From the Ground Up: Inventing Mexican Publishing in 2013

While many BEA 2013 Conference sessions dealt with the familiar subject of how an established industry adapts to change, the recurrent issues in BEA 2013’s Global Market Forum on Mexico were a bit different. Unlike some industries that are “reinventing” themselves, Mexican publishing is a small trade community attempting to build a large and globally competitive industry—and consumer base—from scratch. The country’s GDP growth of 5.5% in 2012 and status as one of the fastest-growing providers of skilled tech jobs in the world all add up to unprecedented amounts of disposable income. Even more importantly, between 1990 and 2000, Mexico’s literacy rates for people between the ages of 10 and 15 went from around 12% to more than 90%. As this generation has reached adulthood, millions more literate people than ever before are wielding unprecedented spending power.

But as has been pointed out elsewhere, literacy is no guarantor of book consumption.  Such has been the case with Mexico, where the average adult reads fewer than two books per year. Alongside the new president, Enrique Peña Nieto‘s, call for a new overhaul of the system, many outside the educational sector, including publishers and arts-and-culture sectors of the government, are honing in on the nation’s Millennials in much the same way as literacy activists did in the 90s, hoping to “change [the nation’s] reading habits from childhood and from within schools,” says Ana Laura Delgado, Director of independent children’s publisher Ediciones El Naranjo. The mission to overhaul the way Mexicans consume books, says Felipe Rosete, Editor at Sexto Piso, won’t be effective if practiced “by government-implemented reading programs alone. A new reading culture depends on the publishing industry itself to use campaigns, affordable pricing, and activities that complement governmental programs.”

One example of a concerted focus on children’s books is the collaboration between publishers, booksellers, and the government to establish a children’s section in every Mexican bookstore, which Nina Alvarez Icaza of Fondo de Cultura Economica calls “one of the most important initiatives in recent years.” However, this example of one strengthened link in the supply chain points to the bigger gap that remains. As it is, an estimated 94% of Mexican municipalities have no significant sales outlet for books–making children’s sections or lack thereof a moot point. When asked what the biggest challenge is for book business in Mexico today, publisher after publisher answered “distribution.” The lack of options exists at every point of the supply chain, not just the endpoint: Diego Rabasa, an editor at Sexto Piso, points out that the scarcity of specialized book distributors and wholesalers within Mexico cramps the flexibility of business between publishers and booksellers, and Linda Goodman, president of The Bilingual Publications Co, a US importer of Spanish-language books, bemoans the lack of professional publicity outlets to learn about new releases.

Mexico’s anemic book supply chain is yet another corner of the industry where national educational policy has a major part to play. When speaking of “the Mexican book market” it’s common to add the caveat that one is speaking of the private book industry, producing some 165 million copies yearly, separate from the government-funded elhi textbook sector, which serves the nation’s 27 million K-12 students and almost doubles the count to over 300 million copies annually. All these books are not only produced but also distributed at the government’s expense, which some, like Ixchel Delgado Jorda, Managing Director of Libros para Imaginar, point to as a major factor in Mexico’s “wide, but not deeply developed book sector” and believe “leads to lack of points of sale.”  As it stands, the elhi market is Mexico’s most attractive aspect for major international publishers, says Felipe Rosete; with Santillana, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and others all doing millions of dollars of business in Mexico each year. The theory is that, if distribution of this most profitable wedge of the book market were contracted out to the private sector, there would be more incentive to build a book-specialized distribution channel with dedicated points of sale which, though buoyed by elhi sales, would also serve the trade market. The primary outlets that do exist, branches of the two major chain stores, Gandhi and Sanborns, have engaged in legal battles against the single-price law (“La Ley del Libro”) since it was passed in 2008, and independent publishers report that the law is infrequently enforced. Five years after the law’s implementation, independent bookstores continue to struggle and close across Mexico.

Beyond the sheer size of the task ahead of them, the greatest challenge for anyone wanting to do book business in Mexico, as summed up by Ixchel Delgado Jorda, is the strange mix of “state intervention on the one hand, and the lack of support and incentives for the development of national industry on the other, which is a constraint but also a challenge.” If governmental involvement has at times channeled away opportunity or been ineffectual, then the decentralization and privatization of book business might be the best hope to nurture a culture of reading across the entire country. “It is significant that the largest book fair for the Spanish-speaking market takes place in Guadalajara, Mexico and not…where the largest publishing houses exist. It’s a reflection of the dynamics of the Mexican book industry,” says Alberto Ruy Sanchez, Publisher of Artes de Mexico, a dynamic echoed by the fact that many of Mexico’s most influential new publishers exist outside of the traditional urban centers. Whether forming initiatives targeting the country’s youngest readers or taking the start of the book supply chain to more “provincial” parts of the country, for Mexican book business, the very beginning seems not only a very good place, but the only place to start.

(With additional reporting from Constance Sayre.)