Less than two weeks away from FILBo –the acronym for the Bogotá International Book Fair–, there’s a growing expectation around what could be the biggest cultural event in Colombia. Along with the media frenzy of FILBo there’s a lot to be said about the Colombian publishing industry, which will have, once again, 14 days to be showcased in the best way possible. In a conversation with Enrique González, the Executive President of the Colombian Chamber of Books –one of the organizers of FILBo–, we had the chance to delve into the details of the Fair and the current state of the publishing industry.
It’s admirable that a book fair, of all events, has received in the last two years at least 500,000 attendees. This year, the organizers expect even more. That number clearly makes it one of the overall spaces with more influence in Colombia. That’s why, as González says, FILBo has the main purpose of “getting readers closer to books and getting the whole publishing chain closer: the writer, the editor and the reader”. With this in mind, there’s the palpable pressure of giving the best “show” as possible. However, the pressure vanishes with the proven experience of FILBo organizers and a considerable budget of almost a million dollars –US$871,000, to be exact–. This year, the Fair will have over 1500 acts, countless presentations and conferences, and will count with the participation of two Nobel prizes: V.S. Naipaul and John Maxwell Coetzee.
Regarding the purpose of the Fair and why it’s so important, González highlights his concern for the “average Colombian”. Although he recognizes the improvement that the reading rates had in the last 100 years, González thinks there’s much more to be done: “The reading rates of Colombians is not as good as the enthusiasm that is seen in the Fair. Today we read two books per inhabitant per year. This includes school texts.” For him, the average Colombian, with an inescapable low income, doesn’t have the resources to buy books. That’s why “it’s important that there are books in public libraries and school libraries”. Even more, that the libraries have “new books, the ones that are being talked about, for young people to get enthused about reading”.
Although the attendance to the Fair doesn’t reflect an improvement in the reading rate of Colombians, it does reflect the evolution of the publishing industry. The sales in the Fair prove the nature of the market. González stated that, despite what the media has predicted over and over again, printed books keep selling more than digital books. However, he also stated that this is something typical of Colombia and even Latin America. Again, the average income of Colombians determines their reading habits. Since a reading device costs much more than the average Colombian is willing to pay, the sales of digital books are still marginal in comparison to printed books.
Setting aside some of the concerns, González seems more than optimistic about the publishing industry in Colombia. There’s this sense that it has hit a stride and is on its way to establish a generation of writers and independent editors that can make it truly self-sustainable and competitive. The picture for independent publishers seems clear and inspiring: “They have been growing, they are finding their niche, their position in the market. Obviously, when an independent publisher discovers a writer, the big publishers are on the hunt to steal it. And that encourages independent publishers to keep searching, to continue digging, to invent new formulas and that generates a dynamic in the market that is quite important.” Inside FILBo, independent publishers are also growing: they have bigger stands, people are appreciating what they’re doing and their sales are increasing.
FILBo is, without a doubt, making its part to improve the industry and the reading habits. And González thinks that the overall industry is in a healthy state. However, he also stated that there are actions that would make things much easier for the Colombian Chamber of Books. He focused, specially, on what the Government can do: “Colombia is perhaps the only Latin American state where the central government and regional governments do not buy the books or do not have the role that other governments in the region have. In Colombia, although there are good campaigns to promote reading, we think the best incentive would be if the books were in the hands of the students.”
On its 30th year, the Bogotá International Book Fair will prove, once again, that Colombia wants to be the cultural epicenter of Latin America. With a long way to go, the Fair is a sign of a publishing industry with a healthy and profitable future. Now, we’ll have to see if the Government gets in the same boat.