At this year’s Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL), which was held November 27–December 5, two recently founded Mexican publishing-related associations worked to further establish their credibility within the international publishing community. The Liga de Editores Independientes (LEI), or the League of Independent Publishers, and the Red de Librerías Independientes (RELI), or the Independent Bookstores Network, were established in 2019 in response to growing pressure from larger publishers and bookstore chains, and both found themselves essential to serving their communities through the challenges of the pandemic.
Like independent publishers elsewhere in the world, small presses in Mexico mold their identities by publishing careful selections of books, often committing to little-known or up-and-coming authors. But this work has never been easy, especially in the shadow of publishing conglomerates.
In 2019, Mexico City’s Ministry of Culture canceled El Gran Remate de Libros (the Great Book Sale), one of the most important consumer book fairs there, which prompted a group of independent publishers to discuss organizing an alternative fair and led to the creation of LEI. At FIL this year, the group, which comprises 13 publishers, including Canta Mares, Palindroma, and Nitro Press, presented itself as a collective for the first time, opting to exhibit together.
Alejandro Zenker, publisher of Ediciones del Ermitaño and a founding member of LEI, emphasizes that one of the top priorities for the organization and for independent publishers in general is fostering “bibliodiversity.” The goal, he says, is to maintain a dynamic ecosystem that makes available the widest variety of writing on the widest variety of subjects—not just books that have potential for commercial success.
Zenker acknowledges that the pandemic brought changes. “Going virtual brought a series of collateral benefits,” he says, “such as the new ability to regularly communicate with and sell books throughout Mexico. On the other hand, there was the partial or total closing of bookstores, which impacted the bottom line. Still, facing a situation as difficult as the one we are living today has been more bearable in company than in solitude.”
Zenker is optimistic that the market will embrace more books from independent publishers, despite the fact that a small number of large publishers produce the majority of titles and do the most promotion.
Also established in 2019, RELI currently has 40 members that have banded together to establish best practices for smaller bookstores. The organization was founded to represent “real booksellers—those who know and feel their books,” says Claudia Bautista, president of RELI and CEO of Hyperión Librería, a store in Xalapa, Veracruz.
Mexico’s bookstore scene is dominated by a handful of large chains, including Librerías Ghandi, Librerías Gonville, Librerías el Sótano, and Librerías Fondo de Cultura Economica, while Amazon is the clear leader online. At the start of the pandemic, many indie bookstores found themselves especially vulnerable as most lacked online presences. “We were at a big disadvantage,” Bautista says.
With support from Librerías el Sótano, RELI was able to launch the website libreriasindependientes.com.mx, which serves as a collective online retailer that allows consumers to buy books and receive deliveries from stores of their choice. “It was important for us to contribute to the health and vitality of our overall bookselling community,” says Fernando Pascual, director of strategic planning at bookstore chain El Sótano, explaining why the retailer teamed with the association.
Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, among the largest publishers in Mexico, also offered assistance to bookstores, giving them more time to make payments. And it’s working on a plan to get numerous stores connected with Metabooks, the metadata and database service, and possibly to offer drop-shipping services for indie bookstores that support e-commerce.
“We are still working on these ideas and hope to enact several of them in the next year,” said Roberto Banchik, CEO of PRHGE México, adding that overall sales for the company had only returned to pre-pandemic levels in July.
Book sales in Mexico dropped 25% in 2020, from $525 million in 2019 to $396 million, according to the National Chamber of the Mexican Book Industry (CANIEM), which released the statistics during FIL. One notable change was a spike last year in e-book sales, which rose to $17 million, accounting for 4% of overall book revenue, up from 1.6% in 2019. CANIEM estimates sales for 2021 will reach $560 million, a jump of 41.7% from 2020 and 6.8% from 2019.
That said, many publishers believe CANIEM’s figures are distorted. The belief is that some sales, including those made through Amazon, which now accounts for as much as 50% of revenue for some publishers, are not captured by CANIEM’s reporting methodology.
Demand grows in the U.S.
The market for English-language content is growing in Mexico, and more than 12.5 million English-language books were sold there in 2020, according to CANIEM. Likewise, in the U.S., the market for Spanish-language books continues to be on the upswing, according to Alex Correa, president and CEO of Lectorum Publications, a New Jersey–based publisher and distributor focused on Spanish-language books. “I’ve said it time and time again, but this boom in demand for Spanish-language material is happening all over the United States, largely driven by the establishment of more dual-language schools,” says Correa, who was at FIL. “I anticipate that, should the Biden administration implement funding for universal pre-K, this market will grow even further.”
Of course, Lectorum is not immune to the effects of lockdowns and supply chain issues. “We saw our sales drop as much as 50% in the second quarter of 2020 compared with 2019, and 30% overall for 2020,” Correa says. “But since February of this year, they have fully recovered, and so far 2021 has been the best sales year we’ve ever had.”
América Gutiérrez Espinosa is news director of PW en Español in Mexico.