The Mexican book market is characterized by government involvement, both as publisher and book buyer. Which is why a major change in the country’s command, like the one represented by Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who took office in December of last year) can significantly affect the book industry. Ahead of the 2019 London Book Fair, Carlo Carrenho caught up with Fernando Esteves, Managing Director of Ediciones SM in Mexico, to talk about the state of the Mexican book business.

How do you see the Mexican economy in 2019?

This year will be atypical until the new government settles in. That said, the most optimistic forecasts expect the economy to grow just below 2%. Public expenditure is one of the main engines of the Mexican economy, and the new government will have to juggle two contradictory goals: the fiscal surplus, and the expansion of social policies, which was one of the president’s main campaign promises. This context is key, if we keep in mind that 55% of the book production in Mexico, mostly educational books, is in the hands of the government, and that a significant part of book sales are directed to the government. On the retail front, most Mexican bookstores, around 1,200 in all, are facing difficulties.

What are your expectations for this new government in relation to the Mexican book market?

Historically, progressive governments in Latin American have favored the publishing industry, particularly the educational, children’s and young adult segments. And there is no doubt that the new government desires that more books reach more people. However, it is still unclear if the government is taking private publishing houses into consideration in its plans to achieve this goal.

Early statements by public officers in the education and culture departments suggest that the problem of low consumption of books will be faced by hammering the supply side, and lowering prices, and not so much through education and reading promotion. But the main challenges in Mexico are to create readers, to develop consumers, to strengthen bookstores, and to invest in new promotional platforms. Mexico is the largest Spanish speaking country in the world, with 125 million people. But it is not the one with most book sales, because some 40% of the population lives in poverty. And to make things worse, four out of 10 books are pirate editions, which is a very serious problem.

Mexico hosts the most important book trade event in the Spanish language, the Guadalajara Book Fair. How important is this book fair?

The Guadalajara Book Fair (FIL) is not only one of the most important book fairs in the world, but also one of the most inclusive ones. Book professionals, such as publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians and reading promoters, share the fair with hundreds of writers and thousands of readers. Guadalajara offers more than 700 cultural activities. Digital publishing and rights sales are more and more present each year. FIL Guadalajara is a very energetic place to get to know the Mexican literature, to interact with foreign publishers and to make business.

What is your take on the digital book market in Mexico? Do you expect it to grow?

According to the National Chamber of the Mexican Publishing Industry (CANIEM) and other private studies, like the one conducted by Bookwire, the Mexican digital book market grows exponentially every year and is the largest one in Spanish Latin America. Nevertheless, it is still small, around 3% of the general book market. In Mexico, and probably in the rest of Latin America, it will be at least five years before e-books reach double digits. And this is not necessarily good news. Publishers understand that they have to invest in digital, but the returns are still uncertain.

What about audiobooks?

Companies like Storytel already have local offices, recording studios, highly-qualified teams, a strong catalog selection and, of course, plans to keep growing in Mexico. I don’t want to estimate the potential of the audiobook market in Mexico, but I feel certain it will grow faster than e-books. The popularity of mobile devices, and the long commutes that characterize Mexico’s larger cities offer the perfect conditions for audiobook consumption. The challenge rests on the development of a wide and attractive catalogue and, above all, on creating a consumer culture for this kind of service.

What Mexican authors are world missing out on because it hasn't been translated into English or other major languages?

A few names come to mind, but I am not sure which of them have been translated or not and to which languages. Anyway, Héctor Aguilar Camín, Juan Villoro, Elmer Mendoza, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Xavier Velasco, Jorge Volpi, Yuri Herrera, Guillermo Arriaga, Fernanda Melchor, and Julián Herbert are definitively interesting Mexican authors that the non-Spanish world might be missing out on.

Carlo Carrenho is a publishing consultant and founder of PublishNews.