Report from Guadalajara’s FIL: “We’re Living in One of History’s Hinge Moments”

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

John Warren of the RAND Corporation

John Warren of the RAND Corporation

GUADALAJARA: The annual Feria Internacional del Libro (FIL)—otherwise known as the Guadalajara International Book Fair—finished up last week. Considered by many to be among the most enjoyable of all international book fairs, FIL also featured some provocative deep-thinking about the future of the publishing industry in the Americas. Publishing Perspectives spoke with John W. Warren, Director of Marketing, Publications of the RAND Corporation, who was the keynote speaker at the VIII International Publishers and Professionals Forum at FIL, speaking about “The Progression of Digital Publishing: Toward a New Profession.”

Publishing Perspectives: What was your overall impression of this year’s Fair?

John Warren: This was the sixth time I’ve attended FIL, but my first time since 2000. It’s grown tremendously over that time. There’s a new hall, which opened last year, entirely dedicated to international exhibitors, a rights center, and the professionals’ forum. While the economic crisis has hit hard in Mexico, with an expected drop in GDP of about 7 to 8 percent in 2009, and while many publishers told me that sales had fallen by nearly 20 percent this year, there was still a palpable sense of enthusiasm and optimism at the show.

Over nine days, more than 600,000 people were expected to attend the show (it’s open to the public in the evenings during the first five days, which are primarily dedicated to professionals), with more than 1,900 publishers and 17,000 publishing professionals, including librarians, literary agents, publishers from all over the world, in attendance. It’s by far the most important publishing conference for the Spanish language, but the range of other activities, such as music, dance, and drama, is simply amazing. Los Angeles was the honored guest—the “invitado de honor” is usually a country, but I suppose LA is as populated and diverse as many countries—and more than 60 cultural organizations and 50 authors from the Los Angeles area participated in the Fair, including Ray Bradbury live via satellite.

PP: What was the conversation like surrounding e-books and electronic publishing at FIL?

Warren: My friend Marcelino Elosua of Editorial LID, a small Spanish publisher but one of the most progressive on the electronic front, perhaps said it best as he presented the “2009 Omniprom Report on the Mexican Book Industry.” There’s a lot of fear about e-books among Spanish-language publishers, he remarked, but while many publishers hope that the e-book never arrives, it’s going to arrive anyway.

Luis Francisco Rodriguez, Executive Director of Publidisa, a company specializing in Print-on-Demand (POD) and e-books in Spain and Mexico, asked the audience at the beginning of his presentation for the International Publishers and Professionals Forum how many had purchased an e-book for their computer or e-book device. Admittedly an unscientific study, but only about a dozen out of an audience of around 150 professionals raised their hand. That seems to echo last year’s survey of professionals at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where an amazingly low number of publishers had seen or purchased an e-book.

PP: What were some of the highlights of the International Publishers and Professionals Forum, which focused on books and publishing in an era of technological change?

Warren: There was a great diversity of speakers. Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and now director of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson, rhapsodized philosophically about the danger to reading and literature in the electronic age. His message offered a mix of gloom and hope. “We’re living in one of history’s hinge moments,” he said, mentioning the technological challenges facing publishers as profit margins are eroded, the structural transformation, and the sea change in cultural literacy. “The book itself may be headed for extinction,” he added, noting that “we may long for a time of ‘slow reading’ like the current movement toward ‘slow food.'”

Luis Francisco Rodriguez of Publidisa spoke about digital restructuring, explaining how new markets were “like galleons in the open sea heading into the unknown,” and how a “perfect digital storm” of logistics, production, and the Internet was changing publishing.

Bob Stein, founder of the Voyager Company and currently founder and Co-Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, gave examples of innovation from the past and present, including the 1992 CD-ROM of Robert Winter’s CD-Companion for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the current use of Comment Press and Sophie—a new release is scheduled for release next year.

Chris Meade, Co-Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, wondered why people are scared of e-books and e-readers, and discussed Fictional Stimulus and Songs of Imagination and Digitisation, an illuminated book for the digital age.

Without a doubt the most entertaining speaker at the forum was Pablo Arrieta, a Columbian designer and professor who looked, and presented, like a Latin American rock star, while flashing on topics from The Pirate’s Dilemma to augmented reality. [Look for a profile of Arrieta in a forthcoming issue of Publishing Perspectives.]

PP: What are some of the other digital issues discussed at FIL?

Warren: In addition to the sense of trepidation I mentioned previously, certainly the level of interest in and awareness of e-books and digital publishing, such as POD, has risen dramatically. Quite a few publishers I spoke with were concerned about the issues of electronic rights. Many of the publishers in Latin America, and elsewhere outside of the U.S. and UK, devote a lot of their output to works in translation, and they mentioned to me that rights agents and foreign publishers were asking for significant fees in e-book rights, while for the publishers the market is still largely unknown.

My advice to them was to start experimenting at least with some of the authors that they sign directly, writing in their native language, in order to get a sense of the market.

Another major unknown is what e-book device or platform will achieve market dominance. My sense is that in Latin America and Spain smart phones will be one of the major, if not dominant, platforms for e-books. I can’t see millions of Kindles being sold in Mexico, for example, while everyone has a mobile phone, and smart phones are definitely on the rise. What kind of content will ultimately prove saleable on smart phones, however, remains to be seen.

E-libro of Mexico conducted a survey at the Fair of 511 young people, and found that about one-third has read an e-book—it didn’t ask whether they’d actually paid for it—more than half used e-books for research, and just under a half of the respondents were aware of portable e-book readers.

VISIT: The Web site for FIL

SHOP: The RAND Corporation bookstore, featuring more than 15,000 reports.

BONUS: A first timer’s take on FIL.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.