On Authors, Publishers and Readers in Ecuador and in Latin America: an Interview with Planeta's Oswaldo Obregón
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Ecuador´s history has often been better told orally than on paper, due to the informality and loquaciousness of Ecuadorians. Ecuador also drags behind it a long colonial history that has shaped people´s relationships to books and the topics found in them. Here, in an interview, Oswaldo Obregón, Planeta publishing group's director in Ecuador, discusses authors, publishers and readers in Ecuador and in Latin America in general:
Tell us a bit about your trajectory:
I arrived Ecuador 21 years ago, and have been working with Planeta ever since. In Colombia I worked in different sectors, with the Colombian government, in General Motors and with the stock market… I am very pleased to be working in the world of books, because one’s vision of the world is nuanced by the work one does.
What are the possibilities/means for a Latin American author to be published? Do you think they have the same possibilities compared to European or American writers?
Being published is hard anywhere in the world; the success of any artistic activity has no predictable formula. Otherwise, editors would become writers. At any given time there are certain themes that are popular.
Initially, it is the authors who seek editorial houses; once the author gains popularity, the roles are inverted.
Nowadays, authors have the alternative to circumvent editorial houses with digital books. This reduces the entry barriers for new authors, as was the case with Anna Todd with her book After, or in Ecuador the series by Kristel Ralston. The issue is that there are no filters that assure the quality of the book. Also, especially in Latin America, digital books still represent an almost insignificant fraction of how people read, though in the future we expect it to increase.
There is a trend towards concentration in fewer editorial houses in Latin America. Why do you think this is, and how it affects the possibility for authors to publish and the array of books to read?
This is a general tendency in the global economy. In Spanish, the two important editorial houses are Penguin Random House and Planeta. The lack of competition affects the offer of books, because each editorial house has their own publishing politics. A dramatic example is poetry; a contemporary Spanish-speaking poet will find it almost impossible to be published.
Meanwhile, smaller editorial houses count with limited funds, and lack well established connections with bookstores, so their books will not be easily findable for the unaware reader (note that bookstores are another example of this trend towards concentration).
What are the current challenges for Planeta?
Some of the challenges is to make local authors be able to sell internationally, to stay abreast in an ever-evolving market, and finding the authors with literary potential.
In Ecuador, partisan, non-fiction writers tend to sell more, for example Pájaro Febres Cordero. Books for children also sell well, like María Fernanda Heredia, who is part of the curriculum of most schools.
Fiction tends to perform rather poorly.
Planeta, being an international Editorial house, can access a lot of information from around Latin America. Are there any comparative trends that can explain the state of Latin American literature, from the amount that people read to the authors and content of choice? What about Ecuador specifically?
More books are being sold, since the population is growing, especially in cities that have a higher proportion of educated readers. There is a niche of people that read as a habit, and then a bigger market of people that read because they must.
In Latin America, Uruguay is the country that reads the most. Ecuador lags behind, in average people here read less than a book a year, in Colombia, slightly more.
There are coincidences across the countries: local authors tend to sell more in their home countries especially in Argentina, Peru or Colombia. Ecuadorian authors are an exception. Some books become best sellers everywhere, even when written by authors without a trajectory. A recent example of this is The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
Social media, or YouTube, have become powerful marketing tools to bring books to light. It is better marketing than what an editorial house can do. Luna de Plutón by Dross, which was promoted by a YouTuber in Argentina, managed to gain media attention across Latin America. These books tend to peak quickly and then die after a few years. What would be ideal is that people that jump on the bandwagon keep on maturing in their reading and exploring different books.
What can be done to encourage further reading in Latin America?
It is the role of all of society to incentivize reading: the state, publishers, schools, the media. Reading does not depend on a single actor but it is a collaborative effort, the state could encourage reading in schools, editorials must showcase local authors, the media can collaborate in this endeavor. It must be a sustained and continuous endeavor over time. Writers must also become more professional: write better, promote each other, in other words, be full time writers.
In Colombia for example, many authors write in the media, and they support each other. So, if William Ospina releases a book, Héctor Abad Faciolince will comment on it, or Santiago Gamboa will write reviews on the latest releases by Mario Mendoza and Jorge Franco. They create a presence and community in the media.
This permeates into culture and society, the conversations that people have. When the topics of conversation revolve around literature, then no one wants to feel left out, same as would happen with the latest football match. And this in turn puts extra pressure on the authors to improve themselves.
It is a dialogue within society.
What is the social role of an editorial house?
The editorial house carries on its shoulders the diffusion of thinking: poetry, novels, essays, academic studies…
Can you recommend some contemporary Latin American authors for our readers?
While I believe that each person must develop their own relationship to literature, some suggestions are Javier Vásconez, who published Hoteles del silencio. Another daring author is Adolfo Macías Huerta, who wrote Precipicio portatil para damas. He speaks about contemporary themes like social media and bullying, or Las Niñas, where he affronts contemporary issues in an uncompromising manner.
Oswaldo Obregón in conversation with bookshop owner Kevin Wright on whether Ecuador is a country that reads (in Spanish):