• Publishers and readers across Argentina are talking about e-books — and their relative scarcity
• Digital entrepreneurs are hard at work, but the market has a great deal of ground to make up before it catches America or Europe.
By Julieta Lionetti
BUENOS AIRES: Buenos Aires has a coffee-shop culture similar to that of Vienna or Paris, making it easy to stumble upon people engaged in serious conversation, penning the next great Argentine novel, or closing a big business deal over a glass of wine or a cappuccino.
But, unlike those European capitals, you’ll almost never spot someone sitting in a coffee shop using an e-reader: E-ink devices area all but nonexistent, the Android tablets on offer are expensive low-end gadgets from China, and I can count the number of iPad owners on two hands. At the same time, in our country of 40 million inhabitants, there are 50 million cell phones in use. My housekeeper is reading a pirated edition of Isabel Allende she found on a P2P online sharing site. And she’s reading it on a lowly Java-based feature phone.
This past summer, I sat with Dario Wainer, the co-founder and CEO of GarageLabs and mastermind behind the successful e-commerce platform Tematika, discussing e-books while sitting at the T-Bone (an unlikely name for a snug coffee shop near the Botanical Gardens), a man sitting at an adjoining table interrupted our conversation, eager to find out what we knew.
“See,” Dario announced, “E-books are sexy.”
Yes, you might say that, but a large part of the reason e-books are currently such objects of desire is their scarcity.
Earlier this year, that looked as if it was going to change. In April, Argentine online retailer Musimundo launched its e-bookstore to much fanfare. The opening happened in the midst of the Buenos Aires Book Fair and received lavish press coverage, particularly for the promise that it would have 20,000 titles available almost immediately—a number that, if you’re counting, is ten times what is offered by Spain’s Libranda, whose eagerly anticipated e-bookstore promises just 2,000 titles (none of which, by the way, are as yet available in Latin America). Unfortunately, even today, when you visit Musimundo’s ebookstore, what’s on offer is severely limited: the 20,000 so-called e-books are merely downloadable PDF files, a selection of titles that seems whimsical at best. A mere $30 will buy you a license for a DRM-protected PDF file published by the town council of Torrejón de Ardoz, outside of Madrid, Spain, that was used to train their clerks. Good luck finding Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or its like here: the store isn’t even organized into categories.
Andrés Zaied, digital business manager of Musimundo, knows there are shortcomings and acknowledges that the e-book market will only take off when publishers start to digitize meaningful content. He explained that the decision to launch the e-bookstore using whatever titles were available at the time was made with the aim to be first to market, “the first to be associated with e-books in the consumer’s mind,” he said. Of course, it’s important to remember that consumers also have an enduring memory, as well as an ingrained aversion to bad shopping experiences.
Waiting on Spain?
The major conglomerates in Spain control world Spanish rights to most of the authors they publish, which amounts to 60-70% of the total output in the language—meaning that the ideal content necessary for building e-book mindshare is out of reach for local publishers. Argentina’s independents could see all their digital strategies dashed by the decisions made by the Spanish Big Three and their associated publishers when they finally launch Libranda in Latin America. The fact that Libranda is still viewed as something of a half measure—largely due, surprise, to its rather thin content — has done little to motivate Argentina’s conservative publishers into action. As Seth Godin would say, competition validates your project, it creates a category, it allows the decision to be this or that. Without competition, you are stuck competing against nothing, against the inertia of inaction, which is a much more challenging rival.
One example of this is the Argentinian Book Chamber — the independent guild for local publishers, distributors and booksellers — which, at the same during the Buenos Aires Book Fair where Musimundo announced their e-bookstore, also announced their intent to study the merits of launching their own proprietary digital platform. Unfortunately, to date, almost nothing has been said about the plan’s progress or potential.
Caution: Entrepreneurs at Work
While we wait for Musimundo to improve, for the Book Chamber to get its act together and for the big publishers with headquarters in Barcelona and Madrid to sort out Libranda’s next act, other players are doing their best to get in the game. These are the young and high-spirited digital entrepreneurs that everyone expects will help forge the future of book publishing. Unfortunately, most of them are also poorly financed and, consequently, somewhat limited in ambition and technological scope. They call themselves publishers, but most do little actual publishing. Instead, they make money from digital conversion and author services, generally stopping short of offering marketing or distribution. The savviest among them worry about what they will be able to offer once globally oriented companies — such as Smashwords from the US — begin to compete with local startups.
Teseo, run by Octavio Kulesz, offers conversion services and POD to academic authors who can’t find a university press to print their work. These authors typically bring institutional financial backing for publishing papers and academic essays, thus mitigating any financial risk of publishing. At present, Teseo offers only POD editions for sale, offering them through partnerships with four retailers, one of which is Seattle-based Amazon.com.
Another startup — Autores de Argentina — is unabashedly in the author services business. The company is managed by social-media darling Germán Echeverría, which uses its follower base on Facebook to recruit clients — anyone longing to become a published author.
Still, it’s not all disappointment and false hope. El Aleph was among the first Spanish-language e-bookstores to launch anywhere. Today, their site remains a hub for all manner of things literary. They sell both secondhand paperbacks and EPUB files, they scan rare treasures and antique books from the National Library, and they offer author services for pay. Oh, and they also publish several well-known local writers, such as Juan José Sebreli, and classics like Henry Thoreau. Perhaps most importantly, the e-books they do offer are reasonably priced or even free.
Sexy? Yes, but what’s next?
Yes, e-books are sexy. But what’s it going to take to get readers to consummate their relationship with this new, lithe digital form? In my opinion, it’s going to take a digital entrepreneur — a visionary, really — who can re-think the traditional value chain and business models; one who can focus on short term goals while still embracing the long-term view of publishing as a business in perpetual beta; one who can cater to both existing readers and attract young digerati, the curious and the e-book-starved mass market. There’s no shortage of regional venture capitalists waiting to invest in that kind of publishing.
In Argentina, a country of readers served by scattered bookstores, with an expensive but failing distribution system, the development of such a publishing enterprise, one that guaranteed accessibility to rich content for a reasonable price, could only lead to one thing: another money deal to be sealed with a handshake in another snug cafe. Who, we wait and wonder, will it be?
Julieta Lionetti is a freelance writer and editor based in Buenos Aires.