“These are dark days for the book in Brazil”, one of the country’s leading publishers has warned, after crises at the country’s two largest bookstore chains have left many worried that many towns may be left without a single bookstore.
After announcing the closure of 20 stores in October, book chain Saraiva announced in late November that it was filing for bankruptcy protection, citing a crisis in the publishing market that combined steady declines in the price of books with rising inflation. Rival chain Cultura has also filed a reorganisation plan to avoid bankruptcy this autumn. Brazil is in the middle of its worst recession in decades, with the October election of the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro as the country’s next president sending ripples of fear through the country’s cultural community.
In a widely shared “love letter to books”, Companhia das Letras co-founder Luiz Schwarcz has laid out the stark reality of Brazil’s current book market, urging readers to buy books this Christmas to help the sector survive.
“It remains impossible to predict the full extent of the knock-on effects of this crisis, but they are nonetheless already terrifying … Here, many towns are about to be left without a single bookstore, and publishers are now faced with the challenge of getting their books out to readers and have to deal with significant accumulated loss,” wrote Schwarcz, who won a lifetime achievement award at the 2017 London book fair.
He added: “Publishing houses in Brazil have already been launching fewer new titles, dropping slow sellers from their immediate plans, and letting staff go. With Cultura and Saraiva in receivership, dozens of stores have been closed, hundreds of booksellers laid off and publishers’ revenues slashed by 40% or more, leaving a massive hole that threatens to engulf the publishing market in Brazil.”
At Companhia das Letras, which was recently acquired by Penguin Random House, Schwarcz said that he had laid off six employees in “one of the worst moments of my personal and professional life”. The publisher has been experimenting with creative alternatives to overcome the current crisis, including launching a phone and email service called Socorro, Companhia (Help Me, Companhia) to assist in tracking down books, and forming a team of door-to-door salespeople. He called on other publishers, booksellers and authors to join him in “the search for creative and idealistic solutions”.
“For those of you who, like me, nurture a love of books as your very reason for being, I ask you to spread this call, urge others to buy books this holiday season; books by your favourite authors and by new authors you’ve been meaning to explore,” he wrote. “Buy them at those bookstores that are heroically riding this crisis out, honouring their commitments, but also at those that have fallen on hard times, and who need our help to muddle through. Most of all, promote books by the smaller publishing houses that need to sell today to continue to exist tomorrow.”
In response to Schwarcz’s letter, the hashtag
#DêLivrosDePresente – the gift of books – has taken off on Brazilian social media. Schwarcz told Publishing Perspectives that the response had been “amazing and generous”. “Unfortunately politics nowadays are working to create tribes. You are against something more than in favour of something,” he said. “So I tried to create a good tribe, or a love tribe, or a book tribe.”
Brazilian writer Paolo Scott told the Guardian that the crisis had had an enormous negative impact on writers’ lives: “Their book releases are being postponed, their book sales are not being passed on to them, publishers have been much more cautious about what they are going to publish.”
However, Scott hoped things would improve. “Small publishers and small bookstores continue to emerge. Captained by young idealists, they renew the close bond between those who offer great readings and those who are always passionate about reading,” he said. “The future of the book in Brazil will depend very much on those who have never ceased to regard reading as a passion. The crisis is there to teach, some have already learned, others, at a very high price, will still learn.”
Stefan Tobler, publisher at UK publisher And Other Stories, who is part-Brazilian, agreed. “I follow what’s going on in Brazil with a lot of sadness these days. It’s been all the harder, as five years ago there was a sense that Brazil had turned a corner. Millions of people were leaving poverty behind. Brazilian writers had suddenly found there was a future in a full-time writing career,” he said. “But though times are terribly hard right now in Brazil there’s such creativity … that I’m hopeful. The way Brazilians have embraced Luiz Schwarcz’s love letter to books shows a collective will to turn a corner, again.”