Book ends? Paper price hikes put book industry at risk

Prices for some kinds of paper tripled last year. The cost is being passed on to customers.

As Tamara Ceferatti arrived back in the city after two weeks on holiday, she sat to update the prices at her bookshop. Stunned, she noticed that all her suppliers had hiked their prices by around a third.

“Prices change at the start of each month, but this time it’s massive: large and small publishers alike have raised their prices due to the cost of paper,” said Ceferatti, addressing an issue that’s been troubling her, like everyone in the book industry supply chain, for over six months. 

The price increase is directly passed on to the cover price, she says – and that, in turn, is hitting sales. “A few months ago, our customers would buy five books per month – now, they just buy one.”

Vuelvo al sur, Ceferatti’s bookshop in the Parque Patricios neighborhood, is overflowing with books: shelves, tables, racks and ladders keep everything organized for her customers. It’s one of the 1,200 bookshops in the country, located in the city with the most bookshops per capita in the world, by some estimates. Now, the nation’s booksellers are worried about the future.

On January 16, the Argentine Book Chamber sent a message to its affiliates: they were concerned about serious paper shortages, which were leading publishers to buy at eye-watering prices just to keep the printing presses running. 

They warned that prices for bond paper, the most common kind in book printing, had risen by around 150%, above Argentina’s 95% inflation rate for 2022. The price of paper used to print illustrations – mostly used in covers and children’s books – had tripled. “With these numbers, paper costs make up 50% of all the costs of making a book, more expensive than the work of authors themselves,” the e-mail said. 

“You can’t fight the price increments when there are just two manufacturers of paper,” said Juan Pampín, President of the Argentine Book Chamber. “Ledesma and Celulosa Argentina are the only two companies that continue to produce paper, it’s an oligopoly.” 

A few years ago, other companies produced book paper, but most switched to packaging during the pandemic. By the end of 2021, the book industry was beginning to feel the adverse effects of the price increase.

An oligopoly, the lack of price regulation, inflation, and currency controls in Argentina make for a deadly cocktail in the book industry. Without many local suppliers, producers would normally turn to imports, but those, too, are limited. They’re left with no choice: no matter how much costs rise, they’ll have to make do if they want to survive. 

Prices don’t just affect quantity – it also affects the quality and diversity of what’s on offer, according to surveys by the Argentine Book Chamber. “Instead of printing 20 new books, you’ll print 10, and bet on books that will generate income, to guarantee you can cover the costs of books that might not be as profitable,” Pampín said. 

“A really hard time”

“Argentina has huge intellectual and literary production, but […] it’s sustained by local consumption,” said Dr. Alejandro Dujovne, who researches the Latin American publishing industry at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). He explained that the country has lost market share abroad in recent years because of these problems. “Now, the prices have increased significantly, so we’re discussing this, but this is an ever-present problem.” 

Dujovne said that inflation hits the smallest publishers the hardest. “They have a really hard time being able to buy paper to make their books,” he said, adding that the lack of policies to protect the book industry is likely to exacerbate this problem in the future. 

“It’s an economic problem,” said Pampín, the book chamber president. According to Dujovne, Argentina produces a comparatively small range of paper types compared with regional neighbors such as Brazil. Argentina imports paper for children’s books, for example, paying much more than any other country because of currency controls, which mean its foreign-currency purchases are automatically taxed. Taken together, these factors mean a dollar’s worth of illustration paper in other countries can cost Argentine publishers between US$8-9.

“There are many things that could be done in terms of policy and regulation, but there needs to be political will to intervene,” said Dujovne.  

In the meantime, book producers and sellers struggle to keep bringing good reads to their customers. “We’re a key part of the culture,” said Tamara Ceferatti after looking at the new price rates, frustrated. “But we’re also the weakest link in the chain.”


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