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CULTURE | 22-01-2024 08:05

Is Argentina’s publishing industry at risk of extinction?

The abrupt fall of demand from the domestic market, disproportionate increases of the price of paper and fuel, deferred payments in a context that is virtually hyperinflationary, the opening of imports and books on sale, the possible repeal of the Law for the Defence of the Book Industry, a lack of state purchases… a potent cocktail is attacking the entire ecosystem of Argentine books.

If over the last few years making a book in Argentina was a very difficult enterprise, from now on, everything points in the direction of near unviability. 

Most publishers in the country — especially the smaller ones — agree that the nation’s new economic setting places them on the brink of collapse. Recent announcements may be market-friendly, as President Javier Milei says, but they are not book-friendly. And it makes sense. By appealing to the Aristotelian topoi of the more and the less, if they do not deal with food and hunger, why should they deal with books and that whole heap of publishers and booksellers who intend to keep their “caste privileges” and continue to be parasites of the State through ministerial purchases?

According to the libertarian worldview, books are just one more product, which should therefore only be governed by the laws of the market, like everything else. If the activity is not profitable, then let them produce incense or craft beer instead. The world we are heading towards perhaps does not need so many books, or so many writers. Paraphrasing Javier González Fraga’s celebrated phrase, perhaps they made the average employee believe that they could publish books or edit them, which turns out to be a populist illusion, a chimaera sustained by distorted prices and state oppression which affected us so much. 

Now we will soon have freedom, even if we have to pay a price. We will have freedom but we may not have books.

 

Figures and costs

Let us consider figures. After last December’s devaluation, which took the dollar to over 800 pesos, the price of paper took a huge leap. One struggles to find a close precedent. 

Some publishers say that printing-presses are giving them budgets with an 80-percent increase, or even higher. Carolina Rolle, from the Rosario-based publishing house Beatriz Viterbo, says that in October a 116-page book in a print run of 500 copies had a cost of 1,135 pesos – today, that same book has a cost of 2,270 pesos.

Pablo Gabo Moreno, from the Caleta Olivia publishing house, quotes a similar situation. On December 2, he was given a quote of 790,000 pesos for a print run. On December 13, he asked again and the price had already soared to 1,489,000 pesos. “I’ll take some time off until the end of the year and see what I decide, but I won’t be able to produce in these conditions,” he explained in an interview – words which are echoed by plenty of other publishers.

Juan Pampín, the president of the Cámara Argentina del Libro (Argentine Chamber of Books), explains that the cost of paper, which historically did not reach 35 percent of the industrial cost of producing a book, today already accounts for over 55 percent. “Basically paper mills, which are an oligopoly comprised by Celulosa and Ledesma, are raking in more than any of the players in the supply chain of the book industry,” he said.

The prospect of what is to come — and everyone agrees on this score — is catastrophic. It is difficult to think of a gloomier scenario. 

Yet it is not just about those companies. Enrique Ferraro, from the printing-press Tecnooffset, which works with many small publishing houses, offers a reminder that the national production chain has never managed to cover demand. Given the lack of paper that is produced, oftentimes printing-presses have no choice but to resort to the few suppliers that can import and set whatever price they want. “Either you buy it from them, or you don’t buy it from anyone at all,” said Ferraro. In favour of reform, he argues that “opening imports will limit local abuse and end the speculation of the few importers with access to the market.”

The problem is that one measure of that nature can be a pharmakon, that is, a remedy and poison at the same time, because in that setting there would be many publishing houses — especially those publishing children’s books — and they would choose to print in other countries such as China instead. The local graphic industry would suffer a decrease in demand, naturally. In addition, and a fact feared by several of the publishers we spoke to, an indiscriminate opening of imports would do what it always does: take its toll on the “motherland.” Containers full of books that are not always, as is usually said, a simple detritus of dubious quality. Even though there is some of that, the truth is proper commercial hardback editions — many of them literary classics — or the remainder of Spanish independent publishing houses do usually make it here. “I think something similar to what happened early in the 1990s in the Menem years is coming, when bookshops were filled with that residue from large markets, which ends competing for space in [local] bookshops,” Pampín said. 

 

Opportunity in export?

The outlook could not be more discouraging, although there are those who see a small opportunity in export. 

Pablo Braun, director of Eterna Cadencia, claims that “the positive within much of the negative is that exports will be easier, since when the dollar is at 800 [pesos per greenback] our books for importers in other countries are much better priced in dollars – and that will favour us publishing houses that do export.”

How many publishing houses export today in Argentina? According to the Cámara Argentina del Libro, the country has only 60 publishing houses exporting more than $10,000-worth a year and most of them have nothing to do with literature. A colourful piece of information is that over 35 percent of total book exports — US$5 million — comes from Asociación Casa Editora Sudamericana, linked to the Seventh Day Adventist Church — Christianity continues to be a profitable enterprise. 

Outside these numbers, there are small publishing houses importing via courier (a system which, in these cases, is borderline illegal), but they are such small parcels that they do not alter any equation. What’s more, as reminded by Pampín, we must take into account that “shipping costs in Argentina are well above 15 percent, when in the rest of the world they are at three or four percent.”

To sum up, exports do not seem like a big enough incentive, given the slump of the domestic market, a fact acknowledged by Braun himself, or in the face of increased costs. Let’s remember that, in addition to paper, fuel has also increased, which makes the equation substantially worse. 

Carlos Gazzera, from Córdoba-based publishing house Eduvim, explains that today the cost of freight drastically affects any attempt to be efficient, even on a regional distribution scale. “Shipping boxes from Córdoba to Rosario, or from Villa María to Córdoba, or Carlos Paz, has a very high cost for many publishers and they simply will not do it. We distributors who were operating somewhat regularly begin to have problems with transport today,” explained Gazzera.

 

Chains and laws

All of this, on the other hand, is in addition to two major points. One is that the large bookshop chains — Yenny, owned by the Grüneisen family; Cúspide, from Grupo Clarín — continue to liquidate stock at 90 days and that ends up ruining any potential chance of profit. 

With a projected monthly inflation of over 30 percent, it is impossible to reinvest the money they receive every three months into producing more books. That is why there are those resorting to a desperate strategy: they put books up for sale at a very high price initially so they do not sell any, meaning they would rather not sell until they gain back some certainty. That is the way things are. 

According to the Cámara Argentina del Libro, the country has only 60 publishing houses exporting more than $10,000-worth a year.

In the case of authors, the situation is even more ridiculous, because they collect royalties — if they do collect them — after six months or a year, depending on their contract. The possibility of making a living off writing has never been a more anachronistic discussion. Soon they will not even be able to afford an electricity bill, given the pittance received by writers via royalties.

That being said, the other key point jeopardising and challenging  the entire book ecosystem, is the possible repeal of the Law for the Defence of the Book Industry. The legislation, passed in 2001, establishes that publishers set the price of books for all points of sale, which prevents large spaces and larger chains, which naturally have more resources, from engaging in the perverse practice we have already seen in another countries: selling at a discount to destroy the competition, and then afterwards, increasing prices considerably.

In Britain, when the so-called Net Book Agreement (a fixed agreement for setting prices) was repealed, 500 independent bookshops closed. Deregulation did not bring healthy competition, but rather a Darwinian and ruthless struggle which did not result in the survival of the fittest — not  those who know the trade, but the most powerful, in that case supermarkets. An article from British newspaper The Guardian by Sam Jordison observes that following the price agreement’s repeal in 1997, “the market has narrowed and the shelf life of novels is much shorter ….“Statistics tell us that more books are published, but most of those are self-published. The real story of the industry is the slashing of lists, mergers, collapses, buy-outs, sackings and losses on a scale never before witnessed.”

 

Toxic cocktail

Given this possibility, Mónica Dinerstein, president of the newly formed Cámara Argentina de Librerías Independientes (Argentine Chamber of Independent Bookshops) says that she is still a bit “shocked” by what may come. If President Javier Milei’s so-called “Omnibus Law” is approved by Congress, the same thing that happened in England could happen here: a huge number of bookshops could disappear. “I don’t think it’s wrong that large chains exist, because we can all sell books, but if each one prices them as they wish and does what they want, we won’t be able to bear it,” she said in an interview.

An indiscriminate opening of imports would do what it always does: take its toll on the “motherland.”

Naturally, there is concern in other sectors too. It is a known fact that, if independent bookshops are the losers and close, those hundreds of small publishing houses which have disseminated much of the best Argentine literature of the last 20 years will also be lost and closed down (and thus authors and readers are the losers). 

The case of Sebastián Maturano, from Córdoba-based publishing house Borde Perdido, is similar to many others. “We distribute our books in independent bookshops, both small and medium-sized, and they’re the ones that allowed us to display our catalogues in their windows from the get-go,” he explained. “This was essential to us, especially when we first started and small bookshops in Córdoba at first, and Buenos Aires, Rosario, Salta and Mendoza after that, helped us get onto the circuit.”

As a result, the prospect of what is to come — and everyone agrees on this score — is catastrophic. It is difficult to think of a gloomier scenario. To sum it up, the toxic cocktail includes an abrupt fall of domestic market purchases, an excessive increase in the price of paper and fuel, deferred payments in an almost hyperinflationary context, the opening up of imports and books on sale, the possible repeal of the law for the defence of the book industry, and a very likely halt of state purchases and subsidies from the National Fund of the Arts. It’s a lot to take.

Perfil consulted the office of National Culture Secretary Leonardo Cifelli to ask whether there would be any cultural policy to promote the publishing industry. He provided no response or comment, and it is very likely one of those times when silence says it all.

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Gonzalo Santos

Gonzalo Santos

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