By Maria Fernanda Rodrigues
Over the past 12 months, Brazilians put aside their fears that the e-book would be the death of the printed book and put more energy into finally moving into the digital era. Waaaaay back in March, 2010, the Brazilian Book Chamber (CBL) and the Frankfurt Book Fair organized the First International Digital Book Conference, and the atmosphere in that distant dark age was one of uncertainty, with most publishers unwilling to risk investing in experimentation.
Instead, bookstores took up the cause. Gato Sabido, the first Brazilian e-bookstore, launched in December 2009. By April 2010, it had competition when bookstore chain Livraria Cultura began selling e-books. One month later, Saraiva, the biggest bookstore chain in the country, launched its e-bookstore. Today, the scene is so radically different that you can even buy e-books at popular retailers of home appliances such as Ponto Frio, Casas Bahia and Extra (which is originally a supermarket, now with stores all over Brazil).
Still, despite the opening of these new distribution channels, just 4,000 Portuguese-language e-book titles have been produced so far. It’s a risible figure. At Saraiva’s e-bookstore, to take but one example, there are more than 220,000 digital titles on sale, but over 99% of them are in English.
What has happened to the publishers? Well, in 2010, e-book distributors Xeriph and DLD were established to help push the publishers along, and are still ramping up production. And a few publishers –- Ciência Moderna and, since July, Grupo A -– have begun selling digital books direct to consumers online. But despite the efforts of the CBL and others — including Brazilian-Italian e-book conversion house Simplissimo, who are pouring a lot of effort into educating publishers about e-books — growth in the number of available titles remains achingly slow.
Still, some publishers are devoting resources to innovation. A good example is the aforementioned Grupo A, which last year invested R$100,000 [US$63,600] to take the company into the digital era. It released its first app, Medicamentos A a Z (Medicines, A to Z), and the 680-page guide was converted into an e-book with some useful enhancements, including a tool that allows doctors to search the government’s drugstore system for a specific medicine. The app is in both free and premium versions, the latter priced at US$24.99. Launched in August last year, the free version has been downloaded 200,000 times and customers have purchased 2,500 copies of the paid version. This might not appear to be such an impressive number when compared to the American or British e-book market, but it is astonishing for a country like Brazil, where the average print run for a printed books is typically 2,500 units.
Grupo A continues to develop new apps for Apple and Android devices (the first is expected to be launched next month), and, as noted above, has begun selling e-books direct to consumers. Analyst Felipe Flesch — part of Groupo A’s small e-book team of twentysomethings — noted that the move to sell direct isn’t meant to undermine bookstores. “We don’t want to compete with bookstores,” he said, “but are just trying to expand the information and products we offer to consumers.”
Libraries, too, are increasingly going digital, though not particularly of their own volition. Part of their motivation has been the announcement that four STM publishing houses — Grupo A, GEN, Saraiva and Atlas — will create (with the help of Ingram from the United States), Minha Biblioteca, a new company to offer digital catalogues to university libraries.
Still, there are major changes afoot. Amazon and Google are actively hiring Brazilian specialists in preparation for what one assumes can only be an impending launch. The government has expressed a willingness to consider digital content as influential purchasing programs by 2014 (though there is doubt that they fill follow through on this due date), and several device manufacturers are promising to manufacture low-cost e-reading devices in country.
Of course, until all this happens, and publishers finally commit to converting the majority of their books to digital (and develop acceptable author contracts and find a comfortable price point to go with them), it’s likely to be business as usual in Brazil. The pay off for all this effort in digital development is, it appears, further down the road.