What’s Going on in the Mexican E-Book Market?
So much of the “future of publishing” and “future of ebooks” discussion seems to me, as a long-time resident of the third world, to have a US/UK slant that might be valid and progressive, but can ignore unsung realities in other parts of the world, where reading and “books” and publishing can mean different things.
Since I have been living in Latin America, and working as a journalist and small publisher primarily in Mexico, as well as being an author and small publisher of print and ebooks “at large,” I’ll confine my remarks here to Mexico. A few unrelated anecdotes might hint at what I’m talking about.
– The first time I showed my Kindle to a bookseller in downtown Tijuana (he sells English and Spanish titles on the sidewalk) he had never heard of it, but immediately started thinking out loud. My favorite of his conclusions: “So paper books are going to be tossed away in the USA and I can get them cheaper to sell here.”
– I published a graphic book by a Tijuana artist. I was busily formatting it in my usual “Kindle uber alles” way when he brought me to understand that nobody in Mexico owns Kindles. But a lot of Mexicans, especially those with the taste and income to be readers, own iPads or other tablets. So I went to “ePub/SmashWords-friendly” formatting priorities. It’s kind of like ereading here has skipped ahead a generation. They never owned eInk readers and have been ready for color and apps all along. And the kids are dying to see it spread more to phones and glasses. A further twist, I had intended his “graphic short story” to be a $0.99 ebook loss-leader from the start, but ended up producing a paper version for $4.95 so I could get them to reviewers. He bought a dozen of them and sold them for an average of $8.95 in a matter of hours and ordered thirty more. Several local comix shops snapped them up to retail for twice what they sell for on amazon.com.
– Speaking of phones and Amazon, there is no reliable mail service in Mexico. So anything downloadable has more field than anything physical. This is very common throughout the free world. Furthermore, TelMex, the once-monopoly phone company (owned by Carlos Slim, often cited as the world’s richest individual, and sometimes as the most corrupt) was so unworkable that cell phones ate up the market. Any taco stand will have a cell phone. But there are few ebooks in Spanish for cell phones. Mail order is useless, bookstores are close to useless most places…but everybody has a phone.
– Only 3 percent of Mexicans read novels. A print run of 5,000 is impressive for national publishers. This is not uncommon in Central America and much of South Asia. But Mexicans who do read literature are very proud readers used to paying twice American prices from similarly corrupt, government-interfered publishers. The percentage of people in that readership with tablets is very, very high. Most coffee houses in Tijuana will have at least two pads visible at any time.
Okay, Mexico is a small country and nobody’s idea of a book marketing treasure chest. And one way you could read these little observations is as a colorful travelogue of lands where things are different. But it’s also a kind of “gateway country” to the Spanish-language reading market. Book publishing in Latin America and even Spain is a soft underbelly. And yet few are filling a wide, arms-reaching market there.
Mexico is also a gateway to First World technology. Typically scarce foreign gizmos are resisted by the masses but idolized by the young, who grow up to casually own and use them. But maybe not in the way we think they will or hope we will or bet money that they will.
If you’ll permit another random glimpse, in Cuba internet and emails are monitored and restricted by the regime and nobody can afford them anyway, so the main medium of communications for “underground” content or concepts is by duplicating USB memory sticks passing them from hand to hand. When I go there I always take as many as I can stash and they are gobbled up at once by people who don’t own computers. Pocket drives weren’t intended as “publishing” or social media, but they can do the job that more standard methods and products don’t.
I won’t attempt to generalize these vignettes from Mexico to the rest of the third world, but I get around a bit and feel that this sort of situation holds true more frequently than the model we generally address as understood or default when discussing ebook market and technology, which might also be a tricky thing to generalize. This may have nothing to do with US publishers’ marketing or production plans but I think it’s worth thinking about the idea that there are often other models in operation that we’re not aware of. We ought to keep in mind that we might not be on the only path, or maybe even the best one in the long run. There was a time when “publishing” meant certain models and nobody spared a thought for little clumps or geeks reading things off pdf and exe documents out there.
Aztec image via Shutterstock