‘I pay in installments’: in Argentina, books are becoming a luxury few can afford

Paperback prices have doubled in four months even as middle-class Argentines struggle to pay for food and medicine

Carla Chaves was carefully perusing the offerings of the Penguin Random House stand at the Buenos Aires Book Fair in Palermo. An avid reader and frequent participant in literary workshops — when she spoke to the Herald, she was working her way through the works of James Joyce and Herman Melville — Chaves, 43, estimates that she used to buy at least two books a month and sometimes more. No longer.

“I’m very selective now,” she said. “I used to shop around. Now I look for specific titles, and I pay in installments.”

Hector Rivera, a 40-year-old editor from Colombia, has taken to purchasing physical books exclusively for work. 

“When I read for pleasure, I prefer digital copies because the cost is 20 or 30% less,” he said. 

Living costs in Argentina have ballooned following a 54% devaluation of the peso in December, and the publishing industry has been hit particularly hard. Since then, the average price of a trade paperback has climbed from around AR$10,000 to nearly twice that, according to Cecilia Fanti, vice president of the Chamber of Independent Bookstores. 

The Milei administration recently raised the minimum monthly salary in Argentina to AR$234,000 (US$254 at the official dollar rate, US$222 at the MEP rate). At the Buenos Aires Book Fair, a softcover copy of The Shining by Stephen King went for AR$40,500 with a 10% discount for customers who pay in cash.

Sticker shock

The reasons behind this sticker shock are multifarious. Monthly inflation was 11% for the month of March, down from 13.2% in February, and cumulative inflation sits at 51.6% for 2024. Still, industry insiders are quick to point to an Argentine paper manufacturing duopoly that has seized on this crisis to drive up prices — and a government that is unlikely to come to the industry’s rescue.

“It’s clear that books are not enjoying their most economically accessible moment, and the reason is straightforward,” said Víctor Malumian, the publisher of Ediciones Godot and the organizer of the Editor’s Fair in Buenos Aires, who notes that paper accounts for a significant proportion of a book’s production cost.

“There are only two national companies that provide these kinds of raw materials, and they’re setting prices above international rates,” he added.

The manufacturers in question are Celulosa Argentina, the larger of the two, which specializes in high-quality paper goods, and Ledesma Papel, based in Jujuy, which derives its paper from sugar cane. As Malumian tells it, both are engaged in rampant speculation about local inflation rates because they have no meaningful competition. And unless new Argentine companies are able to meet this demand at a lower price or the market is opened to foreign paper exporters that can make book production more cost-effective, this trend is likely to continue.

“Argentina was an important producer of paper in the region until the 1960s and ‘70s,” explained Alejando Dujovne, a professor at the National University of San Martin and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET, by its Spanish acronym) devoted to the study of reading habits. “This production declined for domestic and foreign consumers, and the industry devolved into an oligopoly. Today, Celulosa and Ledesma control the market, and their price hikes consistently outpace inflation.” 

“What’s more, these increases have come close together; one company will raise its prices, and the other will do the same a few days later.”

Ignacio Duelo, a spokesman for Ledesma Papel, insists that these prices are coming down, although he acknowledges that the supply of paper for books in Argentina is “scarce.”

“Historically, Ledesma hasn’t had a major presence in this market,” he said in a statement to the Herald. “In order to meet this demand, we’ve redirected paper that was destined for export to local buyers with our NAT brand.”

Jorge Martínez Falino of Celulosa Argentina told the Herald that publishers can import their paper if they so choose, although he declined to note that these raw materials are primarily used for a book’s cover rather than its pages. He also argued that domestic price increases have been in line with inflation. 

State indifference and hostility

The government, meanwhile, has demonstrated indifference to the plight of booksellers, if not outright hostility. In December, President Javier Milei introduced a massive omnibus bill that aimed to deregulate broad swaths of the Argentine economy. Among its reforms was the repeal of the Ley de Protección de la Actividad Librera, or Ley del Libro — a law that protects independent bookstores by guaranteeing that all retailers must sell their books at the same price. 

Bookstore owners breathed a sigh of relief when the legislation collapsed in Congress, but the Chamber of Deputies has since approved a newer version of the reform package. That legislation does not include an article about the Ley del Libro, but if approved in the Senate, it would grant the president emergency economic powers for a period of one year. 

On April 17, Undersecretary of Cultural and Artistic Promotion Federico Brunetti met with Carlos Arias of the Argentine Chamber of Publications and Juan Manuel Pampín of the Argentine Chamber of Books, among others, to address their concerns. It was the administration’s first contact with the publishing sector since assuming office more than four months ago. 

While editorial executives appeal to the government, with the Ley del Libro potentially hanging in the balance, booksellers are struggling to stay afloat. Monica Dinerstein, who owns the bookstore Tiempos Modernos in the Belgrano neighborhood of Buenos Aires, said that her sales were down 40% for the first quarter of 2024 — a first in her 34 years of owning a shop, the economic crisis of 2001 included.

‘It’s the cost of everything else’

“It’s not the price of books,” Dinerstein told the Herald from her stand at the Buenos Aires Book Fair. “The problem is the cost of everything else. People are worried about how they’ll pay their expenses, their children’s schooling, and their health insurance. These costs have exploded, and it’s had a huge impact on the sale of goods deemed non-essential.”

“How are you going to spend 40,000 pesos on a book when the pharmacist tells you that your prescription is now insanely expensive?” she continued. 

According to the Confederation of Medium-Sized Companies (CAME, by its Spanish acronym), food and pharmaceutical consumption decreased by 36% and 29%, respectively, compared to the first quarter of 2023.

Despite these challenges, Pablo Ires, a sociologist and the founder of Editorial Cactus, remains optimistic that Argentina’s storied literary culture will endure.

“The situation is obviously critical, but it’s more likely to impact the casual reader,” he told the Herald. “In Argentina, we have a robust public education system that won’t be easily destroyed. We also have a number of publishing houses that translate works from around the world. The demand for this kind of literature is sustainable.”

Dinerstein shares this view, even if she fears for the future of the nation’s bookstores.

“Argentines are readers,” she said. “They value culture in general. Someone who wants to read is going to find a way to do so. They might share their books with their friends or visit a library, but they’ll keep reading.”

Editor’s note: Jorge Martínez Falino’s statement has been updated since this story first published.

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