BUENOS AIRES – Imagine a man waking up after a deep seven-month sleep and taking a walk around Argentina’s capital. Seeing everyone around him wearing masks and finding messages about the coronavirus wherever he turns would be quite a shock.
By contrast, if that same individual enjoys literature and stops by his favorite Buenos Aires bookstore, he would find that the selection of titles on the shelves would be practically identical to what existed back in March.
Having already been in sharp decline for nearly four years, Argentina’s publishing sector suffered a further steep collapse due to the pandemic. In the first four months of 2020, the number of books published was down 71 percent from the same period of 2016, the year in which the crisis in that industry began.
“We think this pandemic is going to shrink our market another 30 or 40 percent more than we had previously thought. We’ll have to wait until year’s end for the figures, but it’s going to be difficult to recover,” said Martin Gremmelspacher, president of the Argentine Book Chamber (CAL).
This reality is partly attributable to the imposition of pandemic-triggered lockdowns at a particularly delicate moment for Argentina’s economy, which has been in recession since mid-2018.
Only 500,000 books were published nationwide in April, down from 5.8 million in the same month of 2019, a plunge in output that CAL described in its latest report as “historic.”
The pandemic furthermore struck when that industry was showing some signs of improvement due to the government’s move to purchase thousands of books from publishing firms as part of an ambitious reading-promotion project.
But the impact of that initiative has done little to mitigate the massive collapse this year.
Six months after the crisis began, and with most bookstores and publishing companies now open, “clearly a little bit more is being published,” Gremmelspacher said, though adding that the situation is still bleak.
Sharing that assessment is Enzo Maqueira, an author and founding member of the Union of Argentine Writers.
“There’s a slight reactivation. The thing is that one of the biggest problems for Argentine books is that the cost of paper is in dollars and we already know about the problem of the dollar in Argentina,” which has soared relative to the peso in recent years.
“There’s a basic issue: more and more expensive books and lower and lower salaries. What do you do with that?” Maqueira said.
With these dark clouds hovering overhead, publishing companies have opted to reorganize their catalogues, taking the least possible risk with what they publish and putting off many new releases until next year.
Meanwhile, publishing companies and bookstores alike have recently made a big push toward e-books, a format previously unexplored in the South American country: according to CAL’s figures, 63 percent of newly published books in April were digital, up from 15 percent a year earlier.
As much as the publishing companies have suffered, the biggest victims of this new reality have been writers, the vast majority of whom cannot live from the publication and dissemination of their work.
“One in 100 can say they can, but I talk with people who sell a lot and you’d think they live from their books alone and they don’t. It’s a big country for reading, very culturally inclined, but one in which the market and purchasing power are very small,” Maqueira lamented.
Looking ahead to 2021, Gremmelspacher says he expects publishing firms will remain very risk averse in a market environment riddled with uncertainty.
For its part, the Union of Argentine Writers is looking to chart a new path by advocating for a law to create a National Book Institute, Maqueira said.
The author stressed the need for a clear hierarchy in an industry that he says is disorganized and squandering opportunities.
“We need to organize it and we believe the bill for the creation of a National Book Institute could begin to rectify this situation somewhat,” he said.