The paradox of an independent industry
Por César Tejeda
This week Gualajara, Mexico will host hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world for the continent's largest book fair. How has the ancient business of selling books changed with the arrival of independent publishers?

I belong to a generation of publishers who came to this trade at a bad time, if there ever was a good moment to approach it. Ten years ago, right at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the publishing guild received us with that mixture of kindness and condescension with which we look at the newbies, and in the welcome cocktail, after toasting for our happy entry into the world of books, they made a space by their side so we could see how two great contingencies came spiraling toward us: no one knew how things would change with the advent of the ebook. Capitalism, on the other hand, was about to break into our business through one of its most sagacious and unfair laws: the law of monopolies.

Now it's ten years on, and we know that the fear of electronic books was unfounded; it turned out to be a kind of romantic defense of paper against trees and the possibility of traveling lightly on vacation. On the other hand, the monopoly issue transformed everything: the publishers we admired were all bought by large consortiums that wanted to blow away the competition, catalogs and all.

But they didn't settle for that: jobs continued to disappear, and although the biggest publishers managed to survive through personal connections, rookies had to choose between fighting fiercely for a cubicle in one of those corporations- with Christmas bonuses and medical insurance included-; or find refuge in state-run or university publishing houses to produce books that could not be found anywhere; or, finally, surrender to our fate, becoming what we pompously call a freelancer, arguing that we might not have good salaries - much less benefits - but, instead, we had the freedom to manage our invaluable time as we saw fit.

I often wonder what kind of fate ended up taking us to that juncture. Somehow, however, we drifted there, perhaps because we were confused after leaving college, perhaps because we possessed certain language skills or simply because we were fetishists of an object that had caused us unusual joy since childhood: Books. We wanted to learn the most intellectual of the trades and we planned to make a living from it. Our generation made many bad decisions because, in this life, one must do what one likes, and somehow we had to open the way.

They say that every crisis represents an opportunity for change. The opportunity that some of us glimpsed was, rather, a trap: to occupy the space left by the small presses absorbed by large consortiums. After all, we had free time, according to us.

Some independent publishing houses were founded this way and thanks to their impetus - and some probity - they began publishing books that did not intend to last on the new releases table of your local bookstore, but rather were meant to remain in the minds of the readers; publishers who decided to rescue almost all literary genres - poetry, literary essay, drama and short fiction - from the clutches of capitalism.

Young publishers that convinced authors that affection was better than four thousand remnant copies stashed out of sight in a warehouse somewhere out of town. Publishers who won the hearts of literary crusaders by releasing work from authors who might not sell well but had remarkable writings. Publishers that treated their authors and their projects with dignity. And this had an unexpected result - or not -: they began publishing the best books of their time.

The cycle, however, was about to close in a most ungrateful way, because the independent publishers had a full heart, pride in their work and a certain moral quality, but they also had empty pockets, lack of imagination to get resources and less and less free time to visit the small book fairs where good intentions thrive but money's lacking. They got together with their colleagues to discuss how to survive in the future and found no answer. Some shrugged with circumspection, others with irony. They recognized that no one had forced them to be there, and that by "there" they referred to the thin line that separates heroism from being foolhardy.

The people who live in the minutiae often ask what are those heroic publishers independent of, or why we claim to be so. Well, independent of capital; in other words, publishers that do not form their catalogs through economic criteria, but rather do so through literary criteria. "Who would want to form a company that does not get on with the laws of marketing?" Is the second question of the thorough examiners. "Well, we do," we say proudly, confident that we have no solid reason to exist, even if we do exist.

"What future can a publishing house like that have?", the squeamish interrupts us for the third time. "An uncertain future without a doubt", we answer: "but everything is not yet lost". And then we list the benefits of electronic commerce and the law of the single price, the possibility of co-publishing with universities or other independent publishers and, if none of the above works, there is solidarity through crowdfunding. The answer, of course, is unsatisfactory even for us, and thus we withdraw from the conversation to reflect within ourselves.

In Mexico, the number of readers has decreased over the past five years. 50% of respondents in 2015 claimed to have read at least one book during the previous year; In 2019, that figure was reduced to 42%. Within the group of non-readers, 47.7% said they did not read due to lack of time, which is undoubtedly a terrible paradox: independent publishers use their free time to make books that people don't have time to read.

I must admit that this paradox, besides being terrible, is beautiful in its own way. It's beautiful because it's literary. Let's say that instead of this column, I have written the story of a man who spends his free time doing things that people don't have time to consume. It would have been a splendid story - at least anecdotally. The paradox is even better if we consider that the story is precisely one of the genres doomed to disappear by capitalism, one of the genres that independent publishers have vowed to rescue.

Who knows how long we can keep doing this job. Who knows if the future will be flattering. In the worst-case scenario, a new generation will come, which we will receive with that mixture of kindness and condescension with which the newbies are looked at. We will pass the torch to them. Meanwhile, we will continue publishing books that'll be read in a few years, many of them will be literary references of our time. And we'll do it from unviable companies unless someone decides to carry the weight of their unfeasibility. 

Translation: Miguel Cane.

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