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In Argentina, E-books Are Sexy! (But You Can’t Find Them Anywhere)

• 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 consum​mate ​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.

DISCUSS: Will Ardor for E-books Diminish as They Become Commonplace?

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