Books Lovers of Chile

J.K. Rowling's The Order of the Phoenix --- the fifth in the Harry Potter series --- was released in June 2003, and immediately smashed sales records around the world.  But it was only available in English, resulting in numerous unofficial translations springing up on streets and on the internet.  The official Spanish version of the book is not due out until the end of the year.  On the sidewalks of Santiago Chile, vendors hawk their copies of The Order of the Phoenix.  The president of the Chilean Book Chamber business group, Eduardo Castillo, urged people not to buy the book, whch had been selling for about US$15.  "Not only it is illegal, not only is it a pirate copy, it's a really bad translation," said Mr. Castillo.  

The Unesco Courier published this article:

The basketball court in a Santiago police station was piled high a few months ago with over 150,000 books, galley-proofs and printing materials—all of them illegal. Seized in a series of police raids in three Chilean cities ordered by Carlos Escobar, a deputy judge of the Second Criminal Court, the collection marked the biggest defeat yet for the country’s pirate book industry.

But these impounded books only created a new problem: what should be done with them? Judge Escobar took the initiative, ordering that they be distributed to the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and other parts of the country.

“I did so because a judge is free to decide what happens to seized items, and if they’d stayed under court control, their condition could have deteriorated,” he explained. “Our country is poor and there’s an urgent need for our children to read. That’s why I think burning books is an outrage.”

The judge’s decision sparked very different reactions. Most people thought it was a good idea. Some authors, such as journalist Patricia Verdugo—whose many books investigating the Pinochet dictatorship have been widely pirated—thought the judge was wrong. “What right does he have to give away things that don’t belong to him?” she asked in an interview with the daily newspaper La Tercera. “These books should be destroyed, just like confiscated drugs are destroyed.”

Her colleague Hernán Rivera Letelier, a popular Chilean author translated into several languages, does not agree. Pirated books, he argues, are a way to reach more readers. “I’m not siding with the pirates but with the readers,” he says. “The people who buy one of my books in the street aren’t the same as those who’d buy it in a bookshop. They’re less well-off and can’t afford the official prices.” Not true, replies Bartolo Ortiz, general manager of the Planeta en Chile publishing house. “I’ve seen very elegant-looking people buying books on the street. I think reading is just less important for them compared to other things.”

Whichever stance is adopted, one fact is certain: the publishers are going to appeal Escobar’s decision.

During the year 2000, a total of 308,000 pirated copies of 400 books put out by various publishers were seized in Chile. “We reckon we lost $25 million last year,” says Eduardo Castillo, president of the Chilean Book Association. “This country is top of the league in terms of pirated books.”

The publication of pirated books in Chile grew out of the need for undercover political activity. During the 1973-89 military dictatorship, for example, the Chilean Communist Party published Che Guevara’s diaries and other banned material. Various people recently interviewed in the book industry insist that certain unnamed employees of lawful publishing firms themselves deal out original copies of books to the forgers, obviously in return for money.

Castillo disagrees, noting that publishers have joined together to investigate, file lawsuits and gather evidence in an effort to punish the guilty. Pedro Bosch, a lawyer who works for Editorial Sudamericana, says that in two years of investigations, the firm has filed 60 complaints resulting in charges against 200 people, 50 trials and the seizure of over 30,000 books. “In this way we’ve been able to find out who the pirates are, build a database and curb the damage being done,” he says. “But the market isn’t going to go away.”

Authors, publishers, booksellers and judges at least agree that the government has so far paid little interest in taking a firm stand against book piracy. They nevertheless hope an imminent report commissioned by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos from the Book Association may change all that.

Meanwhile, on a corner of Santiago’s busy Avenida Providencia, a street vendor asks his assistant to fetch some more Harry Potter books. She goes off to get them from her makeshift storeroom, hidden behind an ice-cream cart. I was interested in one book and asked the price. It was $6, less than a third of the price in a bookshop. She said she sold between $35 and $55 worth of books each day.

The average monthly salary of most Chileans is about $625. I told the vendor it was a pirated version of the book. She nodded and asked me: “Are you going to buy it?”

We will now look at some survey data from the 2003 TGI Chile study.  This is a survey of 2,001 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old who were interviewed in Santiago, Chile.  10.7% of the survey respondents said that they had purchased one or more books within the past 30 days.  As one might expect, the purchase incidence is a sharp function of socio-economic level (whose definition includes components of education and economic affluence).

So where do these book lovers buy their books?  The next chart show that standalone independent booktstores garner about half the business, followed by stores inside malls and shopping centers, then departmental stores and chain stores.  The 'other' category includes street vendors, mail orders, and other venues.  

The more interesting question is the intersection of socio-economic level with the location of purchase.  This is shown in the following chart.  For the ABC1 members, they are much more likely to find their books in a legitimate bookstore inside a mall or shopping center.  As we go down the socio-economic ladder, patronage at malls and shopping centers decrease rapidly and we are more likely to see street businesses then.  These are very large differences, and would suggest that the costs of books play a large part in book buying decisions.  And anyone who thinks piracy can be combatted solely through regulation is disrespecting market forces.

 (posted by Roland Soong, 9//03/2003)

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