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Can Hungarian Book Publishing Resist Growing Government Control?

A bookshop of the Libri publisher in Hungary

BUDAPEST -- A small crowd of theatergoers pours out into the warm mid-June evening streets in front of the Atrium Theater in Hungary's capital. Amid the chatter and murmur of the afterplay discussions, a common question emerges: What happened to Libri, the country's biggest and most influential publishing house? "We need to boycott, don't buy their books anymore," someone remarked passionately in the crowd, which included the country's well-known author couple Eva Peterfy-Novak and Gergely Peterfy.

Earlier that day, on June 14, the Libri Group announced a change in ownership. By increasing its stake from 30.9 percent to 98.5 percent, Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a conservative government-funded talent incubator, became the majority stakeholder in the company, sparking fears that the publisher's editorial independence was under threat and its future offerings would conform to a political line promoted by the ruling conservative Fidesz party.

Novak-Peterfy was one of the first authors to openly announce her split from Libri.

"I didn't think about it for a second. I knew I don't want to be part of a publishing family where the government sits at the head of the table," she told RFE/RL, also expressing her gratitude for the past 10 years working with Libri and her colleagues there. "But I just can't stomach it. I couldn't spend a company Christmas party in the presence of people who contributed to ruining my country, who feed hatred and exclusion and are active participants of this innovative dictatorship."

Eva Novak-Peterfy
Eva Novak-Peterfy

Now living in Todi, Italy, with her husband, the couple founded their own publisher, Felho Cafe Books, which they say is for authors who don't want to compromise and are safe from any government pressure or political agenda.

In power for over a decade, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party have been accused by critics at home and abroad of backsliding on democracy, threatening judicial independence, and of being hostile toward migrants and people from the LGBT community.

Orban has talked openly about his plans to turn the country from a democracy into an "illiberal state," and the government has taken control of much of Hungary's print and broadcast media.

While Orban is more popular among older people and outside large urban centers, a majority of Hungarians (57 percent) approve of his performance as prime minister, according to data from a Pew Research Center survey taken shortly after his reelection as prime minister in April 2022, Fidesz's fourth consecutive election victory.

MCC started life in 1996 in Budapest as a private college, expanding to provide scholarships programs and then publishing books and academic articles. In 2020, Balazs Orban, a political adviser to Orban, became chairman of MCC's board, and the institution received around 500 billion forints (around $1.5 billion) in government funding, reportedly to help educate the next generation of Hungary's conservative intellectual elite. (Balazs Orban is no relation to the prime minister.)

On a 2021 visit to Hungary where he interviewed Viktor Orban, conservative political commentator and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson also spoke at a conference organized by MCC. In 2021, Carlson's documentary, Hungary Vs. Soros: The Fight For Civilization, claimed Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros had "spent decades waging a…political, social, and demographic war on the West." There was one "unlikely country" fighting back, Carlson said -- and that was Hungary.

MCC's ever-growing portfolio of assets include shares in Hungarian pharmaceutical giant Richter Gedeon and valuable properties in Hungary, in Romania's Transylvania region, and Brussels. Recently, MCC purchased a majority stake in the private Vienna-based Modul University, and the group reportedly plans to establish a hub in London.

After Novak-Peterfy's announcement to jump ship, the Berlin-based writer and poet Matyas Dunajcsik said that he too was leaving Libri. A recent collection of his poetry, titled Sky/ Burn, was set to be published this coming fall by Libri.

Books on display at a Lira bookshop in Budapest
Books on display at a Lira bookshop in Budapest

Like Novak-Peterfy, Dunajcsik said he would mourn the relationship he had with Bence Sarkozy, the CEO of Libri Publishing, and other colleagues. However, he said he couldn't bear the thought that income from his books would go directly to MCC, an institution that he said "supports Russian war propaganda and international alt-right rhetoric, which attacks women's rights, and now has taken aim at sexual minorities of which I am a member."

Under its imprint, MCC has published books such as Gender Comedy: How An Absurd Ideology Wants To Rule Our Lives by Brigit Kelle and Desist, Detrans, And Detox: Getting Your Child Out Of The Gender Cult by Maria Keffler.

Dunajcsik referred specifically to the recent plastic-wrapping of books, which are found to be offensive by a "child-protection law" passed in 2021 by the Fidesz government. In light of the new law, which is referred to as the "homophobic law" by those opposed to it, booksellers are required to surround-wrap books that contain LGBT themes or characters.

While wrapped books have appeared in bookstores, Hungarian publishers have said the regulations are hard to follow and, so far, it is unclear exactly how they will be implemented.

However, Libri itself was recently fined 1 million forints (around $3,000) for placing an LGBT-themed book in the youth section of one of its 57 bookstores the company owns nationwide.

Another major book distributor and owner of the largest chain of bookstores in Hungary, the Lira Group, was fined for the same reasons, but for a much higher price: 12 million forints (around $36,000).

The biggest literary achievements that live on for generations were always born under pressure and in a challenging political context, Sarkozy, the Libri CEO, told RFE/RL. He cited examples of Hungarian and international authors who were jailed and silenced but still produced great works of literature.

The Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest
The Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest

After 20 years in the publishing business and known for his passion for literature, Sarkozy said, "My role is not to educate society, rather to create an environment where authors of all kinds can freely publish their work." In the past 12 years, there were several changes in ownership, and it never affected the editorial freedom or professionalism, Sarkozy added, a statement with which many Libri authors and staff agree.

The Hungarian book market has grown in recent years. According to forecaster IBISWorld, the country's publishing industry has on average expanded 15.7 percent per year between 2018 and 2023, with 2023 revenue estimated to be 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion).

As the leading publisher of Hungarian and international titles in the region and a major domestic book retailer, Sarkozy said Libri is a well-oiled machine, gaining international recognition, and bringing in significant profits -- something he couldn't imagine would be in the interests of the new owners to ruin by aggressively implementing a new ideological direction.

Balazs Orban
Balazs Orban

So far, Sarkozy said, he has been promised that the day-to-day operations and management of the company will not change.

Publicly at least, MCC has said as much. Commenting on the negative reception by many to its new ownership role, the company said in an e-mailed statement to RFE/RL it is aiming to continue building the institution's intellectual and professional portfolio and to maintain a market-focused operation.

"As one of the biggest talent-oriented institutions of the Carpathian Basin, MCC believes in the future of books," the statement read. The media storm in which authors and journalists expressed their concerns is purely "ideology-based" and entirely groundless, as "MCC believes in the freedom of books and knowledge and in freedom of expression."

Sarkozy said he finds the way the Hungarian and international press have reported on Libri's new owners to be it counterproductive. He added that, in general, the interest toward books and publishing is in decline.

"I find it surreal that some newspapers report on the issue, while they never write about book publishing or don't even have a section dedicated to culture," he said. In his view, Hungarians are very open to literature of all kinds. "The Hungarian readers are like a rainbow," he said. "They are diverse and open-minded."

His comparison could be a poor choice of words as more and more videos surface on TikTok showing plastic-wrapped LGBT-themed books.

"Financing illiberal ideologies by selling liberal literature is the real perversion, not anal sex or transgender stories," said poet Dunajcsik. An Instagram meme page quickly created an alternative version to Libri's logo, which spells: Illibri.

Sarkozy's optimism is considered naive by some other publishing professionals. Anna David, publisher at Magveto, another prominent Hungarian publishing house, which was originally founded by Sarkozy, was less sanguine.

Matyas Dunajcsik
Matyas Dunajcsik

"So far, the Fidesz government has ruined every cultural field that is has entered, so it is pure naivety to think that this time it will be different," she told RFE/RL. "Book publishing and distribution was the only remaining cultural area in Hungary that worked in a purely market-oriented way, free from government control."

While David said the situation is cause for concern, she added it is impossible now to know what the implications are likely to be. "Anything can happen in Hungary, and it is only up to political will whether to operate in a way that could corrupt the market or keep things as they are," she said. Along with other publishing professionals, she said she is worried how the presence of such centralized capital could lead to imbalance in the book market.

While some have called for a boycott of buying books published by Libri, there is not a huge amount of enthusiasm for such a measure among both publishing professionals and the Hungarian public. And for the so-called midlist writers who aren't literary superstars writing bestseller after bestseller, leaving their publisher is a hard decision to make. Even Dunajcsik said that quitting Libri is a luxury for only those whose livelihood does not depend entirely on the publishing house.

Books that feature LGBT characters are seen wrapped in plastic at a Libri bookstore in Budapest on July 11.
Books that feature LGBT characters are seen wrapped in plastic at a Libri bookstore in Budapest on July 11.

There have been some hopes among Hungary's literati that smaller independent publishers might benefit from the situation, either from the defection of Libri authors to new publishing pastures or from a public boycott. But others, like Dunajcsik and Novak-Peterfy, said boycotting Libri is not enough, as it isn't just buying the publisher's books that supports this government.

The only true way to resist has to start deeper, Dunajcsik said.

"Hungarians looking for change not only have to change their book-buying habits but also have to think about how to remove this rotten, mafia-like group of people from leading the country," he said.

"What happened to Libri is only a small step in the direction the country has been heading over the past 15 years. From a hopeful young democracy full of potential, Hungary is now on the highway to fascism."

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    Noemi Martini

    Noemi Martini is a journalist living in Budapest. She works for HVG, a Hungarian weekly print magazine reporting on social issues and Hungarian current affairs. Previously she lived in London for seven years writing about contemporary arts and culture for titles such as Elephant Magazine, The Face, and The Calvert Journal. She is a graduate of the University of Westminster and the University of Arts London.