Editor’s note: As in many retail instances in non-English-language markets, this Mexican startup has an English name. It turns out that Little Bookmates has big plans, already offering books for kids in English as well as Spanish, and anticipating the day when it can widen its reach to markets and families beyond Mexico. — Porter Anderson
By Adam Critchley
‘So That Children Become Reading Adults’Established in 2016, the Mexican online library Little Bookmates delivers children’s books to households at a rate of eight titles per month via courier. The initial dispatch of eight can then be exchanged for another round for a fee.
“It avoids accumulating books that may not be read again,” says company founder Ariadna Trapote, “and families can save between 40 and 80 percent of the cost of buying new books.
“We want to give people access to books and make reading to our kids something normal,” she says in an interview with Publishing Perspectives, “and so that children become reading adults.”
Earlier this year, the company was one of 11 Latin American startups to be chosen for the early-stage Mountain View-based accelerator and venture funding program 500Startups founded by Dave McClure and Christine Tsai in 2010 to form part of its 10th accelerator program—providing seed funding and mentoring to aid the company’s growth, and which Trapote says has been invaluable. “We would never have been able to pay for such mentoring,” she says about 500Startups, which has an office in Mexico City, as well as in San Francisco.
Little Bookmates chooses books for its customers using an algorithm designed by Trapote—she’s a mathematician–using a model that she says is inspired by the sharing concept behind such services as Storytel, Uber, and Airbnb. She also draws on her own experience of reading to her children.
“It’s part of this new trend of non-ownership,” she says, adding that the service also helps families and children learn to look after books, as when borrowing them from a regular library.
“And receiving books for just one month creates a sense of urgency,” Trapote says, “so the books get read. And with our system, children can read 100 books a year, which is way above the national average.”
Here’s a promotional video for the service posted in April.
‘I’m Not Sure More Bookstores is the Answer’
Since its incorporation, the company says it has loaned out 37,000 books, and has customers in 22 of Mexico’s 32 states. Books are delivered by FedEx. Users can see the books they’re to receive on a consumer dashboard on the site, enabling them to change the order in the event that a book due for delivery is not to their liking, or if their children have already read it.
Despite that online element of the ordering process, one tenet of the company’s concept, per the site’s promotional copy, is “Fewer screens, more books … Paper books are the best means to share time with your children, get to know them, and have fun with them.”
Like many readers and publishing professionals in Mexico, Trapote laments the market’s lack of bookstores, which total around 1,200, according to the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Editorial. That translates to roughly one bookselling outlet per 43,000 citizens,
Despite the government’s plans to increase that number, Trapote says she’s not convinced that that’s the best route to creating readers. Books are expensive, too, especially given that many children’s books are sent to Mexico by Spain-based publishers.
“It’s not that people don’t read in Mexico,” Trapote says. “The problem is that people don’t have access to books, and I’m not sure if more bookstores is the solution. The solution is placing good books directly into the family home.
“Parents often don’t know which book to choose, and when they choose badly they’re discouraged from trying again. And even a bookstore with great children’s books may not be a successful business.”
Little Bookmates buys directly from publishers, both large and independent, and that helps the independent houses, in particular, to boost distribution. Little Bookmates buys 15 to 20 copies of each book, with an eye to diversity. The company stocks around 15,000 titles available for lending.
“Publishers love us because we buy books,” Trapote says, “as do bookstores, and authors. We’re putting their books into people’s hands. Publishers contact us to ask our opinion about content and illustrations, because we’re in touch with their readers.”
The English Name: Ready for Expansion
Trapote says most books are loaned out multiple times. Each volume is covered in plastic to protect it and extend its shelf life. When returned, a book is cleaned and readied for the next loan.
“Publishers contact us to ask our opinion about content and illustrations, because we’re in touch with their readers.”Ariadna Trapote, Little Bookmates
“We have books that we’ve loaned out monthly for three years, and are in great condition,” she says.
If a family or child damages a book, they can purchase a new copy from the site.
The site also features books in English, and while currently only catering only to readers 12 and younger, there are plans to expand the catalog to include YA and adult titles and to widen the service internationally–which is a reason the company has its name in English. “Our mission is to create a world of readers, and that goes beyond Mexico,” Trapote says. “So we thought that when the time comes to expand, it will be more accessible if the name of the service is in English.
“Imagine if we lived in a society in which children read,” she says, “in which children grow up as readers.
“There would be so much more empathy. And we’d all be more capable of making rational decisions.”