In early August, Editora Abril, one of Brazil’s biggest publishers, announced that it would be employing massive cuts. Ten magazines were scrapped, with approximately 550 staff being laid off, among them around 150 journalists. While the news came as a shock, representing a bitter blow to the market, it was not altogether surprising to those in the know. In December of last year, Abril made 130 employees redundant almost immediately after Congress approved a sweeping labor reform, while the company as a whole is teetering on the verge of insolvency.
Abril’s case is not an isolated one, instead a prominent example of an industry which has been struggling for years. A survey commissioned by the Brazilian Book Council earlier this year showed that the Brazilian publishing market has shrunk repeatedly over the last three years. Since 2015, the accumulated decrease has been of 22 percent. Between 2016 and 2017, almost 30 million fewer books were sold in Brazil.
Much of this hardship can be put down to Brazil’s recent recession, the worst on record. Consumers are buying less, while the government has also decreased its purchase of educational books, one of the worst hit segments in recent years. However, this only tells half of the story.
In simple terms, Brazil is not a country of readers. The Brazilian Reading Portrait Study, held every four years, showed that 44 percent of the population read less than one book over the space of three months, and that an astonishing 30 percent had never bought a book in their lives. And this is showing no real signs of improvement, with the percentage of Brazilian readers increasing by only 1 percent since 2007.
It is also worth noting that even when Brazilians do read, only a reduced portion of these books are actually literature. The Bible was the most frequently cited book in the Reading Portrait Study (42 percent stated they read it in the last year), while large parts of the books consumed by Brazilians involve religious or spiritual works. Educational texts also account for a significant chunk of books bought in Brazil, though, as mentioned above, this segment is shrinking thanks to reduced government investment.
News of Abril’s decline comes at the same time as damning new figures have been released measuring illiteracy rates across Brazil. The study, carried out by renowned statistics institute Ibope, shows that the percentage of functional illiterate Brazilians (people who are completely illiterate or who have rudimentary literacy skills) has not improved since 2015. In fact, the level has increased by two percentage points. The rate of completely illiterate individuals has doubled, from 4 percent in 2015 to 8 percent today.
eBooks: a potential solution?
Around the world, with an increasingly digital population with less and less time to sit and read books, reading habits and publishing markets have been given the welcome boost of the rise of eBooks. Cheaper and space-saving, eBooks now account for roughly 25 of all book sales worldwide. Curiously, however, they have never taken off in Brazil.
The established Brazilian retail model of large stores selling physical products has always gone against the emergence of eBooks as an alternative in the country. And it is counter-intuitive. While never able to fully surpass paper books, eBooks provide a much-needed stimulus to the market, especially in times of recession, something Brazil’s publishing market could have sorely done with in recent years. The market leader of ebook readers, the Amazon Kindle, only arrived in Brazil in 2012. By that time, the device was already on its 5th generation in the rest of the world.
Today, digital books account for only 5 percent of the Brazilian publishing market, in comparison to over 30 percent in the United States. There is much room for eBooks to grow in Brazil, but it may be too late to save the traditional publishing giants.