Chilling mystery: Why don't Mexicans read books?

Cristina Woolrich looks across the crowded cafe to the small bookshop she runs, and sighs. "We have the best poetry section in town and we're going to get rid of it," she says. "We're going to have to eliminate almost everything if we want to survive."

For the past decade, The Pegaso bookstore, a cozy shrine to the printed word, has offered browsers free coffee, overstuffed leather sofas, and a wide-ranging literary selection. But now it's scaling back, ditching poetry and history, and keeping the few things that still sell - some novels and glossy art books. Pegaso, like many other Mexican bookstores, is on the verge of succumbing to a complicated crisis that threatens Mexico's book industry - one Ms. Woolrich says boils down to this: "Mexicans aren't reading."

Competitive pressures in a country where 3,000 copies sold makes a bestseller have pushed 4 out of every 10 bookstores in Mexico out of business over the past 10 years, according to the Mexican Booksellers Association.

Meanwhile, from 2001 to 2004, roughly 10 percent of all publishers have shut down. And despite myriad efforts to encourage reading and thus increase book buying, the crisis shows no sign of abating.

Now, the desperate publishing industry has taken matters into its own hands. In the past month, a consortium of publishers, distributors, and bookstores has started a system of fixed prices. It's a radical - and possibly illegal - measure they hope will resuscitate the industry and transform Mexico into a nation of book lovers.

"The fundamental problem is that there are few readers," says Jose Angel Quintanilla, president of the National Chamber of the Mexican Publishing Industry, which is holding meetings between publishers and booksellers to establish price controls. By boosting the number of bookstores and titles published, they aim to lower prices and increase reading. "There's no single thing that can instill this culture in Mexico. But a fixed price can help."

Despite having three times the population of Argentina, Mexico produces about 2,000 fewer titles each year. There are roughly 500 bookstores in Mexico, which translates into one for every 200,000 Mexicans, compared to a ratio of one to 35,000 in the US and one to 12,000 in Spain, according to the Mexican Booksellers Association. A recent UNESCO study revealed that Mexicans read on average just over two books per year, while Swedes finish that many every month.

The Mexican government has made great strides, reducing illiteracy to less than 8 percent, compared with around 20 percent two decades ago, placing it leagues ahead of Central American countries and even beyond Latin America's other economic powerhouse, Brazil. Yet it has had little success encouraging active reading.

Reading-stimulation programs have mostly failed. An experimental library in the Mexico City subway last year was shuttered after most of the books were stolen.

"Mexico simply has never had a culture favorable to reading," says Elsa Ramirez, a library-studies researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Which is why, says Ramon Cifuentes, director of book distributor Colofon, the publishing industry must do something.

In the past five years, large bookstores have pushed for lower wholesale prices - in some cases demanding discounts of more than 60 percent - in return for bigger orders. With that purchasing leverage, big bookstores can undercut prices at small stores, driving them out of business. Publishers, meanwhile, artificially inflate wholesale prices to make up for the deep discounts the big stores demand. The result is a shrinking pool of bookstores offering fewer titles at a higher price.

Moreover, price variations among bookstores can be huge. The new novel by Chilean-born author Roberto Bolaño, "2666," sells for 650 pesos ($58) at Un Lugar de la Mancha, an independent shop; at Gandhi, one of the largest chains, it can be had for 455 pesos ($40). But even that 43 percent savings is deceiving: In Argentina, with its larger concentration of readers, that same book can be had for the equivalent of $23.

Price fixing, say proponents, would help reduce wholesale prices across the board. Currently, bestsellers are relatively cheap, but prices for less popular books are sky high.

It's a system that's been successfully employed in a dozen countries in Europe, notably France and Spain, both of which suffered from bookstore closures before installing fixed prices. In both cases, the publishing industries enjoyed huge growth.

"Fixed prices are the only thing that prevents small bookstores and publishers from disappearing. Without them, there would be no variety, no specialization," Alfonso Otero, director of Fuentetaja, a bookstore in Madrid, says by phone.

But, some argue, the European countries already had a public predisposed to reading. "For the majority of Mexicans, bookstores are a completely alien place," says Jesus Anaya, editorial director at publishing house Grupo Planeta. Although more titles and lower prices would certainly appeal to current readers, he doubts they'll create new ones. "I'm not sure that waving a magic wand of fixed prices can bring this cadaver to life."

Moreover, there is a serious question about the legality of industry-imposed fixed prices. Like the US, Mexico has antitrust laws to prevent price manipulation that hurt the consumer. Critics say it's anticompetitive.

One frequently cited case is El Sotano, one of Mexico's largest bookstore chains, which has so far refused to stop asking for big wholesale discounts. As a result, several publishers say they've stopped selling to El Sotano, which declined to comment on the situation.

In response to the legal questions, the publishing industry has written a fixed-price bill they hope to present to the Mexican Congress before April. Currently, editors and booksellers are making their case to key congressmen and senators.

Congressman Jose Antonio Cabello, secretary of the Culture Committee, supports the bill, but says it'll have to pass the competition and economy committees before coming to a vote. "We'll have to push very hard for this to have a chance," he says, adding that just one dissenting voice from the publishing industry or a consumer group could skunk the bill. And it could be years before a vote occurs.

Mexico's Federal Competition Commission, meanwhile, could halt industry efforts to establish fixed prices at any time.

Still, many in the industry see no other option. "This isn't just an economic question. It's really a question of culture," says Henoc de Santiago, president of the Mexican Booksellers Association, which argues that the industry's woes are severe enough to threaten its long-term survival.

"If we don't give books a certain degree of protection, bookstores will continue to disappear, prices will continue to rise. Without fixed prices, there may not be any more books to read."

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