BUENOS AIRES -- Argentina's capital is one of the planet's great book-loving cities -- UNESCO named it 2011's World Book Capital -- and its annual Feria del Libro, or book fair, the largest in the Spanish speaking world, is one on the fall's biggest social events.
As always, locals stood in long lines to enter this year's 39th edition, which ran from late April to mid-May, eager to peruse the publishing house and bookstore stalls and crowd the lecture rooms that cover 490,000 square feet of La Rural, a sprawling convention center and livestock show ground owned by the country's ranchers union.
But what will happen to Buenos Aires's book fair as the world goes digital? And, why hasn't the digital book revolution caught on in Argentina? Already, some 28 percent of books sold in the U.S. are digital, according to Bowker Market Research. But in Argentina, a tech-savvy and fairly wealthy country, e-books nonetheless still make up a mere 1 percent of book sales. Indeed, only two of the book fair's approximately 450 stalls -- Grammata and BajaLibros -- were dedicated to digital books, and in a space dedicated to digital publishing, a handful of Kindles were chained to a table like expensive, rare animals.
"The e-book market in Argentina is just emerging. Despite being an advanced country in terms of technology, we're fourth or fifth in Latin America, behind Brazil and Mexico and close to Chile and Colombia," says Gustavo Canevaro, president of Fundación El Libro, the organization that puts on the fair. "To be honest, we've had the same few digital books stands for the last two or three years. It's very stable because there is no market. It's more of an investment in the future."
The e-book site BajaLibros, with some 50,000 titles, is one of the few digital markets of any weight in Argentina. The business has been coming to the fair for three years, says production coordinator Mariano Rojas, and acceptance has been slow. "The first year, people came up to us as if we were the odd bird of the fair, almost with a little fear," he says, sitting in the company's sparsely populated stand. "The second year, they built their confidence. And this year, they're looking for deals and discounts."
Down the aisle in a similarly unpopulated stand, Grammata sells Papyre e-ink readers and digital books. The general manager of the Argentine branch of the Spanish company, Sergio Vazquez, says that Grammata introduced its e-ink readers to Argentina in 2010, the first company to do so (some three years after the Kindle launched in the U.S.); it began selling e-books a year later. "Others have been coming in to the market," he says, "but there are still very few of us out there."
The lonely state of BajaLibros and Grammata begs the question of why highly literate Argentina is so far behind other countries. Fundación El Libro head Canevaro notes that Argentina has a vibrant network of new and used bookstores, especially in Buenos Aires. But unlike in Japan, where there is a cultural prejudice against digital books, Argentines are not philosophically against the idea.
Instead, economic policy is the main culprit slowing digital book adoption. In Argentina, a mixture of high import taxes and a protectionist industrial policy means that technology companies often have to open factories in the country if they want to sell their goods there. Amazon and Apple are almost nonentities in Argentina (Apple's manufacturer Foxconn decided to build iPads in Brazil, not Argentina) because of this, something that hampers the market in e-book readers.
Companies that try to import technology goods often see their products stopped at the border, further limiting the supply of e-book readers. That's the case with Grammata, says Vazquez. "We've haven't been able to import our e-readers for four months," he says. "We're here at the fair and we can't sell even one because we don't have any." He says the readers are supposed to finally arrive in a week.
The upshot of these policies is slow adoption and high prices, as Argentines regularly pay twice as much for technology as in neighboring countries.
With no policy changes expected from the government, the Argentine e-book market is expected to continue growing slowly. Vazquez estimates that digital books will make up 2 percent of the market in 2013, and that it will take five to seven years to get anywhere close to where the U.S. is today.
That doesn't seem to bother the 1.1 million who showed up to browse book stalls and listen to speeches from writers like Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee. And without a great public outcry, it seems unlikely that the Argentine book fair will be a digital affair any time soon.
"Five years from now," says Fundación El Libro head Canevaro, "it will be much the same."
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Photos from Feria del Libro and Ian Mount.