The Argentine book market – past and future

Alejandra Rodríguez Ballester is a journalist and a literary critic. She writes for Ñ, the cultural magazine of Clarin newspaper.
According to the local publishing association Cámara Argentina del Libro, with a turnover of 600 million dollars, the Argentine publishing world has been self confident, but now the international financial crisis is bringing about a slowdown still difficult to measure. In December of 2008, publishing houses were worried and some of them planned to reduce around 15 per cent of new publications in 2009. Christmas sales didn’t grow according to booksellers’ expectations, remaining at the same level as 2007.With a tight network of bookshops and a literacy rate of 97.4 per cent, Argentina has the most developed and specialised publishing industry in southern Latin America. The Argentine book market is very complex, but at the same time, the book industry has a long publishing tradition and highly trained professionals. In the future, parallel to Latin America’s growing reading population, Argentina could expand to become an important production location for the entire regional publishing sector. Although, at the moment, the development of the publishing industry is tied to the echoes of global turmoil, Argentine publishers say they have no reason to panic as they are used to crises.

Quality, not quantity
After the economic local crisis in 2001 and 2002, the publishing sector has recovered surprisingly well and, in the last six years, has been able to record a growth of 42 per cent. In 2008, the number of new publications was at 19,414, which is 2.7 per cent less than the year before (19,954), although the numbers of total production increased remarkably: 81.8 million copies were registered in 2008, which is 15 million more than in 2007 when 66 million prints were produced, and 10 million more than in 2006 (71 million). But publishers believe that the Argentine book industry has reached a level where further changes will be more about quality than about quantity. When the dollar and the peso were linked in the 1990s, most books were imported, or were produced abroad. After the local crisis, the economic situation changed in such a positive way that Argentina has been able to develop into a book producing and exporting country, with 57 million dollars of sales abroad, a tendency which will most likely increase in the future. An example of this positive development is Ediciones de la Flor, an independent publisher founded in 1967, which has 1,000 titles in its complete catalogue and exports 30 per cent of its production to Mexico, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Argentina – a good place for publishing
One indicator of the vitality of the Argentine publishing industry is an increasing number of companies being founded. Several global players are represented in the Argentine market: Random House-Mondadori, who bought the regional publisher Sudamericana in the 1990s; the Spanish group Planeta; the Colombian Norma, or the Spanish group Santillana. There are also several small, prestigious publishers that cover niche areas disregarded by the big players. "Since 2002, 60 new publishing companies have been founded", states Daniel Divinsky, who manages Ediciones de la Flor and is a mentor to the young publishing scene. Besides other small and dynamic publishers that have established themselves over the past few years, such as Del Zorzal, Adriana Hidalgo or Katz Editores, new publishers have emerged in 2008, such as Eterna Cadencia, which has just been introduced onto the market and is headed by the distinguished publisher Leonora Diament (ex Norma), or Negro absoluto, which is devoted to crime fiction and is managed by the writer and TV journalist Juan Sasturain.

Impact of the global financial crisis
At the moment, small publishing houses are bravely facing the global economic crisis. "We reduced our publishing plans by 20%. That is not too much for us", says Fernando Fagnani, editor of the Spanish-Argentine Edhasa. Divinsky believes the crisis is worst for the big groups than for the smaller and flexible publishing houses. Jorge Vanzulli, Commercial Manager at Planeta, the largest publisher in Argentina, says the group’s Spanish head office "ordered a reduction of 15 per cent in new titles", but he discarded the need for massive layoffs: "Downsizing already took place during the 2002 crisis", he points out. You can also find editors, like Ana Cabanellas (Heliasta, Claridad) that maintain their plans and even start new collections as a way of reducing risk.

New readers, new growth
With a population of 39 million, of which 46 per cent claim they read four books a year (one book per quarter) while 52 per cent are non-readers, growth of the Argentine market depends on a conquista of new readers. It is surely an advantage that the Argentine society has such an appreciation for books. This was apparent in the great crowds at the book fair in Buenos Aires in 2008. Over one million people attended the public fair with 1,582 exhibitors. A survey conducted by the Office for National Media Communication revealed that women from economically advantaged circles and young people up to age 34 read the most. Despite their actual reading habits, Argentineans state that they buy about one book per month. The older they become, the more books they buy. Publishers believe that the expansion of the market is tied to the promotion of reading. In their opinion, this is the responsibility of the State, which already has launched several programmes via the Ministry of Education.
Another strength of the Argentinean market is the dense network of bookshops, which, according to the Cámara Argentina de Librerías, Papelerías y Afines (CAPLA), makes up a total of 660 shops. All publishers surveyed agree that the network of Argentinean bookshops is the best in all of Latin America, due to its extensive coverage and professionalism. There are six bookshop chains, the largest of which is Yenny-El Ateneo, with 33 branch offices. "The traditional bookshop is the most popular sales location", states Ignacio Iraola, Editorial Director at Grupo Editorial Planeta, who considers Internet-selling inferior, as the arrival of this trend in Argentina has been quite slow. The sale of books in supermarkets is similarly insignificant.

Digitisation is still in its early stages
About 28 per cent of readers claim that they use the Internet to research content for academic and informative purposes. One can see a certain tendency to use digital media when a practical goal is pursued or educational reasons are given.Some publishers, such as Leandro de Sagastizábal, from Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE), think it is important to prepare for the digitisation of books and to develop new forms of contracts and business plans. Others, such as Iraola from Planeta, think that it will take time for the eBook to find its way into the Argentinean market.
"We are not looking into the electronic book market enough and that is a mistake”, warns Ana Cabanellas of the publisher Heliasta. "We must be open to the digital world. We should allow the reader to buy 20 pages of a book to download, if this is his preferred way of reading", believes Alejandro Katz, the founder of the publisher Katz Editores, who offers his essays via Google’s book search. But most publishers believe that the greatest changes involving technology and reading habits will come with the younger generation. At the moment, books and bookshops still have very little competition in Argentina.

(Frankfurt 2009 Newsletter 2/2/09)