By Emily Williams
For Patricia Arancibia, Manager of International Content at US bookseller Barnes & Noble’s Digital Group, the e-book revolution is all upside. A native of Buenos Aires who moved to New York a decade ago, Arancibia started out at B&N buying international titles in print, primarily in Spanish, for the company’s online store. While selling these titles online was a big step forward that allowed B&N to reach a new, wider audience, moving physical stock from the countries of origin fast enough to respond to consumer demand was a challenge.
“We always had a timing problem,” says Arancibia, “because someone has to print more books, put them on a ship, and bring them to America, they have to be in customs and then they have to enter the territory, get into trucks and go all across the country. Now with e-books we don’t have that challenge anymore.”
E-books in Spanish have been hard to come by, but with major initiatives now underway in the world of Spanish-language publishing — most prominently Libranda, the e-book distributor launched in Spain this summer — Arancibia is hopeful the content bottleneck will soon open up: “From our customers, because we do sell tons of print books in Spanish, we know that many people here in the US are looking forward to having more variety of titles in any sort of format, and starting to be able to read e-books in Spanish. It’s very very exciting, because in terms of actual availability, having them in the territory, there has never been a moment when there were more than, say, 30,000 titles [in Spanish] available in the US, against hundreds of millions of titles available in English. It’s fabulous that for the first time we are going to be able to serve the Latino community in the US super well, and the books come from all over the world.”
The books Arancibia brings into B&N do indeed come from just about everywhere, and not only the Spanish speaking countries. Her mission is to find books in any language that might be of interest to B&N’s customers in the US. This takes her to many different countries in search of promising content.
“One of the things is bringing content from all over the world — from small, medium and large publishers — that was never before on sale or available in the US,” Arancibia explains. “The other is, because I deal with all international, I also deal with any kind of corporation, organization and government abroad that are related somehow to publishing, and with whom it’s important for us to be in contact when we deal with foreign publishing industries.” This mission gives Arancibia a unique perspective on how the digital transition is progressing across the globe. “In general I would say particularly Germany and the UK are way ahead,” she tells us. “Japan and China are clearly doing a lot, and other European countries and Latin America, the Spanish-speaking world…it’s interesting, because it started this year and it’s already moving fast. This year in March in Brazil, there was the first ever digital-book summit in the Americas, and it was very very interesting.”
Progress in e-books is exciting for Arancibia, because the more houses publish their books in digital format (Barnes & Noble requires the standard ePUB format), the more books Arancibia can potentially import for sale to US readers. “So far, from what I’ve seen [in Latin America], Brazil and Argentina strike me as the countries that are working faster, where you have more publishers, small and medium-sized, that have ePUBs. In terms of massive markets and sales, of course everything is tiny still. But there is something, and what’s important is that everyone is very interested, wherever you go people are really starting work on this and are taking this very seriously.”
Arancibia recently returned to her hometown of Buenos Aires for this year’s Conferencia Editorial, where she presented a talk called “How to Sell Millions of E-books: the Case of Barnes & Noble”. One of the first publishing conferences in Argentina to focus on digital, the event left Arancibia energized and optimistic. “I had a wonderful surprise in Argentina,” she says. “What I found was that they have digital platforms, and a lot of local publishers already have ePUBs, and are working on it and seeing how to sell them, not only there but abroad. If you start counting ePUBs, books that are already in that format, there are a lot more there than in any other country I have been [to] in Latin America this year. So that was fascinating, because they don’t know it. They think they’re farther away than they are.”
The beginning of a new e-book market may be small, but Arancibia has nothing but admiration for the publishers who choose to make an investment in future growth. “It’s a very tough move for small and medium publishers in Latin America because going digital is expensive,” she notes. “It’s expensive for small and medium publishers in the US, imagine in Latin America where the technology is not necessarily as available as it is in America or in Europe, and e-commerce is not as developed, and there are not many actual e-ink readers. The iPad is sold there but it’s extremely expensive for most of the population. Chapeau to them, because you see a lot of people who are seeing that this opens a global perspective that they never had before. It was very refreshing.”
So, what does it take for publishers to build the kind of e-book market that Barnes & Noble caters to in the US? “It’s very hard to start a digital market with a limited crop of titles and reading devices,” Arancibia explains.” The first thing that is needed is information. Many people are surprised, even in big [publishing] conferences, when you tell them that they can actually read e-books on the computer where they read every day, or on their telephone. Many many people don’t know that. There is first an information gap. The other thing is reaching a point where you have a critical mass of titles available that are interesting to consumers, both local and foreign authors.”
Once the critical mass of titles and devices is reached, all that’s missing are the readers. On this point, Arancibia isn’t worried.” The good thing is [reading e-books] is easy, e-reading software is cheap—more than cheap, ours is free!—so I think in the next one to two years we’re going to see a dramatic difference in terms of how many people know e-books exist in Latin America and have access and are reading them.”