Why are books so outrageously expensive in Brazil?

That’s from a reader request.  I’m no expert on Brazil, but here are a few possibilities:

1. Most Brazilians do not read.  I don’t mean they can’t read, I mean they don’t read for leisure so much.  I was stuck at the Sao Paulo airport for seven hours and did not see a single person reading a book, not once.

Taking that as given, low demand means high prices.  That’s why Stephen King paperbacks are cheap and Edward Elgar (the name of an academic publisher) tomes go for $100 and up.

2. Brazilian retailing is not in every way efficient.  Efficient retailing in the traditional sense is, by the way, bad for the quality of your food because it means it is easy to serve large numbers.  And Brazil has some of the world’s best food, and so inefficient retailing for its books.

3. No other supply source is right nearby and the Portuguese language does not produce an extremely thick market.  Note that the Portuguese of Portugal is very different from the Portuguese of Brazil.

4. The Brazilian currency may be overvalued at the moment, at least in purchasing power parity terms, due to Brazil’s commodity exports.


"low demand means high prices"
hmmmm, not the standard micro argument. Though I get the example I cannot see the reason. Or might it be that Elgar is sold in low volumes because the price is so high?

Maybe Brazilians don't read because books are so expensive?

>> "Note that the Portuguese of Portugal is very different from the Portuguese of Brazil."
Interesting, I wasn't aware of that.

I was the reader who asked the question. Thank you for covering it. :)
1. I know that Brazilians do not read much; it is basically an oral culture. Nevertheless, my own country has roughly 20 times fewer inhabitants than Brazil, and our economic level is quite similar to that of the luckier part of Brazil. So I thought that if you disregard the poor and people who never read, the Brazilian book market should add up to something that is not "smaller" than what I know from my country, where books are some 50% cheaper.
2. Yes, services in general are a bit underdeveloped, in particular in the online sector.
3. I don't think that the language versions are different enough to prevent Brazilians from reading Portuguese books and vice versa. That said, I know next to nothing about the Portuguese book market.
4. As far as I know, books have "always" been expensive here. It is not a recent phenomenon.

Never having been to Brazil, but having spent time in Peru where there is a similarly high cost to books, I need to ask if you are not missing a sizable black market book economy.
In the upscale neighborhoods of Lima there are a number of mainstream booksellers that cater to tourists and those who don't mind paying the premium, and a district in a decaying section of the center city that sells to everyone else. The quality is fairly high (meaning that the photocopies are legible and bound tightly), the bootleg version of a text appears there long before it appears in the legitimate bookstores, and the cost is minimal.

The written standard of Portuguese in Brazil tends to be closer to the Portuguese of Portugal, and thus rather different than the way people actually talk. Perhaps that makes written text seem a bit constrained and unnatural and old-fashioned, not the sort of thing you'd turn to for entertainment. If all of our novels and non-fiction in English were written in a florid 19th century style (say, like Moby Dick), the average person might read less.

Quebec might have the same problem, both in terms of significant spoken language differences and importing books in French at Parisian prices.

How does the currency factor in though? If anything, the newly high value of the real would make imported books from Portugal considerably cheaper than before. However, this high value is a very recent development, so it would have little effect on a lifetime's reading habits.

I suspect that ultimately the Internet and future generations of devices like the Amazon Kindle will have a big impact in making reading more affordable in many parts of the world and helping to foster a reading culture, but it might take another decade or so.

Vaguely related: Mark Andreessen had an interesting blog entry on the sheer difficulty of getting newspapers started as a medium in early America, which might give some insights into how difficult it can be to create a reading culture from scratch.

Some books sold by EE at 75$ are sold by Liberty Fund at 12$. So low demand doesnt seem to fit as explanation.They same kind of book sell by University´s Press are cheaper than EE.I paid around 20 $ for What Price Fame? or Creative Destruction that is the same kind of book yo find at EE. EG Buchannan Property as a guarantor of freedom( 15$ ee and 12 $ Liberty Fund with 10 more papers)

Number 1. is right: it is an underdeveloped market which means low volumes and high prices.

Number 2. I think book retailing is inefficient and the costs of unsold inventory is usually borne by publishers, not stores. So book stores are usually filled with books that are cheap to carry, don't sell well, but are expensive.

Number 3. Little supply is not an issue. It is a 200 million inhabitant country, and Portugal is only 10 million. But alas, books from Portugal read awkward.

Number 4. An overvalue currency actually creates a downward price pressure. I found out that there is at least one shop in Sao Paulo that sells American pocket books for just cover price, maybe a quarter of what the Portuguese translation costs. But maybe it also reduces the size of the market for local books.

About the piracy issue of a earlier commenter: I don't think it is a problem. I wouldn't even have thought of that.

Taxes are not a problem at all. Books carry no taxes at all.

I think it is number 1 and number 2 in a feedback loop.

Jason: there is no black market. Even used books are kinda expensive.

Currency is an issue in book prices because lots of raw materials (paper, translated books) are imported. Note that the real has been gaining strength in relation to the dollar, though.

As a Brazilian an avid book buyer, I'd give the greatest weight to Tyler's first item.

On an added note: readership in Brazil is very extreme. Those who read books for pleasure (14% of the population), read a lot (over a book per month in average). The problem is the rest of the population who doesn't read at all.

Pedro is correct. Let's put it this way: for Brazilians it is harder to follow Portugal-written books, especially non-academic books (I know that because I am a fan of Nina Berberova and most of her books have never seen the light in Brazil, but Portugal).
So, there is hardly economies of scale in tackling Portugal/Brazil as a single market, especially in non-academic circles.

Ouch, I meant "Brazilians" and not "Portuguese from Brazil". Sorry, guys.

It is so true that Brazilians do not read.

For example, many do the 2-hour (each way) commute in a plush bus every day from Teresópolis to Rio de Janeiro to work. Not only do they not read a book, but they do not read a magazine like Veja. A few will read a newspaper. If you see a person reading in public, it will invariably turn out that he is a gringo. And the idea that Brazilians spend the time conversing instead of reading is a canard, as almost none of those bus commuters converse with their seatmates either. As a gringo, I find it fun to strike up conversations with Brazilians in lines like those at the bank, where they seem to spend half their lives.

I think the Brazilians are a lot like Turks, for example, who figure their education is over, rather than just beginning, once they have left school! To read a book in public is to them a clear indication of lack of education.

But Brazilians also can't fix anything and can't borrow a tool without returning it late or broken, or both. The only exception is when they don't return it at all, which is more common.

The result is that I know Brazilian geography and history, not to mention wildlife, better than my Brazilian neighbors, many of which have never ventured more than 100 km from where they were born.

One of my native Brazilian friends explains that these behaviors are attributable to the culture of slavery, which lasted in Brazil until 1888. The idea is: why not break the master's tools and attribute it to accident? And why read if you will be punished for it? This is the attitude that led to the capoeira, one of those many c-words, like cachaça and churrasco that the Brazilians are very good at.


Here's this gigantic country with little influence outside its borders other than soccer, some music, and two or three movies.

I suspect the future will increasingly be like a combination of Brazil and the Ottoman Empire, with not much in the way of cultural innovation.

I don't think the culture of slavery has much to do with our reading habits. In fact, I speculate on my dissertation that some issues usually arise (I am a Bourdieu reader, and thus I do have a more sociological approach to Economics, by the way):

1) Reading is seen as a "bad" thing, as a habit done by pretentious people. Here, the culture of "accommodation" reigns high: let's grab some beers and be more like the other guys (well, our own president says that reading is like "doing exercises on a threadmill - it is boring, too hard, but you may get used to in the end"). This is what I call "pressure from below".

2) At the same time, editors and educators treat the book as some source of magic, an object who is above all others. So, every time the subject shows up on the media, it is followed by classical music, very stiff people wearing heavy glasses and discourses that embed books with a "holier than thou" packaging.

To sum it up, books are not well-seen by the vast majority of the population (it is not a cool thing to be/have around) and those who are responsible for developing and market books are more worried about the valuation of the category rather than its popularization. That's why my dissertation was called "I'm not in it for the money!", a very common sentence book editors in Brazil say in interviews.

Here are some amazing statistics from the big PISA international achievement test of 15 year olds in 2000:

In Brazil, only 4% of the youths read at one of the two highest levels on a six point scale, versus 33% in the USA and 50% in top-rated Finland.


On the other hand, it is possible to find American textbooks(college level)for cheaper prices in Brazil than in the US... but maybe that just means that texts books are seriously overpriced in the US.

Right, Mexico's 2000 reading levels were almost as bad as Brazil's.

Good thing we're importing so much of the population of Mexico, like John McCain wants. He should run on the slogan:

Invite the World
Invade the World
In Hock to the World
Go McCain!

Well, the poor do not read because books are too expensive for them, and, even, though complete illiteracy is relatively rare, poor reading skills are common. No mistery here.

There is a lower-middle class crowd that reads a lot. These are people who see education as their only way to social mobility. But these people do not have the money to buy many books, and often rely on photocopies of academic books. I have friends who graduated in Law or Economics and finished College with barely one shelf of books, and several boxes of photocopies. I am not sure how numerous is this crowd, though.

As for why the elite does not read, I have a pet theory that goes like this:

1 - In Brazil there was not a declining aristocracy who had to assert itself against the rising merchant class using their cultural credentials.

2 - Nor was there an educated working class who would force the elite to distinguish itself.

If this is right, as the poor become educated (this is very, very recent), the elite will have to test their literacy more often. This should take some years, because I suspect a determining factor will be to have well-read parents.

I am Brazilian, living in Brazil. Of your four points, I believe #1 is the closest to the truth. I like to use my wife as an example. She is extremely intelligent and has a Ph.D, but hasn't read a whole book in 12 years. Articles and papers, yes. Books, no. It's just not in her upbringing.

This leads to the question of *why* brazilians don't read much, and I agree with the idea about the portuguese language from previous comments. Written english is very similar to colloquial spoken english, and thus reading english-language books feels familiar and comfortable. Written portuguese is quite different from the spoken language, and so feels strange and unpleasant. I read two books a month but most are in english. I only read one portuguese-language book every year, on average, and always find that the cognitive load it imposes on me is much higher.

Oops, sorry. Point about Finns was made by Sailer.

Bookstores like Fnac and Saraiva make their profits selling everthing, from DVDs to computers, but not selling books.

Besides any/every monetary problem of our nation, this is as simple as that; Brazilians do NOT have the habit of reading. It is also not stimulated at schools, from prep-schools to university level. So, the cliche "low demand, high prices" can somehow, be used.

However, a family which earns R$400 (around 220 dolars) monthly, would rather buy food, supplies, etc, than buy a book. A book costing R$40 (10% of house income) will be, naturally, expensive. And that represents the situation of 80% of our population.

So, in my point of view, it is not about books being overpriced. It is about how bad the situation in Brazil is.

Where to start? Geez. I'll try by commenting on the most relevant points. Cost is def. a major player although Brazil not being much of a reader's paradise trumps the cost point, as has been pointed out by a few people here.

"You can go to a mid-class house and won't see a bookshelf but will see a fancy US$2000 LCD TV."

Books therefore aren't part of everyday life and normal purchases. Make the choice, food vs. books and its easy. Refine the choice, material 'necessities' vs. books and its even easier. Brazilians are resourceful people so if they need a certain book, they'll find a cheaper way to obtain it (camêlo which is a street vendor or 'sebo' which is a 2nd-hand bookstore and also Portuguese for pork grease)

Slave culture as well as a social culture may very well play a part in the debate too, as was also pointed out. I do see Brazil being the kind of country Jimbino referred to in that post-schooling, education isn't seen as any type of priority.

Let's expand on these ideas a little. From what I've seen, reading isn't stressed as an important leisure activity in Brazil although when considering the class load (which I find superior to that of US students), one would think that Brazilians were ahead of Americans in a way (especially when considering the subjects included in the vestibular, or SAT of sorts). The novela culture doesn't help either as we both know that when they novela das 8 comes on, a lot of Brazil stops what they are doing to watch. The conversation in the street turns not to what great book you just read but rather to why did Bia drive off the cliff and "die" in the novela Belissima (ok, that's old news but it was the last novela I watched). From another view, walk into any LAN house (cyber cafe) and all you find are tons of teenagers yelling and playing video games. Insert the beach/sports club culture and you find more involving things to do than to just read a book. Speaking of sports, what are they good for and how is that knowledge of use, except when discussing facts with other aficionados?

Ex. I learn Portuguese and now I have a skill that opens me up to an entire world of subjects and experiences, therefore its of exceptional use and benefit to me. On the other side, I spent two hours watching a soccer game with my friends and aside from socializing, I now know the score. I repeat, how is this information useful? This however is a whole other can of worms.

As for BR Port vs. PT Port, I agree. Popular writers are easy to understand and don't put a strain on your brain, but research papers and I'm sure other more academically-minded subjects are a bit stressing. Lets not even get into 'Os Sertões' by Euclides da Cunha!

On the subject of there being a lot more information in English-language versions of books, that point is moot as a large enough readership of English-language books would have to exist in Brazil in order for this argument of more vs. less to make sense.

I used to be one of the two-hour commuters on the bus from the Zona Oeste to the Zona Sul in Rio and I spent my time between listening to Italian Pimsleur mp3's on my iPod (I already knew Portuguese) and listening to music. I'm a big believer in taking things in and smelling the flowers when I travel so you wouldn't catch me reading anything as my face was always glued to the fantastic views of Rio. There's always something new to notice if one pays enough attention.

My 'dois centavos' based on almost 10 years of studying Brazilian culture.

Wow! All these comments and nobody mentions going to a library. Do they exist in Brazil? Or are they more of anglo-sphere phenomenon?

Marc, we have libraries here (for sure!). Not as many as we should have, I agree, but they exist. Anyway, the post is about the prices.

Ricardo, I agree with you, but it's not up ONLY to the government buy books. Many people could do it as well, but we don't have neither the culture of donating. It's easy to get some money from your friends to make a churrasco (barbecue), but it's hard fundraising to buy books to the district's library.

I work in the publishing industry, as a translator. I am one of the culprits, or perhaps one of the victims, of a very strange editorial policy, already mentioned in other comments, which I think explains why Brazilians do not acquire a taste for reading. In order to read well, one needs to read a lot. In order to read a lot, it must be fairly easy and fun.
All Brazilian publishers, however, demand that translations follow the "norma culta". "Norma culta" means a formal style of writing, far removed from regular spoken Portuguese. The person who said all books read like Mody Dick has a point. A Brazilian translation of the sentence "get me some ammo" in, say, a T. Clancy or M. Crichton novel, will have to be "dê-me alguma munição" in order to get published, when people would normally say something like "me dá umas balas". Thus, "get me some ammo" becomes something as [irony] idiomatic, easy to read and familiar [/irony] as "do relinquish some rounds of ammunition for me".
It becomes really hard to get into reading this way, as the kind of would-be popular fiction that would train people to read faster and better is simply not allowed to exist. Publishers will not touch a text that is not written in the "norma culta", period, even if it is a translation of a book originally written in a speech-like style.
To make matter worse, printing paper is heavily taxed, making it expensive to print books. Importing foreign books is a good idea for private citizens, but awful for a business, as the tax-free limit is US$500; any sum above this amount implies in paying heavy taxes, whether it is for a private individual or for a wholesale reseller. For me it is not a problem, as I will not buy that much, but it would be kind of hard to keep a bookstore well supplied within such a low sum, and very expensive to import anything above it. That is why it is cheaper to import a book from the USA by priority mail than to buy the same book in a bookstore in Brazil.
Likewise, it is way cheaper to import the book from Amazon than to buy the Brazilian translation (and the Brazilian translation will be, all other things being equal, harder to read. Think Melville rewriting Tom Clancy).
There is also a cultural aspect here. Brazilians think it is important to say and to be seen doing "the right things". In terms of reading, it means that people are supposed to read The Great Masters. It is certainly one of the reasons why publishers demand that translations sound like them, by the way.
A few days ago, there has been a poll in which people were asked what were their favorite writers. #1 and #2 "most popular" writers were Machado de Assis and Monteiro Lobato, both Great Masters. Most people could not name a single title by Machado de Assis and almost everybody mistook the name of a TV series based on Monteiro Lobato's works for an actual book title. Nevertheless, people would still say they like these writers. They say so because it is what they feel is expected from them, it is "the right thing to say". People will blush and hide a Paulo Coelho book if they are caught reading it, for instance, because reading Paulo Coelho is not "the right thing" to be caught doing.
So, we have both an impossible standard (reading The Great Masters for fun), no popular reads to speak of (everything is as hard to read as Melville or Shakespeare), and a very high price on books.
It makes reading look snobbish, something that in a certain way humiliates people around. People feel like they should be doing it, they should be reading the complicate sentences written in long words, and enjoying them!, but they are just not able to do it. When someone does it in public, he is reminding people of their shortcomings, and it is not polite.

I am sure this is a cultural issue, not an economic one.

I don't think reading is AS important to Brazilians as to Europeans. BUT, just like with anyone who like to read, the Brazilians who do like to read, LOVE to read.

In my personal experience of being in a lot of bookstores all over Brazil, and as the British owner of an independent international bookstore in Brazil, Brazilians who can afford to buy books do buy a lot of books.

I have a hope story to tell (and we do need one, badly!!!) and it concerns the norma culta issue.

One year ago I moved from Rio to a 6000 inhabitants town in the country where most people read so little they are not even able to follow subtitled movies.

I'm an Illustrator and amateur musician, writer and voracious reader. I'm also not so socially savvy or cautious to avoid reading in public... this causes a mixture of awe and resentment in the people around here. It's not possible, in their minds for one to hold as many skills or even to "teach himself" to do things trough discipline.

Here, what you get is a coach potato, at best, that avidly consumes any kind of mindless entertainment even if he doesn't get half of the jokes. They make very little money but most of it goes on beer and status symbols.

In time, I made some friends (I'm also a passionate Truco player... a popular card game) and one neighbor in particular got curious and asked me to lend her a book.

That was Markus Zusak's "I Am the Messenger", a teenager thriller that was translated in a very modern way using oral expressions in their loosest form. It worked wonders, she read it and after a while claimed she felt comfortable with books now and wanted a new one. She is currently reading George Orwell's 1984 and claims she is having a lot less trouble with subtitles, that in it self allows for much greater flights.

My cleaning lady started borrowing books and also movies.

The norma culta translation issue seems to be a great one and deserves a further look into it. I do believe that amateurism in the book business is a great part of the issue. Profit-blindness is a great issue also and a great source of problems for illustrators and writers alike.

Trough empathy, a lot can be achieved. It's not a matter of "culture" in a monolithic way.

It's a Cultural Inertia and it's never too late to start pushing.

Great discussion. Deep insight like this doesn't happen in the most educated circles I know around here... it's also great to see so many Brazilians here. (and with great english, uhu)

I didn´t read all the comments, but I would like to clarify a few ponts:

1- Are books in Brazil expensive? The other day I bought a pocket edition of Russel's skeptic essais for R$ 12,00 - around 7 or 8 US Dollars. Next to it was a paperback edition of Dostoievsky's Crime and Punishment that costed R$ 25. The problem is that these pocket and paperback editions are recent, and still have very few titles. Hardback editions usualy cost 2 or 3 times as much - but I guess that's the cost of such editions in USA and Europe too, right?

Because of that, I have been purchasing imported books in their original languages, in paperback or pocket editions, which are sold at cover prices in large bookstores. The portuguese editions are usually available only in hard-cover, but that seems to be changing.

2- Since the 1988 Constitution, books and magasines of all kinds (including porn) are free of taxes, as well as the paper they´re printed at. Can't blame the government on that.

3- In big cities, especially in the southern part of Brazil, there are many large bookstores that offer a vast supply, wich includes imported original versions - so distribution and retail inefficiency are not the problem, at least not in these places.

Therefore, I would explain it all for the lack of readers. There isn´t a market for too many large-scale pocket or paperback editions, so the brazilian reader is left only with the expensive, luxurious hard-covers if he wants anything a little out of the ordinary.

Many people now use the Internet to do business, after receiving the business should be the best as far as possible, to allow customer satisfaction. But some Internet companies, not to start on your money to begin with, so on and then close the first half, resulting in Juankuan flee. Not only did not complete 租車the project, customers would also like to once again spend money and time to decoration. Dear Customer: This is no guarantee as the company not to find the.

Why Brazilians do not read? Historically, we begun to have books produced in Brazil only after 1808, with the arrival of the Portuguese royal family, running from Napoleon. Second, the dictatorship who governed Brazil from 1964 up to 1985 decided to stimulate the existence of TV sets everywhere in the country, in order to facilitate a preventive indoctrination against comunism; today TVs are present in about 90% of Brazilian houses. Add to this a great mass of descendants of slaves and native indians, and a tradition of producing and selling sophisticated products (like books) only to the elite, and you can begin to understand why Brazilians do not read.

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