Publishing Consultant And PublisHer Board Member Emma House Interviews Bookwomen Around The World.
A graduate of the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, Satenik Anastasian’s publishing career took her through children’s and young adult publishing before she became Head of Content at e-reading service Bookmate. In 2018, she launched Russia’s first diverse and LGBT+ friendly publishing house, Popcorn Books.
To date, Popcorn has published more than 50 titles, including translated bestsellers, such as Call Me By Your Name; Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda; Boy Erased; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and more. In 2020, Popcorn started adding Russian authors to its roster, starting with Mikita Franko with his debut The Days of Our Lives, which was shortlisted for prestigious literary awards (NOS, Litsey), and whole film rights have already been sold.
Why did you choose a career in children’s and YA publishing?
As clichéd as it sounds, I’ve just always loved YA and children’s books, I never really grew out of them. I also love the way good YA books tackle difficult, adult topics without sugar-coating them but still leave the reader with a sense of hope in the end. To me that’s magical.
I still get the same feelings of excitement reading these books and knowing that the readers will enjoy them. YA audiences are always super responsive and grateful, I’ve received so many messages and emails from readers saying that these books have changed their lives, that’s what makes it so rewarding for me.
What was your pathway into the publishing industry?
I first realized that I wanted to go into publishing when I was in high school. I watched a movie called The Suburban Girl, which really inspired me–the main character was a book editor and that was intriguing to me. At the time, I was into writing and always edited my own work, I didn’t even know that editing books was a career. That moment was an eye-opener for me and it just clicked that this is what I want to do. That’s where it all started for me.
I later found out there was a publishing university in Moscow and really wanted to get in. When I first applied, I was rejected – which really disappointed me. I thought I knew everything I needed to know to get on the course. Instead, I had to do a year’s work experience at a publishing house before finally being accepted. Although I graduated with a degree, I didn’t end up getting my diploma in publishing because I didn’t need it, I had enough experience to get a career in publishing without it.
What roles did you have in publishing before you launched Popcorn?
I started out at Rosman, which is one of the bigger children’s publishing houses in Russia. I was a secretary for a year then moved into the editorial team for three years. At first the books I worked on were quite simple picture books with not too much text and from there I progressed to much more complicated books.
I then went to Simbat and made all sorts of branded books with Disney and Marvel characters. After that I moved to AST, the biggest publishing house in Russia, where I started my journey with YA books. It was important for me to work in a publishing house of this scale as it allowed me to realise the gap in the market for something different, something outside these big publishers’ traditions.
From there I went to Bookmate as Head of Content and mostly worked signing contracts with foreign publishing houses, which was quite unfamiliar to me, but I quickly came back into the publishing world and launched Popcorn books.
“I would do anything to work at the publishing house that was publishing the Harry Potter books, I would mop the floors if that’s what they wanted…”
Who or what has inspired you in your publishing career?
Harry Potter was my obsession when I was in high school and I still love the books today, they really inspire me. When I realised that I wanted to work in publishing I decided that I would do anything to work at the Russian publishing house that was publishing the Harry Potter books, I would mop the floors if that’s what they wanted me to do! As I was finishing high school, I called the publishing house and it turns out they had an opening and took me in. That’s really where my career began and, here I am thirteen years later.
What inspired you to launch Popcorn Books?
I think the main element of my inspiration for launching Popcorn Books was seeing all the big players in the industry filled with bureaucracy and prejudice, preventing their editors from publishing progressive, quality books.
Popcorn was initially launched as part of an e-reading service called Bookmate, where I worked at the time. My boss and I had always thought that we needed to create our own content and a print publishing house was a great way to go about that, considering my previous work background in children’s and YA.
“My inspiration for launching Popcorn Books was seeing all the big players in the industry filled with bureaucracy and prejudice.”
Soon, Bookmate acquired a print nonfiction publishing house called Individuum and alongside it we decided to open a fiction imprint. I became chief editor of this fiction imprint, creating the name and concept. I instantly knew we had to publish YA books. In the US and UK, the YA books are exciting, and we needed the same in Russia. Our initial idea was to publish books that other Russian publishers weren’t comfortable publishing.
We then acquired rights for Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Call Me by Your Name, both with LGBTQ+ protagonists. We had a huge and very positive reaction from the readers from the get-go and that’s when we knew we had a niche and were doing something nobody in Russia had done before.
Last year we expanded from just translated titles to publishing our own Russian authors, which is very exciting! As Popcorn has grown and evolved, we’ve built an amazing community, our readers love our titles because they trust our taste and judgement in books, and equally, we trust theirs. Our diverse catalogue tackles race, gender, women’s rights, sexuality, mental health. The most important thing to us is that we won’t publish a book just because of the topic it addresses, we ensure all of our books are still captivating and bingeworthy.
What was the reaction to a female publisher launching an LGBTQ+ friendly publishing house in Russia?
When we first announced the titles that we had acquired, it was quite controversial. The overall reaction was very positive, I think a lot of readers were excited to see some new and refreshing books being published.
But of course, some people were very angry because of the nature of the publishing house. As you may know, there’s a law in Russia that prohibits ‘homosexual propaganda among teenagers and children’. This law became an opportunity for anyone to bully those who support the LGBTQ+ community. When we launched Popcorn books there were people who tried to bully us as well, but we simply ignored them. In terms of publishing, the law just means that any books with queer characters or narratives must be wrapped in plastic and marked with an Aged 18+ mark.
In terms of being female and launching a progressive publishing house, I think weirdly it might have even a little easier for me than it would have been for a man. People have speculated about my sexuality, but I don’t care and just ignore it. For men here, that might be tougher to deal with.
“Convincing bookstores that queer books can be very popular too, and not only among queer readers, was a massive challenge.”
What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
When we first launched, bookstores believed the books wouldn’t sell. They seemed to have a preconceived notion that queer books would only sell to queer readers and they seemed to think that there were no queer people in Russia. So convincing bookstores that queer books can be very popular too, and not only among queer readers, was a massive challenge.
Another challenge for me was finding a balance between quality and affordability of our books. Our readers are mostly in their late teens/early twenties so most of them don’t have a steady income or any income at all. Finding the price balance was very hard, but I think we got there.
Describe a defining moment of your career.
As funny as it is, a defining moment that stands out to me is when we started getting into auctions for queer books with other publishing houses. Three years prior, when we launched Popcorn, nobody wanted these titles apart from us and when I worked at a large publishing house it was near impossible to convince anyone to buy queer titles for the Russian market. Now we’ve kind of created a trend and open-mindedness, so all the publishers are buying queer books. On the one hand it is slightly frustrating because the big guys can always beat us in an auction with more money. But on the other hand, I still feel immensely proud because in the bigger picture, this is very important for a lot of people and for our country.
Another thing I’m extremely proud of is the fact that last year we published our first queer Russian author. The book is selling well and has been shortlisted for multiple awards. We’ve now sold the rights for it to be adapted into a movie and sold translation rights to two territories, so I’m very happy about that.
“Publishing in Russia is mostly women. But the top management is almost exclusively men.”
What is the landscape like for women in publishing in Russia?
Publishing in Russia is mostly women, I would say eighty percent. But the top management is almost exclusively men. There are a lot of women in the roles of editors, senior editors, chief editors, but almost never CEOs and upper management. I don’t know why that is, to be honest. From what I’ve experienced, the environment in the top layers of the big and old publishing houses in Russia is quite toxic and sexist. A lot of the senior management in publishing comes from the ‘old days’ of publishing in the 1990s, and a lot of those people are still behind their desks.
After all you’ve achieved, what other ambitions and aspirations do you have?
There is one thing that I still dream of and it is to publish Harry Potter, but with a quality translation. As a huge Harry Potter geek, I was disappointed with the translation that was made by Harry Potter’s current Russian publishing house. As a huge fan who knows the books inside out, I would love to have a go at publishing a translation that I know will do the books justice.
“My main advice is don’t be afraid to make others uncomfortable.”
What advice would you give to other women in the same industry?
My main advice is don’t be afraid to make others uncomfortable. If you know how to do your thing and you believe in it, don’t take no for an answer. Nothing is set in stone. Big publishers are like dinosaurs and if you don’t fight for fresh and progressive ideas nothing will ever change. However, I would also advise you to pick your battles, never spend too much energy on things that don’t matter or that you don’t really believe in.
This interview was first published by BookBrunch.co.uk and is reproduced here with kind permission.