Skeelo, from Brazil, is ready to go international. The digital reading app was launched in 2019 and is already the third most popular reading app in Brazil. The platform comes prepackaged, at no extra cost, through mobile/cell phone networks and internet providers, is available in Brazil, and has 190 million users—12 million of whom read for five hours or more a month.

“Don’t tell me people don’t read in Brazil,” Rodrigo Meinberg, founder and CEO of Skeelo, says. “I have experienced all my life that once you solve the problem of access to the books through unconventional distribution channels, you can sell books to millions of disregarded readers.”

New sales channels

Meinberg has never believed the conventional wisdom that says Brazilians don’t read. He got his start in the 1990s as one of the pioneers who sold books packaged with newspapers. “We could sell eight million copies of a popular author like Paulo Coelho. It was several times more than it could sell in bookstores.”

He was also among those who sold books through Avon cosmetics sales reps, long a popular sales channel for publishers, as the reps lived in and traveled to remote parts of Brazil that had no bookstores. Of course, this was in the pre-digital era. Meinberg, alert to changes in the market, soon thereafter embraced digital distribution.

Skeelo is the result. In addition to working with mobile phone companies and internet providers, the platform has partnered with other firms as well, such as banks and highway toll collection companies. One of the most interesting partnerships is with car manufacturers who offer Skeelo as an integrated app in car entertainment systems, which makes it easy for commuters to buy and listen to audiobooks.

The brand has built a broad catalogue of e-books, audiobooks, and now its own concept, “minibooks,” that can be read in 15 minutes and are available through its app and online e-commerce platform. The catalog covers titles from the country’s largest publishers and includes the full range of typical genres you would find on competing platforms or in bookstores. Planeta, Globo, Companhia das Letras (majority owned by Penguin Random House), HarperCollins, Rocco—in all 8 out of 13 of the biggest publishers in the country have joined Skeelo.

Paucity of bookstores

The market for Skeelo has been ripe. Brazil has a paucity of bookstores, just one per 700,000 inhabitants; compared with one per 25,000 people in Spain and one per 100,000 residents in Argentina. Between 2018 and 2019, two of Brazil’s biggest book chains, Saraiva and Cultura, which then accounted for 40% of the physical book sales, went bankrupt, closing many locations. With the subsequent pandemic and boom in online bookselling, Amazon now accounts for 50% of book sales. Skeelo is offering publishers a new, key distribution and revenue channel.

“Our achievements in Brazil give us the strength and confidence to open in countries in the world where there also are millions of unsatisfied readers with poor access to books,” says Meinberg.

The publishing world in Brazil has welcomed Skeelo. It certainly has proven that smartphones can become a mass reading device, and that telcos and other big-user-base companies can enter the game of book distribution.

Trini Vergara is the publisher of Trini Vergara Ediciones in Buenos Aires.