Brazil: e-books, education and technology

01/10/2012 / Octavio Kulesz

Non ducor, duco

With its 11 million inhabitants –20 million, if we include the suburbs– and a GDP of over 300 billion dollars, São Paulo is South America’s main industrial and financial hub. Some 6 million vehicles travel its gigantic network of highways, avenues, tunnels and viaducts. Away from the traffic, countless passengers are transported underground by different subway lines, while up in the air a swarm of helicopters wait to land on the rooftop of one skyscraper or another.

The city exudes an extraordinary intensity; it is thoroughly multicultural and absorbs any outside influence –customs, dress, food and even words– just as naturally as a rainforest assimilates new species. However, such ease should not give rise to confusion: far from passively adapting to fashion trends, São Paulo transforms them to its advantage, which perhaps explains the Latin motto that adorns its flagnon ducor, duco –“I am not led, I lead”.

CONTEC: education and technology

Luckily, the city is endowed with a number of tranquil spaces. Ibirapuera Park is one of São Paulo’s largest, and offers beautiful lakes, fountains and trees, as well as a rich cultural program. In its centre stands the Ibirapuera auditorium, designed several decades ago by the brilliant architect Oscar Niemeyer and currently run by the Itaú Cultural Institute.

The auditorium is generally used for large-scale musical shows, but from the 7th to the 8th of August it served as the venue for CONTEC, an international conference on education and technology organized by the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) –particularly by LitCam and Frankfurt Academy divisions–, which enjoyed the support of local actors including PublishNews, Abeu, the Itaú Cultural Institute, the Brazilian Book Chamber (CBL) and Positivo. Nearly 700 people, most of them youngsters, were able to attend cutting-edge debates on the issue of illiteracy, Brazil’s national reading plans, the initiatives undertaken by local companies and the incursions being made by multinationals.

Judging from what we have seen, Brazil is getting ready to take a giant leap in both education and technology. As Karine Pansa –CBL’s director– clearly stated at the opening of the event, Brazil is still an unequal country, but the universalization of primary education, investment in educational quality and new technologies will prove to be decisive factors in consolidating the reading market. To achieve these objectives, the country “will have to learn from those nations that have already taken that leap”.

A powerful state

André Lázaro –who served as Secretary of Continued Education, Literacy and Diversity during Lula da Silva’s presidency– listed the accomplishments and challenges of the national plans to combat illiteracy, as well as the need to work actively in this sphere in order to achieve a better democracy. As Lázaro reminded us, pronounced differences still persist between the affluent South East and the poorer North East, as well as between urban and rural areas.

Lucia Couto –the current General Coordinator of Elementary Education at the Ministry of Education– described the different tools used by the state to universalize child literacy. Brazil is currently discussing the details of the National Education Plan, which could see investment in education rise to 10% of GDP over the next 10 years.

Public sector efforts have also emerged from the field of culture. Galeno Amorim –the president of the National Library Foundation– presented details of the National Book and Reading Plan. As the public official pointed out, the Ministry of Culture has earmarked almost 200 million dollars for various initiatives to bolster libraries and promote reading during 2012.

Brazil at the technological forefront

If the public sector is showing signs of decisive action, private companies are not far behind, although they are aware of just how much remains to be done. Claudio de Moura Castro –an advisor to the powerful group Positivo–, pointed out that scarcely 18% of university students are in the habit of reading and that a significant number of pupils are actually functionally illiterate. The fact is there are as many bookshops in the city of Paris as there are in the whole of Brazil.

The mathematician José Luís Poli –from the Mother-Tongue Literacy Program (PALMA), developed by the company IES2– concurred with the negative assessment regarding the millions of Brazilians who are either fully or functionally illiterate, but showed himself to be optimistic about the solutions provided by new technologies. PALMA functions as a set of applications for mobile phones and offers different writing and text comprehension tools. It is important to remember that in Brazil there are over 250 million cell phones –equivalent to a penetration of 130%–, around 54 million of which are 3G. In addition, the plentiful investments in 4G infrastructure now on the horizon suggest that mobile phone technology will play an even more vital role in Brazilian communications.

Brazil 2.0

Social networks are another decisive factor in the world of communication in Brazil. The country has over 55 million Facebook accounts –second only to the US in the global user ranking. The social network Orkut, which in Brazil is run by Google, was knocked off the top spot in late 2011, but still boasts a significant mass of followers. With regard to Twitter, Brazil also follows behind the US in the total number of users, with São Paulo being the city with the fourth largest number of tweets in the world, after only Jakarta, Tokyo and London. During the CONTEC conference, the Rio de Janeiro-based writer Thalita Rebouças stated the advantages of using Twitter and maintaining a direct dialogue with over 200,000 readers that follow her.

Social media in Brazil reach beyond Facebook, Orkut and Twitter. Local networks organized by special interest groups have already emerged and are remarkably active. On the panel that I had the chance to moderate, Viviane Lordello gave some figures for Skoob, the largest social network of readers in Brazil: some 600,000 Internet users exchange recommendations, reviews and even physical books, which are sent by post. The members come from across Brazil, but over 45% live in São Paulo. Also worth mentioning is the work carried out by Copia, a digital content platform run by the US group DCM. During the event, Marcelo Gioia –the CEO of Copia Brazil– detailed the company’s plans at the local level, particularly since having sealed an alliance with Submarino, Latin America’s leading e-commerce firm. This joining of forces has led to Submarino Digital Club, a social network in which users can exchange notes as well as buy and download e-books.

Local and global. CONTEC 2013

The need to establish local alliances was partly discussed during the session entitled “Panoramic vision: looking into the crystal ball”, which included the participation of Tania Fontolan –from the energetic Brazilian conglomerate Abril Educação– and Hegel Braga –the director of Wiley Brazil–, under the coordination of Holger Volland. Fontolan began by explaining how Abril Educacão sees the local educational market for the coming years: growth in cloud content; proliferation of tablets and cell phones; videogame-based learning and open content. Braga, for his part, gave details of Wiley’s activities in Brazil: the company opened its own office in São Paulo a few months ago, from where it hopes to develop agreements with local partners and bring technology from abroad to be adapted to Brazilian clients. Tania Fontolan agreed on the importance of working with local alliances, although she was skeptical about the idea of implanting closed technological solutions, since they often turn out to be simply unadaptable.

Jurgen Boos and Marifé Boix García –the director and vice-director of the FBF respectively– underlined their long-term commitment to Brazil and Latin America, and also announced a new edition of CONTEC for June 2013, this time in the form of an international fair for educational and multimedia content, with separate days for professionals and the public. The FBF already has offices in New Delhi, Moscow, Beijing and New York, and will soon open another in São Paulo. According to Jurgen Boos, professional networks and the FBF’s knowhow may be a great help to the Brazilian publishing industry:

“Brazil has an enormous domestic market, with almost 200 million people. However, it is too focused on the local context, it still lacks international contacts and that is where I think we can play an important role. We would also like to work with Brazilian universities, because I believe everything we do should be local. We can bring our experience, but we need professionals from the local market.”

E-books at the Biennial: a future between EPUB and the cloud

On the 9th of August, some 12 kilometres from Ibirapuera Park–in Anhembi Exhibition Centre–, the 22nd São Paulo Book Biennial was inaugurated, under the slogan “Books transform the world, books transform people”. The exhibition lasted 11 days and was visited by 750,000 people, which only goes to confirm the dynamism of a publishing industry with an annual turnover of almost 2.5 billion dollars.

Compared to the stands for printed books, the space dedicated to e-books was fairly limited, which is in line with the low turnover recorded by the digital sector: indeed, e-books currently account for less than 1% of the Brazilian publishing industry’s total earnings. Nevertheless, certain trends indicate the accelerated growth of the new market.

As we mentioned earlier, there are numerous foreign companies working with home-grown partners to offer digital content that is increasingly adapted to local readers. Thanks to the launch of its e-book social network –following the agreement with Copia–, Submarino’s booth was one of the most visited at the Biennial.

Moreover, the considerable investment capability of the domestic players has enabled the emergence of original platforms like Núvem de Livros, developed by the Gol Group, in association with the operator Vivo-Telefônica. During the Biennial, students were able to find out about the features and costs of this cloud platform, which has over 800,000 users and for less than a dollar a week offers access to around 6,500 titles.

In addition, domestic publishers are actively working on digitizing their backlists, although there is still a lot of room for improvement, since according to the expert Camila Cabete, more than 60% of Brazilian EPUB files contain structuring errors. In any case, the migration is already underway and in 2011 titles published in digital format accounted for 9% of all registered works. Various publishing houses have embarked on a trade offensive, particularly in the field of scientific literature: Atlas, GEN, Editora Saraiva and Grupo A have joined forces to offer their titles through Minha Biblioteca, a digital content platform aimed at the academic market.

Who wants to Kindle a Fire in Amazonia?

The 10th of August was the key date for e-books during the Biennial. Throughout this veritable “D day”, the public was able to listen to various leading actors from the digital sphere: Andrew Lowinger from Copia, Marie Pellen from OpenEdition, Jesse Potash from Pubslush, Julio Silveira from Imã, Eduardo Melo from Simplíssimo, Marcílio Pousada from Livraria Saraiva and Russ Grandinetti from Amazon Kindle. After the first conference, the organizers were forced to move the event to a larger room, since the number of attendees had surpassed all expectations.

When Russ Grandinetti’s turn came, not even the new room was big enough to accommodate those interested and many who turned up were left outside. The executive made it clear from the outset that he wouldn’t give a date for Amazon’s arrival in Brazil and limited himself to listing the virtues of the Kindle e-reader and the Fire tablet. Carlo Carrenho –the director of PublishNews– coordinated the exchange between Grandinetti and the public, and towards the end recalled a phrase by Jeff Bezos: “I want to go to the moon … and to Brazil”, which led to a question that had the audience in stitches: “When are you thinking of opening that lunar subsidiary, then?”. The fact is that Amazon’s launch in Brazil has taken far too long –perhaps a sign that things weren’t quite as simple as they appeared. In addition to Brazilian tax complexities, there have been a number of unexpected difficulties. The amazon.com.br domain, for example, belonged to a local company by the same name, until very recently: it took 7 years for the US Amazon to reach an agreement with its Brazilian counterpart –indeed, it was no easy matter for the Americans to claim the rights to the brand, since the Amazon River happens to be in Brazil. In any case, the Seattle-based company seems willing to do whatever is necessary to establish itself in South America.

Right after Amazon came the turn of the bookstore Saraiva. By that time, there were so many people in the room that it seemed more like a rock concert than a talk on e-books. Marcílio Pousada reiterated the importance of possessing 102 stores across Brazil and being one of the major sellers of tablets and books at the national level. It is worth emphasizing that Saraiva has over 2 million active clients in its electronic division. Thanks to a team of 60 people dedicated to digital developments, it has implemented its own reading application and other initiatives designed specifically for the local reader. This potential rival of Amazon’s currently offers around 10,000 titles in Portuguese and hopes to add another 5,000 by next December.

The one leading the dance

Brazil is now witnessing a convergence of powerful forces from both home and abroad. Like mighty rivers that interconnect, the public sector, local companies and global firms have formed a rich and dynamic ecosystem. This assessment could be applied to different areas of the economy, such as the transport infrastructure, for example, as could be seen from the government’s recent announcements about the construction of railway lines and highways.

In the sphere of digital publications, the synergy between public and private as well as local and global players is particularly evident. The stature of the actors involved suggests there will be accelerated growth in both the supply of content and the economic earnings generated. The country has everything to gain from the arrival of the e-book multinationals: Brazilian companies receive significant technology transfer from abroad, while domestic consumers get access to first-rate platforms and devices.

Nevertheless, it is also necessary to point out that there is a danger of a glut in supply. Indeed, many of my Brazilian interlocutors were surprised by the excessive optimism expressed by international firms who think that in this market they have found the new El Dorado, the longed for escape from the economic crisis afflicting their parent companies. What is for certain is that –as the policy makers underlined during the CONTEC conference–, Brazil continues to face challenges that will take a long time and a great deal of effort to resolve.

In any case, despite all the difficulties, Brazil has taken on an undeniable importance and is already dialoguing on equal terms with the giants of the global electronic industry. It is the country of the samba, spontaneity and cheerfulness, but as we mentioned at the beginning, this should not give rise to confusion. Brazil –with its active public sector, its powerful companies and its extraordinary people– is looking to lead the dance, not to be led.

Octavio Kulesz

About the author

Octavio Kulesz is an Argentinian digital publisher and philosopher. In 2007 he founded Teseo, one of the first e-book publishing houses in Latin America. He is the author of the report “Digital Publishing in Developing Countries” (commissioned in 2011 by the Prince Claus Fund and the International Alliance of Independent Publishers), and a Unesco expert on the 2005 Convention.

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