The annual Buenos Aires International Book Fair (Feria Internacional del Libro de Buenos Aires) always adds liveliness to the nation’s capital. Last week, the three-week literary fest came to an end, but as always, the event produced impressive numbers: 1.245 million book-lovers passed through the doors of La Rural.
Nevertheless, those numbers were an 80,000 dip from last year’s record numbers. Perhaps the novelty of post-pandemic book interactions has worn off, returning Book Fair attendance back to its normal visitation range? Or perhaps the insidious effects of economic crisis and inflation have seeped into every aspect of Argentine life, and the feria is no exception.
“The book has suffered from the effects of the economy,” admits Fabián Narvaja, the owner of Colihue Editions, as he mans his publishing house’s stand at the fair.
Costs are up across the board, eating into profit margins and forcing prices up. The INDEC national statistics bureau reported hikes of 12.8 percent and 128.7 percent year-on-year in consumer prices for books, newspapers, magazines, and other paper-based publications within the Greater Buenos Aires region.
“It is very upsetting to have to constantly be changing the prices of the books, but the prices of the books are like the price of bread, are like the price of food, clothing – everything,” says editor Bibiana Schiavone of Yaestiempo, a small Argentine publishing company.
The increase in book prices is primarily led by a surge in the price of paper. The Argentine Book Chamber (Cámara Argentina del Libro, CAL) reports a 150 percent increase in the price of construction paper and a 300 percent increase in the price of illustration paper for book covers and children’s books over the past year.
“We are living in a situation where the cost of paper varies permanently, the dollar varies permanently, and so printing is very expensive,” Schiavone explains.
The price surges coupled with paper shortages has left smaller publishing companies to deal with unpredictable and unmanageable raw material costs. CAL has, in part, attributed those surging prices to the oligopolistic nature of the paper market. The price of paper rose 7.2 percent in April, according to INDEC.
“The axis of the problem is the concentration of paper production. There are two manufacturers and three importers, in total there are five large companies that monopolise paper. In addition, there is an abusive situation for both the distributors and the paper manufacturers, and clearly there is an absence of the State here,” Martín Gremmelspacher, president of CAL, told elDiarioAR.com in a recent interview.
Raw materials now make up more than 50 percent of the overall cost of a book, a 15 to 20 percent increase from the historical share, according to CAL.
“We get to the point where we don’t know if it is convenient to sell or not,” explains Laura Eleusippi, from the Editorial Stadium publishing house.
The Argentine Book Chamber says the status quo is endangering small and medium publishing houses and publications, posing a real threat to “market that is increasingly impoverished in terms of bibliodiversity since editorial plans are cut and print runs are limited.”
The book-lover’s resilience
Price increases have posed a challenge for book-lovers and their shrinking wallets.
“Salaries don't grow as fast as inflation, so it's not always easy to spend money on books,” Jorge Gutiérrez Brianza, Commercial and Operations Director at the Fundacion de Libros, explained in an interview.
“When there is a crisis, and in Argentina we're always in crisis, the first things that people stop consuming are entertainment: movie theatres, restaurants, and books,” Gutiérrez Brianza continued.
Yet, despite these barriers, the Argentine population has an inexplicable, indefatigable love for the physical book.
“I understand that people here [in Buenos Aires] prefer paper. They prefer books. They prefer the physical rather than the digital,” detailed Gabriel Gutiérrez, an executive with Dial Book.
“There is a very long and traditional history about not only reading, but also about publishing. I mean, there are, in Argentina, more than 300 publishing houses,” Gutiérrez Brianza added.
The popularity of the Feria de Libro exemplifies this culture. In the professional days alone, the fair sold 30,000 kilos of physical books to local companies and 12,000 to foreign buyers, a roughly 20 percent increase in sales from the previous year.
“The fair is extremely important for publishers, for everyone, because there is a significant amount of people who come wanting to buy books to read, to learn about, to discover, so it is an important way of selling, especially since we are a small publisher. We are not in bookstores, so the sales at the fair are very important,” Schiavone explained.
Some publishing houses, like Gargola Ediciones — which offers a range of literature from across genres, including comics and fantasy — have not experienced any significant shift in sales because the decrease in demand from the Argentine market has been supplemented by international buyers.
“There are many people who come from other countries to buy here because it is very cheap. A book that costs US$5 here, you can sell it for US$25 in any other country, or US$50, or more, so it sells just the same,” said Ian Balistrieri, one of the publisher’s employees.
While Argentina’s love for literature and the physical book has kept the market alive, the sales platform for many companies changed from in-person to digital during the pandemic. Small publishing companies in particular have benefited from the exposure provided by online sales.
“During the pandemic, the only way to sell was online with home delivery and this in some way helped people find us, through searches for specific material on the Internet or on YouTube,” Schiavone explained.
“There was a good impact, because sales increased from the virtual,” the expert continued.
Some companies even noticed a trend in the preferences of young readers.
“Everything was so scary and I think they were tuned into that quite a bit, so many young people turned back to paper,” Bárbara Cattaneo, from small publisher Dickens, explained.
Digital purchasing habits are egged on post-pandemic by transportation costs, which have increased by 93.5 percent in the last year alone according to INDEC.
“After the pandemic, some returned to their old habits of ‘I want a book, I go to the bookstore,’ but a large percentage stayed in online shopping” said Silvia Peralta, from Quiosquito De Libros.
For some houses, digital content has become serious competition for the printed tome.
“The book now-a-days, physical books, complete with not only digital books, but also with courses, online courses, with PDFs, with a lot of digital content that is not necessarily a book,” Eleusippi explained.
Her small publishing house, which focuses on physical education, found that the pandemic reshaped the relationship people have with learning processes by prioritising the digital.
“It’s been quite challenging for printed books because it doesn’t make any sense to be raising prices when people can maybe watch a video for free,” Eleusippi stated.
Given the influx of digital competition and the rising raw material prices, printing is no longer practical for Editorial Stadium. The publishing house, like many others in similar educational niches, is considering a transformation to the digital medium.
“Going digital, forces us to lower our income because we have to charge an average, what Amazon says. There are standards and we have to meet them. But, on the other hand, the market amplifies. We are able to reach the Spanish-speaking market,” Eleusippi explained.
Digital books are typically 40 to 60 percent cheaper than paper books in Argentina according to Libranda’s Digital Book Annual Report, if they follow the trend, this could mean a significant dip in per-book income for the publishing house.
Ultimately, the act of transitioning into a digital medium will mean more than simply publishing a digital copy of their books. The company hopes to eventually create products that match the multimedia learning style of the digital era.
“We are right now considering how to approach this, acknowledging that learning nowadays is not only about reading a book, but also interacting with the teacher and maybe watching a video and maybe also taking an exam, after reading a chapter. It’s more like an integrated process of reading, asking questions, and then getting answers,” Eleusippi concluded.