Publishing in Latin America
A literary deficit
Brazil apart, publishers are struggling to persuade the growing middle class to read more books
Dec 10th 2011 | GUADALAJARA | from the print edition
TINY fingers wiggle through the holes in the pages of “A Moverse” (“Let’s Get Moving”), a children’s picture-book that lets readers pretend their digit is a cat’s tail or penguin’s beak. While managers in suits talk print-runs and profits in one hall of the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the world’s biggest Spanish-language literary get-together, shrieks of excitement can be heard from young customers in the children’s area next door.
Illiteracy and poverty once denied the pleasure of reading to many Latin Americans. That should no longer be the case: a quarter of Mexicans born before 1950 are officially classed illiterate but only 2% of those under 30. And less than a third of Latin Americans now live below the poverty line, compared with half in 1990.
The newspaper business has taken note. Paid-for daily newspaper circulation in Latin America rose by 5% (21% in Brazil and 16% in Mexico) between 2005 and 2009, according to Larry Kilman of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Newspapers have won over young readers, says Mr Kilman. Argentina’s Clarín group, for instance, markets different titles to different age groups. Regional titles in Mexico’s drug-war hotspots have seen spikes in circulation, he adds (though they have also suffered violence from the mobs they expose).
In books, the picture is more mixed. Publishers are churning out more new titles than ever. Sales in (Portuguese-speaking) Brazil, the biggest market, are rising. On December 5th Britain’s Pearson (which owns 50% of The Economist) announced the purchase by its Penguin subsidiary of 45% of Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s most innovative literary publisher.
Things are less bright in the Spanish-speaking world. In Mexico and Argentina, Latin America’s second and third markets, book sales have been falling. Thanks to the “Twilight” vampire saga and a self-help series, Spain’s Grupo Santillana, the region’s biggest publisher, reports that its sales of titles aimed at teenagers have held up. But Mexico’s publishers’ association says that total sales last year were 139m copies, down by 12% from 2005. Many of these are textbooks, for which demand is pretty steady. But in the four years to 2009 sales of novels fell by 39% (to 8m) and of children’s books by 42%, to 13m. That was the year that recession whacked Mexico. With economic recovery, many publishers at this year’s Guadalajara fair, which closed on December 4th, report better sales.
The stagnation has deeper roots. Headline statistics flatter the reading prowess of Latin Americans. International tests show that almost half the region’s secondary-school pupils fail to reach the “minimum acceptable level” of literacy, according to the OECD, a mainly rich-country think-tank. Some middle-class adults set a poor example: book lovers cringed when Enrique Peña Nieto, who leads the opinion polls for Mexico’s presidential election, seemed stumped when asked at Guadalajara to name three books that had made a mark on him (he eventually came up with the Bible, the novels of Jeffrey Archer and “The Eagle’s Throne” by Carlos Fuentes, whose authorship he misattributed).
One answer is to make books more widely available. Mexico has 7,000 public libraries and 4,100 “reading rooms” in which volunteers are given a set of 100 books to lend at churches or workplaces. The government has installed mini-libraries in bus stops and even has a fleet of emergency “book bikes” which dispatch novels to places where Mexicans are at risk of boredom, including in long queues to cross the United States border. “We have to tell people that putting a book on the table is as important as putting bread on the table,” says Soccoro Venegas of Conaculta, the state cultural agency. Colombia, too, has a large network of public libraries.
The small size of the market means that books have traditionally been sold like luxury goods in Latin America. Spain has one bookshop for every 10,000 people. By contrast, Argentina has one for every 20,000, Brazil one for every 50,000, and Mexico one for every 70,000. Modern book superstores, with cafés and comfortable chairs, are marching across the region’s bigger cities, especially in Brazil. But they co-exist with old-fashioned shops, where books must be requested by name from counter staff or are wrapped in browser-proof cellophane to prevent damage. Other places are book deserts. That helps to explain the popularity of fairs, such as Guadalajara’s. A fifth of Mexicans (but only a tenth of Brazilians) say these are where they get most of their books.
Publishers explain the high price of books as a consequence of short print-runs and the high cost of imported paper. Absurdly, in Mexico the English version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, a popular thriller, can be bought more cheaply than its Spanish translation. Shopkeepers complain of piracy, which stalks the book market as it does that for DVDs. The shift from paying in cash to credit cards has squeezed margins further, according to Héctor Chávez, head of Educal, a state-run bookshop chain in Mexico.
Technology has been slow to disrupt this low-volume, high-margin business. Internet bookselling has been hampered by relatively low levels of broadband penetration and poor postal services. Amazon (and its Kindle e-reader) set up shop in Spain only this year; it has plans to enter Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Some 4,000 e-book titles are already available in Portuguese in Brazil, according to O’Reilly Media, a consultancy. Roberto Feith of Editora Objetiva, a publisher, has forecast that e-books will make up 7% of the Brazilian book market by 2015. Time for Spanish-language publishers to wake up.
from the print edition | The Americas