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Life Among the Pirates

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In March of last year, Rodrigo Rosales, the director of the Peruvian offices of the international publisher Planeta, got an urgent call from Madrid. Paulo Coelho’s people were upset. It seems the Brazilian writer’s latest novel, O vencedor está só (published in English as The Winner Stands Alone), had been seen on the streets of Lima in an unauthorized edition. Rosales was taken aback. Coelho is a steady bestseller in Peru (and everywhere) and any new title by him is certain to be pirated almost immediately upon publication, but this one wasn’t scheduled to be released until July. In fact, it hadn’t even been officially translated into Spanish.

Though book piracy exists all over Latin America and the developing world, any editor with international experience in the region will tell you that Peru’s problem is both unique and profound. According to the International Intellectual Property Alliance, the local publishing industry loses more money to piracy than any other South American country, with the exception of Brazil – whose economy is more than eight times the size of Peru’s. A 2005 report commissioned by the Cámara Peruana del Libro (CPL), a national consortium of publishing houses, distributors and booksellers, came to even more alarming conclusions: pirates were employing more people than formal publishers and booksellers, and their combined economic impact was estimated to be 52 million US dollars – or roughly equivalent to one hundred per cent of the legal industry’s total earnings. The pirates operate in plain sight: vendors ply the streets of the capital, carrying heavy stacks of books as they drift through stopped traffic, or spreading a torn piece of blue plastic tarp on a sidewalk, laying their wares out hopefully for all to see. You can find them in front of high schools, institutes and government buildings, or wandering the aisles of the markets where most Limeños do their shopping. One Saturday, I came across a man selling pirated law texts (cloth­bound, official­looking copies so well made I had a hard time believing they were fake) who told me that on weekdays he rented a stand at a local university, inside the law school – where presumably Peru’s future lawyers are taught about copyright law, intellectual property and other fantastical, irrelevant concepts. On summer weekends, these salesmen work the beaches south of the city, or congregate at the tollbooths on the way out of town. On the margins of this business are the thieves, bands of skilled shoplifters who specialize in stealing books, trolling all the major fairs, hitting all the official bookstores and supplying a vibrant resale market with their so­called libros de bajada. Then there are the pirates themselves, the informal book manufacturers whose overworked, antique presses are hidden in nondescript houses in slums all over the city. The larger of these operations can crank out some 40,000 volumes a week, and because of their superior distribution, the pirates can sell three times as many copies of a book as the authorized publishers can. For a bestseller like Coelho, the figure could be even higher.

It didn’t take long for Rosales to confirm the story. He went out to look for Coelho’s unpublished book and found it at the first major intersection. Something had to be done. Peruvian book pirates are among the world’s quickest and most entrepreneurial, some would say most treacherous – a reality Coelho and his handlers are well aware of. At the start of this decade, the pirates had nearly killed the Peruvian publishing industry; its survival and subsequent resurgence are seen by many as something of a miracle. Counterfeit books printed in Lima have been known to show up in Quito, Ecuador, in La Paz, Bolivia, in the towns of northern Chile, as far east as Buenos Aires, Argentina. This same Coelho edition, if it were to be imported, could conceivably nullify the sizeable investment Rosales’s house had made to publish the novel in the Spanish­speaking world. Coelho’s people demanded action.

So began the latest skirmish in the on­again, off­again battle against Peruvian book piracy. The CPL registered a formal legal complaint, an investigation began and a few months later, on June 23, after failing to find the presses where Coelho’s book was being printed, the CPL helped organize a police raid on the points of sale instead.The chosen site was Consorcio Grau, a market on a busy avenue in central Lima notorious for its counterfeit merchandise. The operation seized a million soles’ (348,000 US dollars’) worth of pirated books, nearly 90,000 volumes in all. All the major networks covered the story, though few noted the fact that within twenty­four hours the stands were open again, fully restocked. Perhaps this wasn’t news. Book pirates, like drug traffickers, always assume a certain percentage of their merchandise will never make it to market. These losses are budgeted for, part of the accepted cost of doing business.

But there was still one more surprise. In July, when Planeta finally published the official version of Coehlo’s novel in Peru, Rosales decided to compare the two texts. He went through line by line, page by page, and discovered that the translations were essentially the same. The Peruvian book pirates hadn’t commissioned their own translation, as Rosales had previously assumed. Instead, they had infiltrated Planeta in Spain and stolen the official translation before it was complete.

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