By Emily Williams
CARACAS: In bookstores all over Venezuela the bookshelves are emptying. Readers’ hunger for new and classic titles is as strong as it ever was, but a policy change that the government made over a year ago is gradually choking off the flow of imported books, which make up 80% of the market in Venezuela, resulting, naturally, in fewer and fewer books to sell.
It seemed like a minor bureaucratic change at the time: in March 2008, the government led by president Hugo Chávez downgraded the import status of books. Once listed as “essential goods”, all imported books would now require government certification, either demonstrating they were not produced domestically, or else not produced domestically in sufficient numbers. In practice, this means that for all titles they want to import, publishers or distributors have to submit an application describing the books in question and request that a share of foreign currency be allocated for their import. (In Venezuela, the government regulates the use of foreign currency for imports.) These applications are then reviewed by a government bureaucrat, who has the power to decide how many copies will be imported.
The decisions the government has made over the year that the law has been in force seems somewhat arbitrary. For example, the international bestseller The Secret could reasonably be expected to sell ten thousand copies or more, yet only several hundred were approved. What’s more, publishers must then wait six months to reapply to import additional copies — by which time demand may have dropped.
The result of this policy has been a catastrophic shortage of books. In an open letter, Yolanda de Fernández, president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Books, stated “this measure puts at risk more than 400 small and medium-sized companies in Venezuela’s book sector, which together employ, directly and indirectly, around 35,000 workers.”
Bookseller and blogger Roger Michelena says there are distributors whose inventory has been cut in half, and the whole industry is suffering serious losses. In Venezuela, he concluded, “you’re headed for bankruptcy if you make your living from books.”
For 2008, publishers did their best to work within the new rules. They added more titles by Venezuelan authors to their programs, and tried to boost domestic production of international titles rather than importing them. However, this attempt to work around the import restrictions by printing domestically ran up against new problems: printing supplies fall under the same restrictions and are equally hard to come by.
What’s more, the Venezuelan government has no mechanism for allocating foreign currency to pay for copyrights. Accordingly, even those publishers who negotiate the rights to publish overseas titles domestically and have done so, have no means of paying authors their royalties.
Meanwhile, the supply of international bestsellers has slowed to a trickle, crippling both publishers and booksellers alike. Libraries have also been affected by the import restrictions, which severely limit their ability to buy new books or even to maintain subscriptions to scholarly publications.
This summer, as the shortage has taken its toll, President Chávez has announced new book-related initiatives, exchanging passive censorship for a program with explicit ideological overtones.
First, with financial help from Cuba, the government set up new national publishers and booksellers, which have printed thousands of books to fill the void, reportedly without clearing the rights to many of the titles that are still under copyright. These books include a number of classic works, biographies of political revolutionaries, and monographs written by Chávez and other members of his socialist administration.
More recently, Chávez announced his Revolutionary Reading Plan (PRL), an ambitious project to promote thenationwide of reading a select list of 100 books designed to build “the socialist values and principles that will allow our people to continue with their struggle for emancipation.” (More details to follow in Publishing Perspectives next week.)
A national project to promote reading should be great news to Venezuela’s modest book industry. Instead, Venezuela’s non-governmental publishers and booksellers find themselves on the outside looking in, as the Chávez administration gives away thousands of copies of books like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or the Diary of Che Guevara, and selling hundreds of other nationally produced and ideologically approved titles for under $2. Meanwhile, a lonely copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sits on a bare shelf in a Caracas bookstore with a prohibitive price tag of $132.
Attempts to convince the government to restore books to their previous status as essential goods or at a minimum loosen the import restrictions have resulted in faster approval of book imports, but no improvement in the allocation of money to pay for them. Some of the larger publishers are working around the cash shortage by buying dollars and euros on an open exchange, at an exchange rate up to three times higher than the official government import rate. But, even if publishers can find a way to import some books, booksellers are still finding it difficult to keep enough books in stock while maintaining prices at a reasonable level to sustain their livelihood. It appears that the future of an independent book business in Venezuela — and as a consequence freedom of thought — is still very much in doubt.
READ: Roger Michelena’s blog
PRL’s: Full list of 100 books for the Revolutionary Reading Program (click on Biblioteca Popular para los Consejos Comunales – our favorite title – The Imperialist Fallacy of Human Rights)
Official: Venezuelan state press coverage.