" I said that would be just fine and put the phone down. It was 11pm. l set about designing a seven-point plan.

A few weeks later, I was touring Russia with George Soros and a number of OSI executives. At a short stopover in the town of Pushkin, Soros gave a TV press conference at which he announced the "Pushkin Library Project". We were up and running.        

The principle was that book donations do not get the right books into the hands of the readers. Libraries had to contribute something to the cost. We would in effect set up a specialist wholesaling operation, buying in a range of titles at substantial discounts from the publishers, making part payments in advance, and ask the libraries to contribute in the first instance 25% of the cost. In the second year they would pay 50% and 75% in the third.

We set a quota for each library, on the basis of size. We anticipated that 5,000 libraries would participate. This time we were going to pilot the process. Eighteen different subject committees vetted 6,000 title submissions. In the end, our "good book guide" contained 1,000 titles. This was offered to 1,000 libraries.

Most people were sceptical as to whether or not the libraries would find enough funds to pay their share. The invoices went out at the end of July 1998 and we held our breath. Others were on tenterhooks too, but no one was pre pared for August 17 when the financial crisis hit and the rouble crashed. The cynics rubbed their hands, proclaiming death to the project. And then nothing short of a miracle happened. In a country with banks crashing everywhere and even the Post Office filing for bankruptcy, librarians were making the journey to our offices in Moscow with cash in their pockets. The payment rate was 100%.        

The Pushkin Project went regional, supplying Russian books to all of the CIS countries. The extremely talented staff saw the spin-off potential and became in effect a specialist library supply company, using their hard-earned experience and exceptional network of contacts to supply several million books each year. It is now an independent entity.

The project did raise questions of "market distortion". Did the foundation make it more difficult for others to enter the field, given the tremendous financial advantage behind it? My answer is that it met a need no one else was able to fulfil at the time. Now there is competition, and the new company should compete on a level playing field. It served as a demonstration model, proving that library distribution could be done, effectively and profitably. And if anyone should ever be in need of fundraisers in Russia I strongly recommend looking within the library community for effective individuals.

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In 1996, I set up an Electronic Publishing Division within the Centre for Publishing Development. At first we ran open competitions which funded small-scale projects, primarily digitization of archives and scholarly materials. We supported early attempts at CD-ROM productions, especially those that portrayed a country's indigenous culture. By 1997, we wanted to become more focused. Three main projects emerged. We produced a pack age training-of-trainers course (with the help of David Worlock and others) for web design.

Thousands of web designers, working primarily in the NGO sector, were trained over a period of three years. We worked with DG XIII of the European Commission and ran an annual conference introducing hundreds of Eastern multimedia companies to hundreds of Western companies with a view to facilitating multi-party applications for EU grants.        

And then there was EIFL (Electronic Information for Libraries) which arose out of an idea born in Paris in October 1997. We had been looking for ways of creating a consortium of libraries to pilot access to Jstor, the archival project that brought (and still brings) together in digitized format the backlist of 100 key academic journals. This was funded primarily by the Mellon Foundation and the publishers. It was, however, being successfully sold primarily in America.

I found myself attending a highly technical meeting at UNESCO, chaired by Sir Roger Elliot, where I'd been asked to report on journal distribution in Central and Eastern Europe. When I returned to Budapest, I mapped out a vision which seemed all but impossible. I asked Michael Kay, our Director of Electronic Publishing, whether he could foresee a time when it would be possible to obtain a country-wide licence for an unlimited number of users in public and academic libraries to a suite of journals.

We already knew of Springer's experiments in Russia, and the publishers at the UNESCO conference were all on the verge of being willing to entertain new business models to make use of the very flexible marginal costings possible when exploiting digital content. We soon realized we held the key to aggregated demand which would prove essential to make the equation work.        

Michael set to work and by spring 1998, we had a model and ran an international tender amongst the subscription aggregators. By 1999, over thirty countries had access to 3,500 social science and humanities journals, 150 daily newspapers and Medline. The Soros Foundation bridged the first year's funding, but countries were thereafter expected to pay the highly discounted price. Later the WHO joined the project, and by 2001, EIFL also included a collection of leading S & T journals. Out of necessity, the project began with a "top down" approach. The emphasis now is on helping each country develop or expand existing consortia of libraries to purchase collectively, thus reducing prices to affordable levels. In 1999, EIFL was hailed as one of the world's most innovative library projects by the Library Journal.

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By the early summer of 1999, I was preparing to return home to London and hand the running of the Centre for Publishing Development over to my very able deputy director, Darius Cuplinskas. Then, just two weeks after the bombing of Kosovo had ceased, I received a phone call from our foundation in Pristina. The schools were bombed out, textbooks had been burnt, could I come down and design a project that would get books into the hands of Kosovar children by the time the new school term was to begin?

I packed my bag again – now something I was quite skilled at, averaging over one trip a week to somewhere. This time I flew via Vienna to Skopje. There our Macedonian foundation driver collected me from the airport and drove me to the border. When we could go no further on the winding mountainous road, I hopped out, waved goodbye and started my trek, walking past the long queue of jeeps, vans, cars, carts, etc. People were on the move in every direction. Wheeling my small suitcase behind me, I proceeded through the dust and dirt to the border control.

After queuing for a while, I was identified as a suitable target by one of the numerous entrepreneurial young men who offered to get me through quickly for 100 German marks. We haggled and settled on fifty. He then escorted me into what must have been a pre-negotiated fast track. I wondered how much of my fifty marks would end up in the border guard's pocket. Amongst all the spanking new, white, four-wheel drives and greenish/brown tanks, I found OSI's car. The driver looked relieved to find me. We then crawled along, making our way to Pristina, a forty-minute drive which took three hours. We passed burnt out villages and makeshift cemeteries, and children selling Coca Cola on the roadside.        

In Pristina I stayed in a hilly, exclusive suburb, in a rented house. It was forty degrees C, and there was no water and no electricity. But the house was safe. The head of the KLA (Kosovar Liberation Army) lived opposite. That first night, I walked around Pristina choked with emotion as I watched people hug one another in the streets. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were pouring back into the city and each chance encounter with a friend or loved one affirmed the survival of another life. The next day, I began a series of meetings and visits to establish what could be done. Various international donors, including bilateral agencies of the main European states, were interested in pooling resources and funding an emer gency textbook programme.

Three million books were required, in Albanian, Serbian, Bosnian and Turkish languages. All this had to be carried out under the auspices of UNMIK (UN Mission in Kosovo), even though they did not have funds to contribute. The foundation undertook to design the project and provide on-the ground management. My job was to carry out the design work and pre pare the team to handle the project management.        

First step was a feasibility study – a rough and ready report, prepared in less than a week. I worked along the following premises. Three million books had to be produced as quickly as possible, within a budget of $2m. I was hoping that printing could be carried out in Kosovo. The printers needed the work. Miraculously, seventeen of the twenty or so printing houses that produced books were up and running. Everyone liked this approach. I made myself less popular with the paper merchants, as I decided to buy the paper myself, thereby reducing the cost and enabling us to keep an eye on delivery time targets.

Turkey was the cheapest source, so I placed an order there. To reduce risk, I also bought from Germany and Slovenia. We were in the summer months when paper mills are closed, and even the magical name of Soros did not open some of the more obvious gates. The worst earthquake ever experienced in Turkey hit the day we were expecting dispatches to begin. The Slovenian paper had to be brought in through Montenegro, and I wondered what would happen if Serb forces decided to seize the trucks. No one was willing to insure the goods.        

I returned in September to see how the project was progressing. I was distressed to see the growing disillusionment with the international donor community, who were portrayed as arrogant and ignorant by the local Albanian community. UNMIK took most of the brunt. The word "mik" in Albanian means "friend", "un" means "not". Put together, UNMIK actually translated as "enemy". And they were beginning to be perceived as such. My own foundation, made up of highly educated Albanians, was caught in the cross-fire trying to smooth relations along. The printers were dejected as payments (coming through UNMIK and others) were slow.

Distribution was difficult to organize. Roads were blocked, trucks were used to transport equipment and materials, not books. Services still didn't work.  However, by November, my third trip, still crossing the border on foot, I began to see the fruits of our labour. Books were reaching the schools, that were being repaired as quickly as individual homes – and in some instances even faster as whole communities devoted themselves to the task of rebuilding spontaneously rather than waiting for their turn in the endless queue.        

The Kosovo War was a modern war grafted onto an age-old problem. Some indigenous players fought ignorance and prejudice using modern methods. Outstanding amongst the many who sought to subvert the powers of the Milosevic regime was B92 in Belgrade. Originally a radio station, it also had broadcasts on TV and operated a publishing arm. During the war, it was "closed down" but continued to operate over the Internet through Amsterdam. I was proud that my publishing programme had been able to support B92.

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During the last few months of 1999, I was conscious of the fact that our programme was migrating more and more away from book support to digital-based product support. Our training of publishers had in some places paved the way for others to follow; elsewhere we had complemented other initiatives. But, as with any jigsaw puzzle, there comes a time when the pieces are in place. I could see that our success would be measured by the extent to which we made ourselves redundant.

Indeed, by the end of the decade, I felt we could withdraw from publishing industry development with the exception of Central Asia and the Caucasus, where a few more years were required. Publishing Studies Centres were springing up in the region, with help from Oxford Brookes University and other Western institutions. Copyright legislation was improving, with the first wave of laws of the early '90s undergoing revisions and smaller distribution companies building patchwork networks that took the place of the old centralized facilities. ISBN agencies were operating, trade associations formed and publishers were engaging with the international book industry. Even a selection of articles from LOGOS was available and promoted on the web, thanks to the efforts of Jerzy Celichowski, my most diligent programme manager!        

However, there were other pressing issues that needed to be addressed in the new world of the Digital Divide. My successor would take on the challenge. I was relinquishing my executive position, but sat on one of the OSI's many issue-based boards, this one concerning itself with information, and through that forum I worked on shaping the foundation's response to the problem.

Firstly, the historical OSI programmes of publishing, library and internet were merged to become the Information Programme. This removed the artificial distinctions that stood in the way of cooperation and ran the risk of duplication. It also made it conceptually easier to articulate a vision, a mission and a strategy. By 2001, we had a programme that concentrated on three areas.

Firstly, it was to help countries work out their own approaches to information policy, with a view to pushing higher up on the agenda of decision makers the complex issues surrounding the digital divide question. Secondly, as a follow-on from the EIFL project, the programme is assisting at the local level the building of consortia of libraries. And thirdly, tool sets and training in the use and application of Information Computer Technology (ICT) are being offered to NGOs as vital support for the development of civil society.        

Seven years on, this new information strategy is a long way from the translation project that took me to Budapest and to thirty countries, all finding their own way through a painful and exhilarating transition. My respect and admiration for those who worked tirelessly against tremendous odds to change the mindsets of their fellow citizens were and remain boundless.

©2001 Frances Pinter

Originally published in LOGOS
Whurr Publishers 2001

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