Even though he was once a great sprinter (winning the title Champion of Moscow), Sergei Makarenkov could not run away from his fate in publishing.
Bored by his studies at an aviation technical high school, Makarenkov followed his running coach’s advice and switched over to the Polygraphic Institute. “I asked him which faculty had the toughest competition on its entry exams, and he said it was the book sales faculty. So I said ‘that’s the faculty I want,’” Makarenkov recalled.
After graduation, Makarenkov went to work at a used bookstore in Moscow’s Tushino district. He invented new forms of exchange for used books and, within a matter of months, he said, this little store became the most popular store in the then USSR. “Book lovers from all over the place were coming to exchange books. These were the books published in the Soviet era: poetry by Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, detective stories—in other words the books most in demand and otherwise hard to find in regular book stores.”
This success did not go unrewarded, and Makarenkov was promoted to the Bukinist store on Stary Arbat. He worked there for two years, gaining important experience with old and valuable books. But soon, the winds of perestroika began blowing across Stary Arbat and the whole country. Makarenkov left his secure bookstore position and began his life as an entrepreneur.
After dabbling in some other areas, Makarenkov raised enough start-up capital to open a used bookstore in the capital’s Krasnaya Presnya district. He took books—and later antiques—on commission. But when the store was robbed, he was left with dangerously high debts. Luckily, he was able to recoup his losses by engaging in wholesale sales of On i Ona, one of the first glossy magazines in post-perestroika Russia. In fact, Makarenkov did so well that he raised enough capital to found his own publishing house: Ripol.
“Back then [in 1989] you could print anything,” Makarenkov said. “In fact the deficit [in books] was so huge that you were basically printing money. The main problem was where to find the paper and a printing company.”
When Ripol could find paper and printing time, they focused on reprints of old Russian books (its reprint of the 1896 book Good Manners was a huge success), on reprinting Russian classics and on detective novels, as well as some licensed books from abroad (e.g. The Bridges of Madison County). But the market got increasingly competitive, economic conditions became less stable, and one of his partners started losing his business focus, engaging in the oil business and real estate. Money was exceptionally tight—“we didn’t have the money to pay for gasoline,” Makarenkov said. But when it came to choosing whether to stay in publishing or pursue a fast buck elsewhere, Makarenkov held on to his passion. He split with his partner and re-established the publishing company as Ripol-Classic.
The new company charted a course toward creating a strong list of general interest titles, centered around a stable of reliable, best-selling authors. “We came to the conclusion that, in the Russian publishing business today, it is the author who makes the face of the publishing house,” Makarenkov said. The company’s top authors now include healer Natalia Stepanova (and her popular books on magic), and detective novelists Yulia Shilova and Mikhail Krug. But Ripol-Classic also did well with classics, non-fiction and how-to works, particularly in the area of self-help and health awareness. Today, Ripol-Classic is one of Russia’s leading publishing companies. In 2000, its staff of 100 published 400 titles, printing over 12 million books.
“A publisher is someone who, on the one hand, has an inner intuitive feeling about a book, but then, on the other hand, is also capable of making the book a commercial success,” Makarenkov said. And he sees no limit to the opportunities for success in the future. “People are going to read more books. Sure, there is the Internet now. There are electronic books. But the book in printed form will remain, for it is something very personal, something which has its own soul.”
To that end, Makarenkov is increasingly focusing his attention on projects like Ripol-Classic’s series of world classic titles, “Time and Books,” which is printed on top quality paper and bound in leather. He has also started a venture which offers hand-crafted leather book-binding for Russia’s rich—an offshoot so successful that Ripol-Classic cannot keep up with demand.
Some would argue that such nouveau riches see books as simply another design element in their luxurious homes. But Makarenkov disagrees. “It all depends on the person. And I don’t think Russia was more of a ‘reading country’ before than it is now. There were just these huge lines—the hype triggered by book deficits. Now a market has shaped up and supply is courting demand. But pop in to the major bookstores of our capital—they are full of buyers!”
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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