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The story goes back to September 2011, when Argentine customs officials delayed almost a million books, magazines and serial publications in the port of Buenos Aires. Each year, 78 million copies of books are imported into Argentina, representing both titles published by foreign companies, and those printed outside the country by Argentine publishers for economic or quality reasons. The measure, though temporary, was received with a gasp by the local industry and importers alike. Being the written word what it is, and although Argentineans are enjoying the longest period of freedom of speech in their bicentennial history, fears of censorship arose and were echoed by the press.
The halt, apparently, was used by government officials to switch to new rules — everybody who imports books to Argentina should export the equivalent from there, or agree to pay compensation to the treasury. The books were eventually liberated from customs, but the secrecy surrounding negotiations only contributed to a watchful mood among publishers and importers. Argentina is second only to Mexico in absorbing the 20% of Spain’s book exports, and no doubt Antonio María Ávila, who had commented earlier in 2011 that exports were the natural answer to the Spanish deep crisis, felt that their interests were in jeopardy.
Gabriela Adamo, talking to El País, said that the FGEE “represented the Spanish industry” with their stand on the Fair. “They used to bring many publishers, distributors and booksellers that do business not only with their Argentine colleagues, but also with other Latin Americans,” she added. Adamo thinks that the measures announced by the Secretary of Commerce, together with the deep economic crisis in Spain conspired against the general interest. “Trade relationships are a long-term endeavor; they are like drops that slowly fill the glass. To discontinue this flux in such a harsh way was not very smart. We offered financial solutions [to the FGEE] but their position was strong. Nevertheless, plenty of Spanish publishers and distributors are coming on their own,” she said.
The difficulties ailing the Spanish book industry started well before the global meltdown induced by the subprime crisis and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Sales of print books have been declining steadily in Spain since 2007. The more recent digital disruption and the arrival of frightening foreign players like Google or Amazon, seen as alien to the core business, haven’t helped lift spirits. On the other hand, Argentine publishers and printers see the situation as an opportunity to regain the supremacy they used to enjoy in the Spanish book world until they lost it to Spain in the mid-70s, when a dictatorship languished there and a murderous one took root in Argentina.
Protectionist policies like those that momentarily stopped a million publications at Argentine customs might have been welcome had circumstances been different, but reality is stubborn and theories don’t always produce the effects they were meant to. Printers don’t have enough manufacturing capacity, machines are old, prices are high and quality is often lacking. Small to medium-sized publishers, who used to print their books abroad and don’t have the power to increase their exports, have seen how big houses with headquarters in Spain occupy all the productive capacity of local printers. These smaller players lose their ability to bring their titles onto the market on time.
The substitution of imports does not work the same way in the consumer goods market as in the dainty ecology of the printed word. Horacio González, director of the Biblioteca Nacional, wrote recently: “There’s a problem with our trade balance and we are at the starting point of a discussion about the necessity that the Argentine graphic industry expands and offers better options and qualities. But books are not appliances, each of them is irreplaceable, one title does not stand-in for another. Hence, these restrictive customs measures, whose economic weight is so insignificant while their cultural weight is so heavy, can be reconsidered.”
Adamo does not fear that the absence of the Spanish federation would detract the allure of the Fair, which expects more than 1 million visitors this year and features the first-ever Tools of Change Latin America, the world-class professional conference much awaited in the region.
“The Fair is blooming,” she said to Publishing Perspectives (which produces this newsletter through the financial support of the La Fundación El Libro in Argentina, which also supports the Buenos Aires Book Fair). “We are succeeding in creating a conversation throughout the region, promoting collaboration among our industries and spreading our writers’ renown across the continent. One of our goals is that a good Chilean author does not need to be published in Barcelona to be read, lets say, by Colombian readers,” she adds, and stresses that 2012 will be the first year that Conaculta (the powerful and very active Mexican Council for Culture and the Arts) is coming to Buenos Aires with its own stand and a full program of activities.
Despite Avila’s decision, several Spanish publishers will have their own stand in the Fair, like Alfaguara, Random House Mondadori and Planeta. Official trade delegations from Chile, Brasil, Venezuela, Uruguay, Ecuador and Cuba will add to the Latin American flavour of the event. Countries from outside the region, like the important US delegation, Germany and Italy will participate as they always have done.
If any confirmation was needed that Argentina and Latin America are desirable book markets, the presence of Amazon would be enough. Fernanda Rosas, a senior Amazon executive with eight years in the company, arrived in Buenos Aires in March to open the offices of Amazon Argentina. Her schedule is a crowded one for the BABF, where she plans to have meetings with almost 400 publishers from the region.