9 July 08 | Chad W. Post

Over at the Guardian books blog, Karla Starr has a piece about the cost of books in Argentina:

Then it occurred to me that it’s all down to purchasing power. Take Harry Potter – as plenty did both in Argentina and the UK. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sells for 108 pesos, which corresponds to the £17.99 list price in the UK – though you can find it for a tenner online. But the average income in the UK is £30,000, while in Argentina it’s only the same number of pesos. So buying a copy of the latest Harry Potter costs an Argentine 3% of their yearly earnings. Over in the UK it’s the price of a few cups of coffee. [. . .]

I’ve seen photography books here for 900 pesos. Maybe £150 might seem a little steep for one book even in London, but think of the real cost to an Argentine. Can you imagine paying £900 for a book?

OK, so those are some damn expensive cups of coffee to add up to £17.99 (that’s a mere $35 in weakened U.S. money), but Karla is on to something that I encountered on my recent visit to Buenos Aries, although what I heard about was a bit more complicated and involved the meta-structure of how books flow between countries and cultures.

I’m still not sure I fully understand what happened to Argentina’s economy (the words “got seriously fucked over” come to mind), but when I was on my recent editor’s trip, we met a ton of presses that had started up in recent years, a few of which talked about how the devaluation in 2002 lowered the entrance bar to starting a publishing house. Regardless of the economic explanations, there are a number of cool small presses (like Entropia) that have popped up in Buenos Aires. And these books—to the best of my knowledge—are generally affordable.

On the other hand, books from Spain, from the U.S., from the UK are astronomically expensive in relation to one’s net income. As Karla mentions, the prices aren’t necessarily marked up, but they remain stable across cultures, whereas the net income of the average citizen is much lower. (Using her example, I remember seeing a Philip Roth book for sale for 45 peso, which is about $15, and seems reasonable until you realize that Argentine salaries are not three times the equivalent of their American equivalents.)

An added complication is the way in which Spanish rights are sold. Generally, when Seix-Barral, or Random House Mondadori, or another large Spanish-based publisher brings out a title they have “World Spanish rights.” There is no splitting of the Spanish-language rights—the Seix-Barral edition is the one that is imported and sold in Argentina. Because of this situation, the price isn’t readjusted for the Argentine economy, and these books are prohibitively expensive.

When Rodrigo Orihuela of the Buenos Aires Herald gave me a brief overview of this situation, the first thing that came to mind was the way in which ebooks could correct this situation. As Richard Nash recently told me, I’m “radically ambivalent” about the role of ebooks in the future of publishing, but in a specific case like Argentina, I see huge benefits of publishers making titles available at a fraction of the current cost for a print version (such as 15 pesos for the Roth book instead of 45), thus making their books more readily available to an incredibly literary and hungry market. Of course, the cost of the eReader (which may or may not be necessary) could restrict this market, but still, this seems like an opportunity for publishers to use technology to cultivate a larger readership. And although I’m not positive, I’ll bet that there are a number of other South American countries in a similar situation to Argentina whose reading public would greatly benefit from reasonably priced ebooks.


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