Luiz Schwarcz, CEO of Penguin Random House-owned Companhia das Letras in Brazil, has published a blog post on his company's website pleading for people buy and give books as gifts this holiday season. It has gone viral, making the rounds of publishing circles around the world.
His "Love Letter to Books" notes that Brazil's book industry is facing an especially difficult moment, with two of the country's most prominent bookstore chains—Saravia and Livraria Cultura—filing for bankruptcy protections last month. Book sales have also taken a hit in the country, falling roughly 40% in the past few years. In November, Saraiva closed 20 bookstores in the past few months, while in September Cultura closed all but one of the 17 branches of the retailer Fnac it had acquired just last year.
Schwarcz, who is among the best known Brazilian publishing figures around the world, wrote: "The cascade effect of this crisis is still incalculable, but already frightening. ... I went through one of the worst moments of my personal and professional life when, for the first time in 32 years, I had to lay off six people."
In the note he implored his publishing partners to help prop up the bookselling and publishing ecosystem until the crisis passes. "The larger publishing houses are naturally the bookstores' major creditors, they carry the heaviest financial weight. However, we have the means to survive this crisis: the partners of the leading publishers have the financial personal capacity to invest in [the bookstores], and many of us not only want to save our enterprises, but are idealistic at heart, and extremely protective of our authors and readers."
This is generous of Schwarcz, considering Saraiva, in particular, is a worrisome case and owes more than $171 million in debt to creditors, including $4.7 million to Companhia.
The letter then points to the social media marketing campaigns that were integral to this year's presidential election in Brazil, one that saw controversial right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro win the top job, as a possible model to help motivate the market.
"The solidarity networks that formed during the electoral campaign are perhaps a good example of what could be done for the book today. Letters, Whatsapp messages, emails, social media posts and videos, produced with sincerity and an open heart, rallying around fellow bookworld stakeholders, especially its more fragile players, are more than just welcome now: they are indispensable. What we need at this juncture, among other things, are love letters to books."
For its part, Companhia das Letras has also tried some new promotions this holiday season. It is participating in more local book fairs and will soon launch several new bike-powered bookmobiles in the cities of São Paolo and Curitiba.
As reported by PublishNews, Schwarcz isn't alone in his efforts. Shortly after Companhia's blog post was published, Marcos da Veiga Pereira, president of SNEL—the National Union of Book Publishers—launched a promotional campaign under the hashtags #desafiodaslivrarias, #comprelivros, and on social media. His request is straightforward: go to a bookstore, buy a book, challenge your friends to do the same thing and post on social networks.
While these efforts at promotion are genuine, not everyone is pleased. Small booksellers in particular have been critical of Schwarcz's letter noting that Companhia is advocating for chain booksellers when it is the independent booksellers who have been loyal, long-term advocates for the publishing house. Livraria da Travessa, an indie bookseller with nine stores in Rio and São Paolo, notes that, contrary to the trend, the firm is "up to date" with its payments and plans to open two more branches next March.
On a final note, in response to the crisis, the government is considering implementing a fixed book price law, a topic that has been under discussion for several years now and continues to divide the publishing community.
This article was updated with further information on December 12.