An Op-Ed in an Argentine journal this past week raised some issues and challenges about the future of the Argentine book market that were simultaneously well-considered yet full of misunderstandings about the publishing world.

The 45th Buenos Aries International Book Fair provided the backdrop to this piece – an event that, as the Op-Ed notes,

draws over a million visitors annually with an estimated nine million publications either on display or catalogued and yet, in the final analysis at any given moment, it is all about the unique interaction between one individual and a collection of pages, replicated countless times.

The fair is a showcase for a city which never fails to impress foreign visitors for its extraordinary density of bookshops (more than in all of Brazil, it is said) and yet it also forms part of the real world, with protagonists who must survive beyond the three weeks of the event until the next Book Fair.

All good so far. But the Op-Ed goes on,

No book can exist without a publisher and any book would be pointless without a reader – yet both publishers and readers risk becoming endangered species in today’s world.

Really? In which alternative universe is this happening?

First, let’s consider some numbers  the Op-Ed offers which are not in dispute here:

The problems of the publishing industry are both structural and cyclical. Even in the short term the decline goes beyond the business cycle – between 2016 (with negative growth) and 2017 (with positive growth) the number of books published fell from 63 million (with 52 million sold) to 51 million (with 39 million sold) despite overall economic recovery, falling further last year to 45 million amid the general recession. Devaluation has grossly inflated paper costs in particular…

I pause there to let those facts settle in. What comes next is where the problem lies. The Op-Ed goes on,

…But even with the cheapest possible raw material a grim present faces a direr future in the face of online competition – the threat posed to the publishing industry by the digital revolution should need no further explanation, and both publishers and readers need to start adjusting to the inevitable.

Wait, what? “The threat posed to the publishing industry by the digital revolution”?

This will be the same bogeyman that was conjured up in the Anglophone markets as this decade began, where digital was supposedly dealing mortal blows to the publishing industry – a faux narrative fed by the collapse of Borders, which actually had almost nothing to do with digital but provided nourishment for those with a perceived interest in the downfall of the traditional publishing model.

But here’s the thing. Back at the turn of this decade this faux narrative of the imminent demise of the old model was driven by real numbers. Ebooks were seeing double, even triple-figure growth and there was a frenzy of digital expansion driven by the Amazon Kindle store and the rise of self-publishing that meant the traditional gatekeepers could be by-passed for some. And there’s no question the Anglophone publishing markets went through a period of upheaval and uncertainty that still continues today.

But for all that, the publishing industry is not just still here, and in many ways stronger than ever, leveraging the many benefits of digital to bolster the traditional model that supposedly was on its knees.

Argentina faces no such disruption. There is no Kindle Argentina store and while ebooks and digital audio are available there is no comparable surge in interest such as to pose a threat to any publisher, let alone the entire industry.

But the Op-Ed is still intent on blaming digital for Argentina’s publishing woes, and predicting an even bleaker future because apparently digital is destroying the education sector too, and producing future generations who cannot read.

Modern technology is creating problems on the demand side as well as supply. Traditionally reading and writing have been the indispensable starting point for all education but PISA scholastic aptitude tests have shown that 52-53 percent of students completing secondary school do not understand what they read, never mind the numerous dropouts – they can fit the letters together to read the words but it goes no further. This functional illiteracy is far from incompatible with an advanced computer literacy – these youngsters usually know their way around tomorrow’s world but that is no joy for book-lovers.

Such muddled thinking understandably leads to a bleak conclusion, but let’s look at the reality.

Argentina is a nation of booklovers. Buenos Aries alone, as this post acknowledges, has more bookstores than Brazil. In fact Buenos Aries is the bookstore capital of the world.

Those bookstores didn’t get there by chance. They arose to meet demand.

The annual Buenos Aries International Book Fair has to turn away visitors every year because 1.2 million is as many as the venue can hold.

Savour that figure a moment. 1.2 million visitors to a book fair in Argentina.

And yet, no question, the Argentine publishing industry is struggling. And one reason was laid out in the Op-Ed. Rising paper prices, partly a global issue, made worse in Argentina thanks to local conditions.

But digital isn’t the cause of this problem. Rather it is a solution.

Not that Argentina’s publishing should abandon print, of course. That hasn’t happened anywhere else, and for the foreseeable future won’t happen.

But digital can reach Argentine readers in ways that print cannot. Argentina has 41.5 million people online, and while not all of them will want to read, let alone read on their smartphones or tablets, it’s a safe bet many will. That’s a huge market to be ignoring.

At which point the Luddite element will rightly argue that if people want to read they will go to a bookstore and buy a “real” book.

All true, but since when was it the role of publishers to dictate where and how readers may consume books?

Come to that, since when was it the publisher’s role to limit the reach of their frontlist and backlist titles, to the detriment of both themselves and their authors?

Among the many lessons to be learned from the Anglophone markets digital experience are that:

  • Digital revitalize the backlist, making books available on demand to readers in a way that no bricks and mortar store can match.
  • Digital means books can be offered at competitive prices because there are no printing, warehousing and distribution costs and no remaindered titles to account for.
  • Digital means anyone anywhere in the country can instantly buy and be reading a publishers’ book.
  • Digital opens up new consumption and marketing models impractical or impossible with print: subscription, digital audio, sachet marketing (selling books chapter by chapter), offering first in series free, etc, etc.
  • Digital means the entire world is our potential market, not just however many bookstores there are in our country.

That last point is an appropriate place to end this counter-rant to the Op-Ed.

Because Argentina is a Spanish-speaking nation, which means that even before we begin to entertain the opportunities translations bring in a global book market where there are 4 billion people online, there is already a potential online Spanish-language market across Latin America, the USA, Europe and the diaspora that runs to 338 million people.

With the traditional model there was little chance of any but the elite top-selling titles from Argentina being available simultaneously to consumers in Spain, the USA, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic… With digital the big question is why it isn’t already happening.

Far from being a threat to publishing, digital is publishing’s biggest opportunity since the printing press was invented.

Thankfully publishers in Argentina and elsewhere have mostly not fallen for the faux arguments of the Op-Ed piece and are at least looking at the digital options with an open mind.

But as we prepare to start the next decade there is an urgent need to embrace fully the digital opportunity, not to replace the traditional publishing model but to strengthen it and bring a twentieth century industry into the twenty-first century.

For further discussion on the Argentine and Latin America digital opportunity:

40% of Argentines read a book last year. Only 7% read an ebook. But the future is digital

But do bear in mind this is not just about Argentina. Digital presents a global opportunity that many publishers have yet to wake up to.

That will all change in the next decade.