As MAI’s partnership and influence continues to grow in Latin America, so too does our commitment to supporting those serving to equip publishers, editors, and writers in this region of the world. We recently talked with Ian Darke, coordinator of Letra Viva, about the environment for publishers and authors in Latin America and about MAI’s ongoing partnership with Letra Viva.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get involved in publishing, and what are you doing now in that area of work?
I was raised in a completely non-Christian background. When I became a Christian during my teen years, I had lots of questions about faith, life, and the universe. Kind friends lent me books that helped me, so the written word has always been important to me.
At university, I studied Pure Mathematics, taught for a while, and then worked in student ministry with IFES, at first in the U.K. and then in Peru. It was during that time when we saw how few relevant resources were available to students and to the church in general. This was during the time of the revolutionary Maoist violence in Peru (Sendero Luminoso).
Poorly translated, superficial books from the U.S. did not help! So around 1992, with no experience, a group of Peruvian friends and I formed a publishing ministry called PUMA, which continues to grow to this day. I’ve been involved in publishing ever since.
How is Letra Viva serving publishers in Latin America?
Letra Viva is a network of publishing ministries. It came together organically in the late 1990s, as the internet was making communications much simpler. At that time, we all realised that the books we produced were poor in quality and that distribution was terrible. So Letra Viva aimed (and still aims) “to do together what we cannot do apart.”
Our activities have come under several headings:
- Training through workshops and consultations
- Distribution by creating an international fulfilment centre
- Promotion through a printed magazine, websites, and social media
- Representation together in book fairs
- Pastoral support
A key part of the vision has been to publish good books written in Latin America and for Latin America. So naturally, Letra Viva has always been concerned with encouraging writers and editors. Over the years, we have held many on-site workshops, often with MAI, and now use distance learning technology and webinars.
Talk to us about publishing in Latin America. What are some challenges authors face in getting published?
We always say that in Latin America the challenge is not so much to produce a book, but to distribute it. Services like Amazon are limited here, postal services are poor (or non-existent), and many distributors do not have bank accounts. So face-to-face bookselling is key.
Self-publishing is a good option if the author has a captive audience—for example, through workshops or conferences at which they present. Unfortunately, many publishing dreams end up dying in boxes of books in a back room.
Publishers in Latin America work on extremely tight margins. The very fact that they survive is a miracle, so they need to be careful about the books they take on. They need to be particularly aware of the needs of the Christian public, and to listen to booksellers about the sorts of books people are buying. Sadly, poetry and fiction are very difficult to sell and the use of e-books is very limited in both the general market and in the church.
What are some of the challenges publishers in Latin America face?
Finding the right book can be a challenge. One crucial issue is finding subject matter that will meet a real need. The publisher increasingly wants to know that the writer has good credentials, relevant experience, and hopefully good contacts.
On a practical level, there are ethical challenges in running a business in many Latin American countries, as well—you have to pay taxes correctly and avoid underhanded practices! Then, an important part of the work is setting up distribution networks. There are lots of changes happening at a technical level (e.g., the growth of print-on-demand services), but these don’t exist in every country. Therefore, it can be complicated to work out how many books to print of a certain title, and where to distribute them.
Today, we have about 30 experienced publishers linked together in the Letra Viva network. This allows us to share ideas and knowledge.
What good things do you see happening in your part of the world in terms of the books coming out?
There are a lot of good things happening! For instance, there is an increased interest in thoughtful and reflective material (including ‘reformed’ books), and a growing awareness of the importance of resources that help us to do a deep study of the Bible.
The Comentario bíblico contemporáneo (Latin American Bible Commentary) that was finally published in 2019 after 12 years of work includes contributions from more than 100 writers from each part of the continent, many of whom had never written before. It is exciting to see new projects emerging from those seeds.
We are seeing the importance of partnerships between publishers and Christian organisations as well, including preaching clubs, theological seminaries, and children’s ministries. These links prove to be invaluable in helping get good books to the people who need them. After all, our aim is not so much to produce books, but to see books reach the hands of men and women who will read them, and whose lives and communities will be transformed as a result.
MAI recently partnered with Letra Viva for some online courses and writing contests. Why was that important for you, and what kind of response did you see?
The response this last year was brilliant. So many people participated in the writing contests that it was a true challenge for the judges! And the reaction to the online courses was so positive, showing there is a thirst to learn and to grow. Thank you, MAI, for being our partners and friends!
As well as planning new courses and contests, we also want to keep in touch with those who have already participated. We know that these events don’t always produce fruit straight away and that it can take time to write and publish a book.
How can we be praying for you and your work?
Pray for wisdom in helping the budding writers as they grow in their “ministry of the word,” which in some cases might lead them into serving as editors or ghost writers.
Covid has hit the publishers hard. Sales have dropped in some case to zero, but salaries and rent still must be paid. We are grateful for some emergency financial help we have been able to pass on to others. Pray that sales will pick up. Typically, publishers take part in international book fairs which give exposure to our books and allow us to meet with distributors and booksellers. All such events have been cancelled or postponed until 2022. Please pray for ways to work round the loss of face-to-face contacts.
Finally, we have always been concerned about publishing books that reach the non-Christian public. But that is easier said than done given the characteristics of Latin American culture! Please pray we can find creative ways to do that well.