Imagine a single country spreading across 50% of South America. A country with 27 states where there are 190 million people living in different conditions. Some of them are very poor while others are far too rich. This is Brazil. And a nation with such enormous magnitude offers serious opportunities -– the book business continues to grow year-on-year in Brazil –- but also equally daunting challenges. Primary among these is book distribution.
Brazil has 5,565 cities -– and a mere 3,000 bookstores. Calculated by population, there is roughly one bookstore store for every 64,255 people. Most of the bookstores are concentrated in the hands of big industrial groups or families, many of which are located in the largest, most developed areas. Independent stores are few and far between. The southeast of the country is the most developed area and contains more 56% of all bookshops. The north, amongst the poorest regions, accounts for just 3% of the total.
Recent research shows that Brazilians read 4.7 books per year, and if you exclude books read at school, this number drops to a mere 1.3 books per year. The consequence is, that as people demonstrate a lack of interest in books, booksellers are not terribly motivated to open shops outside the highly developed south and southeast regions of the country.
But it’s impossible to know what is responsible for this low number, especially outside major urban areas. Is it a genuine lack of interest in reading? Or, merely the difficulty in acquiring books where there are no bookstores?
If the growth in door-to-door sales is any indication, there is demonstrable hunger for books in areas not served by stores. In fact, door-to-door is proving to be an important distribution strategy for publishers. In 2006, door-to-door represented 5% of all sales. In 2008, the number was grew to 13%; by 2009, the segment was close to 17% of the market. All this time, bookshops have not lost any market share, suggesting that the business is growing across all segments –- with door-to-door growing perhaps strongest of all.
According to the Brazilian Association of Door-to-Door Booksellers (Associação Brasileira de Difusão do Livro – ABDL), there are 30,000 door-to-door booksellers in Brazil and some 32 publishers specialized in catering to this particular market. The association calculates that publishers netted approximately R$668 million in 2009 ($297 million), representing an jump in sales of 74% compared to 2008. In 2010, door-to-door sales were estimated estimated at R$ 1 billion ($590 million), a 80% boost, and accounted for more than 23.8 million books sold (out of a total of 386 million total book sold in the country).
Among the most influential of all door-to-door booksellers is the international cosmetics company Avon, which has an extensive network of sales reps and has become an important partner for publishers. Numerous publishers develop exclusive, and often inexpensive editions, for Avon’s catalogue. Being chosen for Avon’s catalog is also highly attractive to authors, as it offers significant exposure and sales –- it’s not unlike being picked for Oprah’s Book Club in the US.
As Brazil’s economy grows, it is increasingly likely the bookstores will begin venturing into more and more remote cities. Until then, those without access to book will rely on the door-to-door sellers to reach them -– thus helping to increase literacy -– which in turn increases demand. In this way, door-to-door becomes a virtuous circle that is likely leading to a better future for Brazilian readers, publishers and bookseller alike.
(Originally published here at publishingperspectives.com on January 12, 2011)