“Self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” have been generally treated as dirty words in the publishing industry, which has often implied (if not outrightly declared) that the works produced by self-publishers were often of lesser quality or of little literary merit than those published through more traditional channels. This perception of self-publishing is increasingly changing with the proliferation of literary works created with such self-publishing platforms as Amazon’s Kindle Direct, Wattpad, and Line Webtoon for comics, as well as online funding platforms such as Kick Starter aimed at supporting independent creators. In this context, self-publishing is increasingly seen as a legitimate form of content creation and dissemination. This is perhaps even more acute in the Latin American case, where various self-publishing models have developed at pace with the surge in popularity (and availability) of ebooks and digital publishing platforms. At the same time, other “alternative” forms of publishing like the cartonera(cardboard publishing) movement have developed in response to acute economic crises and the desire to create unique, handmade books.
With increased internet access, particularly in urban, middle-class areas, Latin American creators have turned to new forms of disseminating their works in the digital age. While the region has traditionally had low literacy rates and unequal internet access (usually along socio-economic, rural-urban, and gender divides), 56% of individuals in the Latin American and Caribbean region were able to connect to the internet in 2016, which was a significant increase from 2014, when the rate of internet penetration in the region was only slightly above 50%. The improved connectivity has meant that more authors and independent publishers now have access to numerous digital publishing platforms, including those dedicated to self-publishing, such as Megustaescribir (Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial) powered by Author Solutions, and Lantia, as well as crowdfunding platforms for indie publishing such as Pentian. This, in turn, has allowed more publishers and authors to sell to larger numbers of readers at lower prices than traditional publishers and booksellers, whose price points are often out of reach for average Latin American readers and book buyers.
While the rise of digital publishing and ebooks in the region has been well documented, self-publishing has recently begun to garner more attention. As internet access and digital publishing increase in the region, so do the number of self-publishers. In 2015, for example, Rex Czuba, the manager for Kindle Direct Publishing in Spanish, said that 45 of the top 100 ebooks in Spanish were self-published. While some of these were published by new and emerging authors, some of the authors using digital self-publishing platforms were well-established authors who chose to retain the ebook rights for their works and self-publish them online.
An intergovernmental organization sponsored by UNESCO, the Centro Regional para el Fomento del Libro en América Latina y el Caribe (CERLALC) [the Regional Centre for the Promotion of Books in Latin America and the Caribbean] recently published a report on the self-publishing phenomenon. Among other findings, the report outlines various forms self-publishing in the digital age. The CERLALC report highlights that self-publishing can be defined in different ways, including authors enlisting the services of publishing service providers to help with the various stages of literary production and authors taking charge of their own marketing and PR campaigns. Similarly, a recent article on self- and audio publishing in Peru discusses the emergence of “author-editors” in that country and indicates that the growth in ISBNs listed by this new type of “publishing agent” (agente editor) accounted for 5.7% of registered ISBNs in 2016. While commercial publishing has also increased in Peru, self-published titles grew from almost 110 titles in 2007 to more than 400 by 2016. The CERLALC report notes that other major Spanish-language markets in the region witnessed similar growth: self-published titles in Argentina tripled in the period between 2012 and 2016 (from 1,190 titles to 3,380), and self-published titles in Chile grew from 300 to 1000 between 2006 and 2016. More broadly, the number of titles (or ISBNs) registered by self-publishers across 17 Latin American countries (excluding Brazil) has increased by 400% between 2007 and 2016.
While many self-publishers produce books in both print and digital formats (and print still remains the preferred format for most publishers), ebook production has outpaced print at a growth rate of 700% over this same period throughout the region. Nevertheless, a slower, more artisanal form of alternative publishing has also taken root over the last ten years: editoriales cartoneras, small independent publishers who create books from recycled cardboard. Now considered a grassroots publishing movement spanning many different countries, the first cardboard publishers emerged in Argentina during that country’s economic crisis at the turn of the 21st century. As more and more Argentineans had to turn to collecting scraps amid high unemployment and homelessness rates, the cartonera movement began with small publishers sourcing cardboard with which to produce hand-painted books to then sell at low prices. Although the cardboard publishing movement was born of economic hardship in a specific time and place, it has become a much wider artistic and social movement that includes publishers who work exclusively with cardboard, as well as publishers who will also produce the texts in digital formats in several countries, including in Chile, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico (see, for example, Pensaré Cartoneras). Cardboard publishers emphasize the artistic aspects of creating unique handmade books, as well as the development of like-minded communities of publishers, authors, and artists who are interested in creating books outside of conventional commercial frameworks. As the number of cardboard publishers has grown, so too have their networks and activities, which include organizing cardboard bookmaking workshops and fairs at local cafés and libraries. While most cartoneras produce books on a very small scale, their artistry and use of cheap, recycled materials have captured the imagination of many creators across the region, providing a larger and stronger transnational base to many of these projects.
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