The Challenge of Christian Writing and Publishing in East-Central Europe

(Editor's note: This article continues a year-long partnership between LWP and Media Associates International to present a series of articles focused on global Christian publishing.)

Ulrich Brockhaus, the distinguished German evangelical publisher, once told me, “The Church gets the publishing it deserves.” His implication was that all Christians are responsible for the development of Christian thought and ideas in their own country and culture.

This principle has inevitable consequences for all local Christian publishing. Of course, wherever we live, a country’s books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers are also greatly influenced by the extremely varied linguistic, political, economic, and religious history of each nation. But Brockhaus’ observation drives home the thought that, whatever our situation, we too are responsible to God for the publishing that takes place in our own culture.

An Overview
In Europe, the differences from country to country are so varied that it is impossible to summarise briefly. Even the geography of Europe is debated: where does it begin and end, when even an Israeli can enter the Eurovision Song Contest? For the purposes of this article, I have limited myself to one or two aspects of Christian writing and publishing in East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

For forty years, I have been involved in Christian publishing, mostly as international director with Lion Hudson plc in the U.K. I am now a trainer and consultant with Media Associates International (MAI), which helps Christian writers and publishers in many of the world’s hard places, including Hungary, Poland, and Serbia. When the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened up Eastern and Central Europe, the Church in the West responded in three ways.

  1. It continued supplying subsidised literature to those who for decades suffered a lack of Christian books and Bibles. They used existing undercover networks to distribute with greater freedom.

  2. Major projects were launched to supply huge numbers of Bibles in a way that had been previously impossible. One project distributed free of charge four million Russian New Testaments to Protestant churches in Moscow and elsewhere.
  3. Serious efforts began to establish indigenous publishing in newly-liberated countries. These were sponsored by the Eastern European Literature Advisory Committee (EELAC), which later became part of Langham Literature.

These pioneering efforts met with varied results. The former smuggling networks for literature dried up as borders opened. The drive for large-scale Bible production also met an early end due to donor fatigue and the lack of “sexy” smuggling stories in Western Christian media. However, with enormous pains and patience, a significant number of small Christian publishers were established in the former Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe.

Also, soon after the fall of Communism, numerous Christian magazines sprouted across the region. Visionary leaders, lacking in publishing experience or training, rushed to take advantage of new freedoms to publish the good news. Magazine Training International provided on-site training conferences for Christian magazine staff in many countries of East-Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

These magazines became a training ground for journalists and potential authors of books. Notable magazine successes include Inspiration family magazine in Poland, Miracle children’s magazine in Albania, and Tapati and Leah women’s magazines in Lithuania and Bulgaria, respectively. However, many Christian magazines are still struggling, largely because of economic pressure and the reality of a small evangelical population.

Challenges Today
The challenges for publishers are varied.

  • Individualism. One continuing issue is the need to shake off the mentality that “I am just a cog in the wheel.” This leftover thinking from the old command economies of the Communist era detracts from a collaborative vision of the Body of Christ. It also fails to recognise the variety of skills needed by an effective Christian publishing house.

  • Western subsidy. Unfortunately, Western subsidy has not helped to encourage self-sustaining publishers. Continuing subsidy (particularly those with editorial strings attached) mitigates against the healthy development and growth of Christian writing and publishing in Eastern Europe. Long-standing confusion between “subsidy” (short-term solution) and “capitalisation” (a long-term development opportunity) has plagued the development of self-sustaining publishing in many countries. This confusion is shared equally by donor groups and those they hope to support. It is, of course, an issue not limited to Europe.
  • Training. Consequently, there is a great need for training in order that these small and under-resourced publishers will understand and manage these issues. This includes editorial, sales, and financial management where local publishers and writers have very limited skills and experience. Such training takes considerable time and resources of appropriate skill.
  • Staffing. In many countries, publishers face great difficulty finding capable and motivated staff. In countries such as Serbia, only a tiny percentage of the population is Protestant, and less than one percent is evangelical. Serbia is also dominated by a stultifying, conservative, and nationalistic Orthodox Church which views other Christian traditions as cults, and sets out to obstruct wider Christian witness of many kinds, including publishing.

On the positive side, these painful problems have, in some Eastern European countries, pushed Christian publishers toward the general market, where books of much wider appeal (e.g., family life or children’s books) may get better reception. This can be a route toward sustainability which would be impossible if they only published Bible commentaries and the like.

  • Local authors. Unfortunately, these struggles have also slowed the development of local, Christian authors. Again, there are notable exceptions in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. Alexandr Flek and his team in the Czech Republic created Bible21, an updated Bible translation, which has sold more than 100,000 copies since its release. In 2009, Bible21 topped the bestseller list at seventy-five thousand copies in a nation of only ten million inhabitants and twenty-five thousand professing evangelical Christians.

  • Foreign translations. Even where a limited number of local authors are at last being published, I have observed resistance from some local editors and publishers in favour of translations from the West, mainly by U.S. and U.K. authors. “Translation is easier to produce, the editorial work is already done, and we know what we are getting from the start,” I have been told. This attitude overlooks the vital opportunity local authors have to meet local needs in a culturally-appropriate way. In this way, a whole generation of indigenous writing may be lost. If not corrected, this oversight could prove to be a massive long-term strategic error.

Developing and Sharing Local Authors
Consequently, MAI focuses on the encouragement and training of indigenous writers. This often begins with small-scale workshops to nurture potential writers during which they may write short articles or stories that can lead to more ambitious book-length material.

Recently, twenty-five writers gathered for a fiction workshop in Bulgaria, hosted by Mission Possible Bulgaria. MAI trainers from the U.S. and U.K. partnered with local authors and publishers to lead the three-day workshop. Mission Possible Bulgaria has been publishing Leah, the nation’s only Christian women’s magazine, and equipping writers in a monthly writers’ club since 2002.

 

As a result of the workshop, many stories are emerging from Bulgarian soil. Leah magazine launched a short-story competition, urging participants to complete the stories they began. The first-prize winner is published in the magazine; the second-prize winner wins a weekend personal writing retreat.

I recently purchased Family Magazine at a street kiosk in Budapest. It consists of entirely Hungarian authorship and is published by evangelical publisher Harmat. Books by Harmat are increasingly authored by Hungarians and are widely distributed in general bookshops throughout the country.

In the last year Christian publishers in Eastern Europe have launched BRIEF, a web-based book catalogue that developed out of discussion at the MAI European Publishing Forum in September 2010. This shared online catalogue showcases best new titles by local authors. A strategic marketing tool, it will enable publishers to expand their audience across Europe and beyond by offering copyrights abroad.

Conclusion
This article only scratches the surface. Elsewhere in Europe, there are many well-established Christian publishers in the broadly Protestant northern countries; much good publishing (often overlooked by evangelicals) is also taking place in the Catholic south. But those are stories for another time. Meanwhile, the whole of the European continent faces continuing challenges, such as the worldwide economic recession. However, it is also responding to the many opportunities (and threats) from electronic publishing, all of which means that no one can relax too much.

Christian publishing in Europe is neither dead nor buried, and Christian writers have more opportunity to develop their skills and reach new readers than ever before—whether through old or new technologies. There are always new fields to conquer!


Tony Wales is the former international rights director for Lion Hudson plc in the U.K. He is a global publishing consultant and serves as a board member of Media Associates International.