Sunday, 5 February 2012

A literary deficit

Brazil apart, publishers are struggling to persuade the growing middle class to read more books.

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.

In books, the picture is more mixed. Publishers are releasing 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. The stagnation has deeper roots. 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.

One answer to fix that problem 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 caf├ęs 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 a counter staff.

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.

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.

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