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Nostalgia Can’t Stop Latin America’s Imminent Digital Future

Regional publishers are finally ready to fight for “pole position” in the race to digital.

By Javier Celaya

Javier Celaya

MEXICO CITY: From its opening to its close, the II International Symposium eBook in Spanish, organized by CONACULTA in Mexico City, was filled with nostalgic statements on the well-known benefits and cultural contributions of printed books. Although these exercises in looking back into the past surprised many attendees — both those present in person or following the event online — the fact is that this melancholy reflects an unconscious acceptance by Latin American publishers and booksellers that the Spanish book world will go digital faster than we suspect.

Even if the rate of reading on screens is still very low in the main countries of Latin America and Spain, particularly when compared to the Anglo-Saxon markets, most experts at the symposium pointed out that the Spanish markets will see an acceleration of the digital race in the near future, due to the economic value that the language represents worldwide.

According to the latest report by the Instituto Cervantes on Spanish language demographics, 7.5% of the world’s population will be Spanish-speaking by 2030 (a total of 535 million people). The figure stands above Russian (2.2%), French (1.4%) and German (1.2%). By then, Chinese will be the only language surpassing Spanish as a native tongue. This impressive growth potential is one of the reasons why major e-book-selling platforms (Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, Kobo, The Copia, among others) have set their sights on these markets.

While the socioeconomic realities of many of the countries of Latin America contribute to making the starting point radically different from other regions of the world, recent technological transformations as the fast penetration of mobile telephony and the increasing access to the internet signal the inevitability of changes in reading habits. The continual adoption of all kinds of devices, including tablets and smart phones, is changing the ways people access to culture and consume information and entertainment in Latin America.

In contrast with a previous, certainly passive stance — many Latin American publishers and booksellers said they thought the aforementioned socioeconomic reality would slow down the process — informal conversations at lunch and dinner showed that change in attitude is taking place. The imminent arrival of major global players to the Spanish-speaking markets forces a more dynamic view of the future. Despite that the digital business is still marginal in these markets, everybody aspires to be in the “pole position” in the race because local players acknowledge that present strategic decisions will be of consequence within five years.

The inrush of global platforms in the Latin American landscape is viewed with some concern, but without fear. Will these companies win a crushing victory, as they have done in other markets? Will publishers and booksellers be able to create local alternative ecosystems? Most of those attending the symposium said that the landing of these platforms will force Latin American publishers and booksellers to strategic decisions that protect their market share.

Strategic decisions will revolve around the following areas:

  • accelerating digitizationof back-lists, as well as simultaneous print and digital launching of new titles
  • creating local ecosystems to prevent Amazon and Apple from achieving dominant positions in these markets
  • searching for international technology partners in order to consolidate local ecosystems alternatives
  • commitment with direct sales (better margins and direct knowledge of their readers for publishers)
  • growing interest in self-publishing as a new source of revenue and discovery of new writers
  • digital skills training (online marketing, e-commerce techniques , SEM, SEO, etc..)
  • definition of new services and new roles to prevent lost  of authors to the competence or to self-publishing
  • creating communities around content to enhance readers loyalty
  • commitment with digital exports by selling digital versions of Spanish books through global e-reading services worldwide, as well as the translation of most important works in Spanish to all major languages ​​in order to sell them directly or through specialized platforms.

Nobody in Latin America wants to get left behind in the digital future. In the coming months we’ll see strategic decisions by major publishers and booksellers in order to also benefit from digital dynamic that will emerge with the arrival of international platforms. The forth place print book industry worldwide must maintain its leadership in the digital age through a decisive presence.

Javier Celaya, a frequent contributor to Publishing Perspectives, is CEO and founder of Dosdoce, an online portal that  analyzes the use of the new technologies in the  cultural sector and publishes  annual studies related to trends in the Spanish publishing sector.

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