How to Survive a Crisis: Venezuelan Publishers Tell All (Part 3)

In Growth Markets by Andrés Delgado Darnalt

Libros Del Fuego

This is the part three of a three-part series on how six small Venezuelan publishers are surviving amid fierce economic and political challenges. Today, we consider a trio of scrappy, innovative publishers. Read part 1 and part 2.

By Andrés Delgado Darnalt

Libros del Fuego: Making a Splash with Guerrilla Marketing

Libros Del Fuego 2What do you get when you mix publishing with advertising? Possibly something like Libros del Fuego Editorial (LDF), the youngest of the six publishers reviewed here. According to Alberto Sáez, Publishing Director, the name is inspired by the libraries that have been burned to the ground throughout history. “We try to rescue quality books. It’s not just about re-publishing new authors but also about finding new ones, even those forgotten in the drawer, like Kafka.”

The marketing approach to publishing was present at LDF from the start. Their first title, El último encuentro, published in 2013, is a novel by sports journalist Humberto Acosta on the rivalry between two famous Venezuelan baseball players of the 1950s: Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax. Baseball is a very popular sport in Venezuela — unlike in neighboring South American countries — and Sáez and his team decided to harness the principles of guerrilla marketing to position the book among baseball fans. How? By placing books inside the stadium.

LDF signed an agreement with Venezuela’s Baseball League that allowed them to sell the book inside the stadium during the Caribbean Series, the top baseball tournament at club level in Latin America. “Most of the people going to the stadium are not frequent readers. The response was very interesting because people from all over Latin America saw the name of Clemente on the cover and recognized him instantly from being baseball fans. Most of them were interested in baseball history, and so they bought the book.”

For the next title, a book of grotesque poetry — a literary sub-genre that deals humorously with social topics — called Sonetos de aquello, LDF asked the author, a poet, musician and member of Venezuelan musical comedy group Los hermanos naturales, to launch the book during a concert tour. Between songs the author, Andrés Barrios, would recite the poems in troubadour fashion while images from the book would be projected on-stage during the concert. Once the concerts were finished, people would find the stalls with the book for sale. “We try to take the book out of its comfort zone. If you do this frequently, you are slowly trying to grow the market.”

Marketing is also done with posters, which are posted throughout the streets. LDF treats every title as unique and so the covers, design grids and even typography are different for each title, but are all linked by a shared spine, which is repeated. This is proof, perhaps, of their wish to play with the concepts of the whole and the specific. “We don’t like to group our titles in collections; we want them to play within genre boundaries: poems that become novels, short stories that become a single novel, for example.”

The paper shortage has forced them to work with low-quality alternatives when the paper they need is not available. They know that striking the balance between quality and price is hard in a market where the minimum wage is around 5,000 bolívares [$787] and fiction books can reach prices of nearly 1,200 bolívares [$189]. “I think our greatest challenge is to offer competitive prices. We are literally trying to juggle with our costs and so far we have been able to sell our books for 500-700 bolívares [$79–110], but these are still high prices for a country that has more important issues to resolve before.”

Among LDF’s latest titles is Dinero fácil, a book of short stories by Venezuelan writer Hensli Rahn Solórzano, and has two projects in the oven: a seven-volume comic book, I love zombies, co-authored by Argentinian film art director Marcelo Pont and Venezuelan film director Cesar Oropeza (famous for his zombie movies); and a novel on the Caracazo — a popular uprising in 1989 Caracas against an increase in the price of gasoline that lead to a strong government response — by Venezuelan journalist Yeniter Poleo.

FB Libros

FB Libros: Small, But Thinking Global

FB Libros — which stands for Ficción Breve Libros — draws from Roger Michelena’s long experience in the Venezuelan book industry as a librarian at Venezuela’s Central Library, cultural manager and bookseller. “FB Libros was born as a partnership with a popular website on Venezuelan fiction, Ficcion Breve Venezolana, but soon we realized we had different interests, so we took different roads.”

From the beginning, FB Libros focused on searching for publishers in foreign markets and for new markets for their authors. A partnership with Spanish non-fiction publisher Algón Editores has allowed them to exchange authors while also serving as a literary agency for Venezuelan writers. “We are already publishing part of Algón’s catalogue in Venezuela. They wanted us to work as their representatives here but we’ve been forced to slow down due to the present economic crisis and the paper shortage.”

This global focus lead them to publish on Amazon without having the means to access a foreign bank account, a prerequisite for publishers who want to work with the giant ebook retailer. “I made a partnership with a Venezuelan friend who is based in London. On our suggestion, she set up a publishing company called Books from Oasis and created a profile on Amazon. We then agreed to place our titles on Amazon through her imprint.”

Most of FB Libros’ catalogue is fiction in the form of historical novels with authors like Jason Maldonado (Verde que me muero) and Susy Calcina Nagai (Largo haiku para un viaje), a Venezuelan writer with Japanese ancestry. “They all deal with migration, not only of Venezuelans going abroad but also with foreigners settling in Venezuela.” The rest is aimed at different markets and is grouped by Michelena in a group called “out of catalogue:” titles like Fábulas de carne y hueso, by Cuban politician Manuel Felipe Sierra, and El arte de ser humano (en la empresa), by Raúl Baltar, former President of Spain’s Banco Exterior, are among their latest releases.

Their focus on foreign markets has paid off, aided by their social media strategy and the cross-posts on Michelena’s personal Twitter profile, which has more than 60,000 followers. However, he believes one of the problems for independent publishers is visibility: “It’s very hard to get newspapers, magazines and radio stations to mention your book. We’ve been saved, believe it or not, by bloggers. Most of them do a pretty good job in reading and reviewing the books. Books are one of those few things where word-of-mouth marketing helps a lot.”

The paper shortage has forced them to “marry” a printing house, but even there, prices can vary. “I went today to four different printing houses asking for a quote on a book we’re working on: all four gave me four totally different budgets for the same book.”

Michelena believes independent publishers have a steep road ahead. On one hand, fewer bookshops in and outside Caracas means that bookshelves are being dedicated to  stationary products and room is shrinking for books. On the other hand, the government is no longer purchasing books for public libraries: “Formerly, small publishers relied on the National Library’s purchases for central and regional libraries, and also on purchases by the Ministry of Education for public schools. That’s how small publishers were able to recoup their investment. These purchases were wiped out. Nobody knows now what the National Library is buying now.”

FB’s next projects include trying print-on-demand publishing through a print machine bought by a friend in Mexico and continuing work with the fiction catalogue. Curiously, he says, as FB Libros has tried to go global, as people from outside have requested their publishing services. “A Colombian wrote me from Spain asking us to copyedit and design his book. A Swedish man who works for an oil company in the North Sea found us and asked us to do all the publishing work on his manuscript. He then will print it there.”

Lugar Común: Looking for the Known and Unknown

Lugar Comun Libros 1A common feeling that fiction needs were not being met by Venezuelan publishers led Rodrigo Blanco, Luis Yslas and a group of friends to create Lugar Común Libros in 2011. “We felt there were lots of books in Venezuelan literature that deserved a republishing and that we needed to incorporate new voices.”

At the beginning, Blanco and his colleagues thought of setting up a literary magazine but later decided to go for book publishing. “We were sponsored at the start by a local printing house. I think this was good at the beginning, but soon we realized it was a mistake because back then we didn’t have the capacity to understand what truly means to have a publishing business in terms of production, costs and responsibilities.”

The catalogue covers mainly narrative and is betting on what Blanco calls “a daring, non-commercial literature, risky and experimental, which sometimes can pass off as literature for intellectuals.” However it also offers poetry, journalism, music, children’s literature and essays. The narrative series, the biggest so far, covers writers who have built their fame include, such as Juan Carlos Méndez Guedez, based in Spain, whose novel Los maletines was recently published by Siruela. Titles by Méndez published by LC include El libro de Esther, Chulapos Mambo and Arena negra (awarded the bookseller’s prize in Venezuela).

Others include Alberto Barrera Tyszka and Roberto Martínez Bachrich. Barrera, winner of the 2006 Herralde Novel Prize, was approached by LC to publish his poetry with them — work that has largely been overshadowed by his novels and soap opera scripts. “Being a book of poems, [La inquietud] has had a big success.” Martínez, on the contrary, is less known but has gained notoriety following his inclusion in the list of the “25 Best Kept Secrets of Latin American Literature” at the FIL Guadalajara for his novel Las guerras íntimas. “We ran out of the second edition. Maybe this was due to his inclusion at the FIL Guadalajara’s homage and that we also carried out a heavy marketing campaign on the novel.”

Lugar Comun LibrosAmong LC’s latest titles is their first translation from a foreign language: a Spanish translation of Terre des hommes, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, known popularly for The Little Prince, which was supported by a grant from the French Embassy in Caracas.

Still, like all Venezuelan publishers, they struggle with an inability to get paper. “Recently I was so desperate I had to call a friend in Bogota and ask him for paper. In the end nothing could be done. I even called some friends in Miami who were willing to sell me paper for US$25,000. Imagine that, in a country where there are practically no dollars on the market.”

Blanco believes Latin American publishers lack a thorough knowledge of the local market and that proper tools are needed if they really want to understand their market’s profile. “A few days ago I was reading an article by Guillermo Schavelzon on the job of the writer. He said that publishers in Europe and United States have access to Nielsen’s data on book sales, and argued that in Latin America not only it is very difficult to source this data.

However, Blanco is sanguine about the current resurgence of local independent publishing. “I truly believe that if independent publishers survive this crisis they will become the big Venezuelan publishers. Foreign publishers have already left the country or are in the brink of doing so: Random House Mondadori closed its Venezuelan office a while ago and Alfaguara [literary imprint of Santillana] has reduced costs to the minimum. The only big publisher with a constant presence here is Planeta.”

About the Author

Andrés Delgado Darnalt

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Andrés Delgado Darnalt is a Colombian journalist based in Bogotá, where he studied social communication at Javeriana University. He obtained his MBA from London School of Commerce-Cardiff Metropolitan University, and has studied at the Book Publishing Training Center. He has worked in events and public relations with the Bogotá International Book Fair (FILBO) as well as with other companies and public offices, and he has served as a project editor and consultant in digital and academic publishing.