By Edward Nawotka
SAO PAOLO: Though many observers believe that Brazil may be four to five years behind the US in e-book adoption, Brazilians are among the most digitally engaged on the planet, spending more than 25 hours per week with digital media. Last year the CBL, known colloquially as the Brazilian Book Chamber, organized the first of a series of annual International Digital Book Conferences (Congresso Internacional do Livro Digital). The second session opened yesterday in Sao Paolo, attracting more than 300 participants from around the country.
The event opened with a bit of welcome news for Brazil, from Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, who promoted the idea that Brazil is in a strong position to capitalize on growing international interest the country. Citing research by Ruediger Wischenbart, Boos noted that the growing community of literary agents in developing markets means the likelihood of more rights deals from these markets. What’s more, as US and UK publishers push more and more e-books (and print books) into markets where large communities of English-speakers reside (for example in northern Europe, India and Australia), there is less incentive for publishers to acquire the rights to those books. This creates more rights opportunities for developing market publishers. In this way, digital publishing has truly flattened the global market. The news is also a particular boon to the Brazilians, who will serve as Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013, where if all goes to plan, they will feature some 250 Brazilian titles translated into additional languages.
Bob Stein, formerly of the Institute for the Future of the Book, opened by by complementing the Brazilians on their bookstores and the “tremendous energy” he felt visiting the rather extraordinary branch of Livraria Cultura on Paulista Avenue. Maybe he was playing to the crowd, but Stein remarked that in all his global travels, it was the “most amazing bookstore he’s seen anywhere in the world.”
Stein opened his talk with the blunt assertion that when it came to e-books, the Americans “blew it” — forgoing the opportunity to put in the best, forward thinking systems and opting instead for a conservative approach. Stein speaks from the perspective of someone who has spent more than 30 years in digital publishing, dating back to what he calls “the first e-book” (or rather snippet) — ten pages of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky put into an Apple card file format — and the first commercial e-book release, a digital edition of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (which, he pointed out, was available before the paperback edition).
Looking toward the future, Stein discussed the underpinnings of his new company, SocialBook Inc., which he stated was “reinventing the book” for the social media era and was itself a “radical publishing model.”
SocialBook will offer “absolutely no apps” which he says lure you away from the Web. The disconnect of leaving an app to Google something is “a barrier that makes you think twice” and you don’t want to have to do that. It relies instead on a Web-based HTML5 platform that presents everything in the browser. “What’s great about HTML5,” he said, “is that it allow things in a browser to look the same as something on a page.”
As opposed to a conventional e-book, the SocialBook will offer multi-level access different avenues of comment threads alongside the text. The comments are organized in a variety of ways, those from your friends, to pay-to-view “glosses” by experts, to the “backlog of analog data about a subject that we have amassed over the last 1,000 years.” It also offers the opportunity to engage with authors and experts asynchronously — or in “real time in the book.”
For example, tutorials for an academic textbook can be “live inside the book.” This enables the book to be a “place of transaction” and should, said Stein, generate new revenue for publishers. Stein ended by noting that in the past he’s written that print publishers should be put into hospice and allowed to pass away peacefully. While he didn’t reassert this statement outright, perhaps in deference to his audience — one that remains almost entirely dependent on print sales, production and distribution — the mere mention of the idea was enough to elicit an audible gasp from many present.
While such prognostications and provocations are useful for Brazilians to hear, their immediate concerns are somewhat more prosaic and immediate. The government of Brazil, which makes significant and substantial bulk purchases of books for use in schools throughout the country, has announced that it will begin buying “digital content” in 2014 — let’s call it “D-Day” — giving publishers two years to develop, test, and experiment with their digital content.
In conversation, Antonia Teixeira of the technology and education group of Abril Educação, one of the largest education publishers in the country, noted that her group had been developing digital educational materials for more than eight years, producing everything from apps to portals. The group has prioritized testing these materials in with several private high schools and working with them to find solutions.
“Currently Brazilian high school students carry their textbooks back and forth to school,” she said. “It has been estimated that the average student carries 12 to 14 kilos worth of books back and forth to school. Schools, the government, and parents are interested in digital textbooks to help alleviate this physical burden.” Initially, she said, the likelihood is that the the government will supplement educational print purchases with digital materials, allowing the students to leave their print books at school while offering them access to the digital materials at home. This signals that, for the near term, there should be little impact on the overall print market in Brazil. “But,” she said, “digital is coming. We know that and are prepared for it.”
That said, it is not likely that Brazil’s publishing industry will soon abandon the print model that has served it so well. In the end, Brazilians will establish their own digital models of publishing, but in due course. For this to begin, publishers all agree that the prices of tablets and e-readers need to fall to manageable levels. Apple’s iPad retails for $1,000 or more, while an iRiver e-ink reader remains several hundred dollars. Several Brazilian manufacturers are looking at producing tablets domestically, which should help push down prices.
Overall, lagging four to five years behind the US in establishing a digital marketplace, Brazil’s publishers have the opportunity to learn from others mistakes and instill best practices. That very fact — what Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks called “the gift of hindsight” gives them the opportunity to instill best practices with less pain that that experienced by other markets.