A literary deficit
Brazil apart, publishers are struggling to persuade the growing middle class to read more books.
TINY fingers wiggle through the holes in the pages of “A Moverse” (“Let’s Get Moving”), a children’s picture-book that lets readers pretend their digit is a cat’s tail or penguin’s beak. While managers in suits talk print-runs and profits in one hall of the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the world’s biggest Spanish-language literary get-together, shrieks of excitement can be heard from young customers in the children’s area next door.
Illiteracy and poverty once denied the pleasure of reading to many Latin Americans. That should no longer be the case: a quarter of Mexicans born before 1950 are officially classed illiterate but only 2% of those under 30. And less than a third of Latin Americans now live below the poverty line, compared with half in 1990.
The newspaper business has taken note. Paid-for daily newspaper circulation in Latin America rose by 5% (21% in Brazil and 16% in Mexico) between 2005 and 2009, according to Larry Kilman of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Newspapers have won over young readers, says Mr Kilman. Argentina’s Clarín group, for instance, markets different titles to different age groups. Regional titles in Mexico’s drug-war hotspots have seen spikes in circulation, he adds (though they have also suffered violence from the mobs they expose).
In books, the picture is more mixed. Publishers are churning out more new titles than ever. Sales in (Portuguese-speaking) Brazil, the biggest market, are rising. On December 5th Britain’s Pearson (which owns 50% of The Economist) announced the purchase by its Penguin subsidiary of 45% of Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s most innovative literary publisher.
Things are less bright in the Spanish-speaking world. In Mexico and Argentina, Latin America’s second and third markets, book sales have been falling. Thanks to the “Twilight” vampire saga and a self-help series, Spain’s Grupo Santillana, the region’s biggest publisher, reports that its sales of titles aimed at teenagers have held up. But Mexico’s publishers’ association says that total sales last year were 139m copies, down by 12% from 2005. Many of these are textbooks, for which demand is pretty steady. But in the four years to 2009 sales of novels fell by 39% (to 8m) and of children’s books by 42%, to 13m. That was the year that recession whacked Mexico. With economic recovery, many publishers at this year’s Guadalajara fair, which closed on December 4th, report better sales.
The stagnation has deeper roots.