Amid an Epidemic of Book Piracy, Authors Say, ‘At Least They’re Reading’

Lima | 08/28/2013 10:55am
Manuel Vigo | Informal City Dialogues

For decades Jiron Quilca, a street in downtown Lima, has held the dubious distinction of being one of Limeños favorite places for buying pirated books. Dozens of shops selling pirated books line Quilca, their products displayed on wooden shelves that peek discreetly out of doorways onto the street.

Nestled among the shops is Libros Adam, a small store that carries a wide array of pirated books. Self-help books and international bestsellers tend to be among the biggest sellers here, including popular titles by Dan Brown, John Grisham and Stephen King. Often the pirated copies share shelf space with used books, and even some legitimate copies.

“We also have the Game of Thrones series,” the shopkeeper at Libros Adam says from his stool. The air inside the shop is dense and smells of musty pages. He’s reading his newspaper, and is wary of answering too many questions about his business. “If you want something we don’t have, we can get that for you, too,” he assures me.

Most of Lima’s informal book manufacturing is thought to take place on antique presses in illegal workshops scattered throughout the city’s low-income areas. The books are printed on cheap paper, and it’s not uncommon for the text to be printed crooked, or for entire chapters to be missing. The binding is often cheap, and whole sections of the book have been known to detach before you finish reading them.

The illegal copies aren’t restricted to high-profile places like Jiron Quilca – they’re ubiquitous, displayed by street vendors, on highway stands, inside markets and during the summer months at the city’s most popular beaches. According to one estimate, quoted by the BBC, Peru’s pirated-book publishers employ more people than their legal counterparts, and are thought to cost the industry $52 million in annual losses. In formal Peruvian bookstores the price of an average book hovers around 50 soles, or about $18, which is significantly more than what the average Peruvian makes in a day.

Many titles from Peruvian writers have also been given the full pirating treatment, including books by Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Laureate, who has said the country’s book piracy “reflects the little or no respect for the law.”

Book pirates are known for their resourcefulness. Illegal copies of major novels are known to make their way to the streets on or before the official release date. When Vargas Llosa’s last novel The Dream of the Celt came out in 2010, it was quickly copied and distributed across the country. It was common to see the book displayed by street vendors at most of Lima’s major intersections, selling for 25 soles (about $9 USD), significantly less than the 70 soles retail price.

“Piracy reflects the lack of awareness that the law is really civilization,” Vargas Llosa told a Spanish newspaper shortly after the book’s release.

Following news of the high-profile copyright infringement, INDECOPI, Peru’s intellectual-property protection agency, vowed it would fight the city’s book pirates and get illegal copies off the streets. But the vast network of informal printing presses means that even when officials raid informal book sellers, shopkeepers are able to resupply within days. Almost three years later, pirated copies of The Dream of the Celt are still available in Quilca.

For authors less celebrated than Vargas Llosa, being pirated is a sign that they’ve made it as a successful writer. In his terrific in-depth look at the country’s book pirates for an article in Granta, Daniel Alarcon, a Peruvian author, describes being pirated as “the Peruvian equivalent of making the bestseller list.”

During a visit to Polvos Azules, I learned of similar sentiments in the country’s film industry, where filmmakers voluntarily provide copies of their movies to be pirated, saying they’d rather their work reach more people than be confined to legal DVD sales.

“I think its fascinating that someone has done the math, is standing on the street corner selling 25 to 30 titles, and they’ve figured out it’s good business,” Alarcon tells me during a phone interview. “One time at a beach, I saw this guy carrying this stack of 20 books – he probably had some 30 more in his backpack.”

Pirated school and college textbooks are also big sellers in Quilca, and illegal copies make their way onto university campuses, where many of the country’s future lawyers presumably learn their trade through pirated textbooks. Rodrigo Salazar, a local journalist and author, tells me that during his college years he and many of his fellow classmates came to these very stores in search of books that were hard to find at the universities’ libraries. “My college’s library wasn’t very good, and if by some miracle they had the books I needed, they only had one or two [copies]. In class it was common to hear, ‘They have that book in Quilca, let’s go,’” he says.

Perhaps most significantly, though they’re illegal, pirated books don’t carry the same stigma as, say, illegally downloaded music or pirated copies of DVDs.

“The book is a very revered cultural object,” Alarcon points out. “Who could be against books? [But] the methods and the tactics used by pirated booksellers are similar to those used in other illegal activities, like drug-trafficking or the mafia. Books are things we associate with the cultural world… but often people who are selling books don’t care about books. They could be selling umbrellas or pantyhose.”

Still, Alarcon, who has a new novel set to be published later this year, says part of him would be disappointed if it wasn’t pirated.

“It would mean someone did the math and thought your book wouldn’t sell,” he says with a laugh. “And if they don’t read your book, you’re a failure.”

Photos by Manuel Vigo