By Elianna Kan
As the publishing industry in Spain continues to grapple with ongoing losses in sales due to the country’s economic crisis, Latin American publishers are welcoming a balance in the Spanish-language market that increasingly seems to be tipping in their favor. But how can the myriad of small to mid-sized publishing houses that shot up in Latin America over the last ten to fifteen years ensure their continued vitality, especially in light of the heightened attention being paid to the region, both due to increased interest in Latin American writers abroad and the weakening of Spain’s publishing infrastructure?
At the Guadalajara Book Fair late last year, a panel of editors representing some of Mexico and Argentina’s most prominent independent publishers came together to discuss the challenges confronting their operations and echoed one another in citing the importance of continued and stronger collaboration going forward. Participants from Argentina included Leonora Djament of Eterna Cadencia, Maximiliano Papandrea of La Bestia Equilátera, Ezequiel Fanego of Caja Negra; and from Mexico, Eduardo Rabasa of Sexto Piso and Guillermo Quijas of Almadía.
Djament emphasized the problematic nature of the historical and relatively recent status quo which dictated that an author from Venezuela had to be discovered by a large publishing house in Spain if he had any hope of being acknowledged and read in his own Latin America. She called this Spain-centered circuit of book publishing “absurd and tedious” as well as “expensive, colonialist, and odious.”
But the strengthening of Latin America’s regional publishing endeavors is impeded by the difficulty of moving books between countries. A number of those obstacles according to Djament include high transportation costs, inefficient postal systems, the persistence of VAT taxes on books, multiple tariffs bringing up the cost of printed literature, low orders correlating with low sales, limited readership, and a relatively low number of bookstores. Argentina’s publishing industry, in particular, has suffered tremendously from the recent economic crisis which has caused the price of paper to skyrocket.
But there’s still cause for hope. In light of this state of affairs, small and mid-sized publishers have become more inventive, creating alternatives for circumventing obstacles to distribution. A publisher in Argentina finds a printer in Chile to print its titles locally in order to avoid shipping and exportation costs from one country to the other. A publisher in Chile co-edits a book with a publisher in Colombia and the book sells in both countries. A bookseller in Mexico prints and distributes an imprint from Peru. Gradually, Djament noted, these so-called independent publishers have begun to “recover the old routes that united Latin American countries.”
Partially thanks to digital technology, Djament suggested, publishers have learned to work in multiple directions at once. “We learned that it isn’t enough to have a distributor or a bookseller that buys us every once in awhile. We learned that it’s necessary to create and foment alliances that strengthen the bonds between publishers and distributors, where the roles are flexible and two-sided.”
Mexican Publishers Find Their Dexterity
Indeed, this growing dexterity is a defining characteristic of Latin America’s independent publishing scene: publishing houses function as bookstores and also as distributors of other imprints, their purview is always on the verge of expansion.
Take the examples of Sexto Piso and Alamadía in Mexico: Sexto Piso was founded in Mexico City in 2002 and initially focused on texts in translation. Over time, their catalogue grew to incorporate Spanish-language authors as well as imprints from other countries. They currently distribute both Caja Negra and La Bestia Equilátera and are one of the most successful independent publishers in Mexico.
Sexto Piso’s perceived Mexican competitor Almadía was founded in 2005 in Oaxaca and was born out of a bookstore that was opened sixty-five years ago by Guillermo Quijas’s grandfather. The bookstore spawned a book fair that in turn began publishing local Mexican authors. Now 70% of their catalogue is comprised of Mexican authors and the rest includes Latin American titles or works in translation. Almadía continues functioning as a publisher, a book fair dedicated to promoting literacy, and also as a bookseller of other Latin American imprints.
Both Sexto Piso and Almadía have to confront the same problem: how to sell books in a country with a limited readership and a relative absence of bookstores outside of major metropolitan areas. As Quijas noted: “There’s no point to a highly curated catalogue if the reader base is lacking — you have to reach the readers.” This common challenge is cause for collaboration, not competition, Rabasa says. “We’re all striving for the same side and there’s room for everyone.” Book fairs like Almadía’s or Guadalajara’s are especially important for making direct connections with local readers.
As far as expansion beyond the region is concerned, Almadía tried breaking into the market in Spain but was unsuccessful, Quijas said, and instead decided to focus its energies on building ties throughout Latin America.
A Call for the Future and a Rethinking of Independent Publishing
Small-scale Latin American publishers will have to continue supporting one another if they’re to have any hope at a future. Djament insisted publishers should develop their individual editorial identities while also keeping in mind the publishing ecosystem in the region as a whole: the distributors and printers in various countries, as well as fellow editors publishing the same authors abroad. “It’s not enough anymore to think in essentialist terms about that which distinguishes a publishing house; rather it’s time to think relationally: a publishing house is what it is, but it’s also what it is in relation to, or in alliance with, or in communion with.”
In a region where the ebook industry is still in its nascent stages, Latin America’s bricks and mortar bookstores are crucial to the multi-faceted system keeping the publishing industry afloat. “Bookstores should be thought of as a way of organizing the market,” Djament suggested: “And how we want to organize the market is one of the questions we have to keep asking ourselves, to avoid always running behind what the market dictates, what new technology and large conglomerates dictate.”
Fairs such as the Guadalajara or the Buenos Aires Book Fairs not only play a crucial role in exposing publishing houses to a potentially new readership, they also serve as a place where publishers and booksellers from the region can discover one another’s work and make plans for future collaboration or simply discuss mutual struggles and troubleshooting.
A number of the editors on the panel also insisted it’s time to rethink the term “independent,” since there’s nothing essentially independent about them. As Fanego insisted: “we depend on a lot of things but we try to ensure that these limitations have the smallest impact possible on our editorial selections.” Rabasa called the term “ambiguous and confusing,” saying that it has an “aura of romance and utopia” attached to it that’d be better left behind. He prefers the terms “cultural or literary publishing” to denote a kind of publishing endeavor that doesn’t sacrifice editorial integrity and rigor for commercial motives.
The entire notion of a book as product also ought to be reconsidered, explained Rabasa. “It’s a good with very specific characteristics—it has cultural value as a vehicle for transmitting ideas.” He cautioned against the danger of letting Latin America’s emerging book publishing industry go the way of its neighbors to the north and to the east.
“We live in a time of market fundamentalism. If we let the book world be governed by the same market logic, what happened in the U.S. and England with Amazon and the destruction of bookstores will happen here,” he warned.
Both Rabasa and Djament called for more state intervention in the interest of maintaining cultural diversity. Djament said she’d like to see more state-sponsored literacy programs to promote reading as well as policy reforms on export and import taxes that would make it easier for the Argentinean publishing industry to promote its books abroad. Rabasa cited Mexico’s recent attempt at passing a fixed book price law as an example of important government intervention that’s still pending. Argentina has already passed its own fixed book price law though it remains unclear to what effect. However, there have been some successful examples of state-sponsored advocacy on behalf of Argentina’s publishing industry: in an interview with Publishing Perspectives, La Caja Negra’s Ezequiel Fanego applauded the Argentinean Chamber of Books for its one-time collective paper buying initiative, organized earlier this year for all of its interested members, allowing them to buy in bulk a commodity that gets prohibitively more expensive by the day.
In spite of the myriad challenges confronting publishers in Latin America, these editors seem optimistic. In an interview with Publishing Perspectives earlier in the week, La Bestia Equilátera editor Maximiliano Papandrea shared news of the launch of his own publishing project, Paprika, which he started this past September with two other Argentinean editors. A gesture of faith in the future of publishing if ever there was one.