By Iona Teixeira Stevens
The digital book is once again back in the spotlight. this time not a conference, course or a lecture about the future of book, but in the the halls of Brasilia at a seminar entitles “Challenges of the Digital Book in Brazil,” that put together representatives of the government, politicians and private sector.
Digital books are becoming an important part of the Brazilian Congressional agenda since the Brazilian Senate approved a bill last year that made the import and commercialization of e-books (e-readers and content) tax exempt. The bill was the main focus of the debate, its approval supported by politicians and private players, such as Amazon and LivrariaCultura bookstore chain.
The position of the Book and Reading Commission of the Congress, led by deputy Fátima Bezerra is clearly favorable. “The situation of the education and the level of reading in Brazil is too weak and fragile, and we have to do whatever we can to facilitate the access to books. So in this regard we should support the initiative that exempts digital book of taxes,” she told PublishNews Brazil.
The tax burden, especially on imported electronic devices, is an old problem of the Brazilian economy, but since digital books arrived it has also become a concern for the publishing industry, whose production chain has been exempt from taxes since 2004. E-readers are sold in Brazil at twice the price as abroad. According to retailers, the high price could stymie growth of the ebook industry, something which has immense potential in Brazil. “The only reason we don’t sell more is because of the high price”, explained Sérgio Herz, president of Livraria Cultura.
Alex Szapiro, representing Amazon Brazil, underscored just how high those taxes applied to e-readers are Brazil, as compared with 0% on print books:
- Tax over industrial good – IPI: 10%
- Tax over imported good – II: 12%
- Tax over service and goods circulation – ICMS: 18%
- Social security contribution – PIS/COFINS: 9,25%
Mr. Szapiro also highlighted that the price of a Kindle, that today is around US$ 148, could be halved, should the bill be approved. With the possibility of payment by installments, as it is common in Brazil, a US$79-Kindle would be newly attainable by a significant part of the population.
But the bill, which equates the digital book to the print book, already needs updates. Karine Pansa, president Brazilian Book Chamber (CBL), suggested amendments that include not only including digital editions of print books, as it is stated today in the bill, but also titles that will be published first, and possibly exclusively, in the digital format. The CBL also suggested to broaden the item that defines the contractual situation between authors and publishers to include independent and self-published authors. Deputy Fátima Bezerra stated after the seminar that she would include the changes that were proposed.
Plans from the Government Agencies and Organizations
These three acronyms indicate the big government organizations overseeing book policies in Brazil. PNLL is the National Reading and Book Program, that manages national book and reading policies and was recently transferred back to the Ministry of Culture in Brasília; FBN is the National Library, who manages international book and literature policies and is based in in Rio de Janeiro; MEC is the Ministry of Education, responsible for government purchases, which represent some 30% of total book sales.
The three institutions presented also their plans for handling the digital age. Renato Lessa, recently appointed to the Brazilian National Library (FBN) —inspired by Harvard’s Robert Darnton, who has helped launch a digital library in the United States—stated that a similar project would be viable in Brazil: “One of the challenges is to digitalize all our catalog and start working on the idea of a Brazilian Digital Library.”
But there’s still much to consiere, reminded Mr Lessa, especially in relation to distribution and the lending mechanisms.
José Castilho, back as Executive Secretary of PNLL, views digital publishing as a fundamental tool to achieving one of the key points at the Program: democratization of the access to reading. According to Mr Castilho, the lack of readers in Brazil also affects other sectors of production: “it is not uncommon, for example, to find cases where industrial machinery is underused because workers can’t understand the manual.”
Mr Castilho is back at the PNLL after successfully running a program offering free downloads of digital titles at university publisher Unesp, where he serves as president. “The Unesp work is also a public policy, because it’s a free public university interested in the development of knowledge,” he said. Mr. Castilho stated he is already negotiating within the ministry what he sees as a first step in the right direction: transforming the Ministry of Culture website into a vehicle to popularize digital book and culture.
The Education Ministry is probably the one sector of government which has experimented the most in the digital sector. In 2012, the government purchasing program for public schools (called PNLD) included digital books in PDF format. But according to Mônica Franco, director of Digital Content Division at MEC, one of the biggest challenges that year was distribution of these documents to the schools, a problem that still needs to be addressed.
Going forward, in 2014 public purchases will also include hybrid versions of digital/print books and content and in 2015 MEC will invite publishers to help create a model for digital book acquisition by the government.
“Our expectation is to work with the digital content as an enhanced version of print books, something that aggregates value,” said Ms. Franco.
In relation to distribution issues, Sônia Schwartz, coordinator of government purchases programs, said that by 2015 each publisher will be free to choose its own digital solution: “It doesn’t make sense to impose a closed distribution model, because, when it comes to technology, it’s always changing,” said Schwartz.
How Will Ebooks Get to the Underprivileged?
Even with the robust debate, there is one aspect of Brazilian demographics and economics that was not mentioned. It took Volnei Canônica, coordinator of the Prazer em Ler [Pleasure to Read] program from C&A Institute, to address the biggest issue: inequality and heterogeneity in Brazil in relation to Internet (and 3G) access. “We have to think how the digital book is going to work where there’s no internet, how it will arrive in the country’s interior,” said Canônica. “I’d like to have other discussions so we could reflect about these points and how this tax-exemption bill will really contribute to increasing the number of readers in Brazil.”
Next On the Agenda: Open Platforms and Author’s Digital Royalties
Deputy Fátima Bezerra expects to have a proposition ready by July. “We are working to approve the bill by the end of the first legislative semester,” she said. But the discussion about digital books still has many lingering issues that need to be addressed, even after it is approved: “The definition of what is a digital book is not clear in Brazilian law.” Next on the agenda: the question of the open platform author’s royalties for digital sales and downloads.