• Table of contents

    • [+]Preliminaries (3)
    • [—]Introduction (4)
    • [+]Latin America (13)
    • [+]Sub-Saharan Africa (9)
    • [+]Arab World (11)
    • [+]Russia (11)
    • [+]India (11)
    • [+]China (9)
    • [+]Conclusions (6)
    • [+]Appendix (1)


Digital Publishing in the Developing World: Imitation or Autonomous Evolution?

In the last 15 years, the digital revolution has thoroughly modified the way in which cultural assets are produced and distributed. Music was probably the first industry affected, but the impact has now reached all sectors, and in particular the book world. Indeed, e-books, audio books, print on demand, virtual stores and the expansion of cellular phones have profoundly transformed the means of circulating texts.

As is well known, there are marked contrasts in the assimilation of these technologies from region to region. The industrialized nations – in particular the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and South Korea –[1] have access to extremely efficient Internet services and plentiful human resources. Their firms therefore enjoy a considerable margin for action when it comes to testing out hardware, software and new digital publishing business models, which means that companies like Amazon, Apple, Google or Sony are taken as references in the media and at professional events all over the world. Now, it is clear that in the case of countries from the South, infrastructure limitations and low rates of human development hinder the advancement of electronic publishing such as it is known in more advanced regions.[2] And certainly what little news that comes out about digital publishing in the developing world is usually related to incursions undertaken by those same actors from the North.

Thus, the conclusion reached in numerous articles and international conferences is that, in order to promote electronic publishing, the countries of the South have no choice other than to await the arrival of successful models from the North. However, this assumption is highly objectionable. For a start, so far it has not proven easy to identify a “successful system” of digital publishing, even in advanced countries; indeed, the sales figures for publications through Amazon’s Kindle Store[3] or Apple’s iBooks are not widely available, which prevents us from knowing the extent to which in themselves these publishing platforms constitute as lucrative a model as is publicized.[4] In fact, the constant changes in setting sale prices, defining formats and applying digital rights management (DRM) – or not – show that even the major players are still feeling their way.

Secondly, we must ask ourselves how useful it would be to reproduce the prototypes from the North in the South, as in addition to the disparities in infrastructure, there are also enormous cultural, linguistic and even religious differences. Let’s not forget that digital models represent more than just a tool: with a notable dose of egocentrism contained in its very name and the attraction produced by a logo that refers, amongst other things, to biblical sin, an iPad may well captivate a young Westerner – educated in a particular tradition –, but it won’t have the same effect on someone from India or the Cameroon. And, as we will point out later, the experience of reading from the screen of a cell phone means something very different to a Chinese user, for example, than it might do to a European one, due to the qualitative difference in the characters used in each case. Of course, a company like Apple will certainly find a highly profitable niche among the most affluent classes in developing countries, since the cultural and consumption patterns of these sectors merely imitate those of the North. But the interesting thing would be to find out what digital models might be a hit not just with the wealthiest 20% of the citizens of developing countries, but with the rest of the inhabitants, that is to say with the bulk of humanity.[5]

Thirdly, given the enormous population, and above all the accelerated economic growth observed in many countries of the South, it is hard to believe that the developing world isn’t making its own contribution to the electronic age. In addition to the countless IT service providers in India and hardware manufacturers in China that support the Western platforms from behind the scenes, there are original and innovative digital publishing projects being carried out at this very moment in the South – local platforms that will one day be able to compete with foreign ones. In fact, some of these ventures are so dynamic that instead of debating who will be the future Apple of China or the Amazon of South Africa, perhaps we will soon be asking ourselves who will be the Shanda of the US or the m4Lit of the UK.


  1. With regard to the difference between industrialized and developing countries, we have opted to follow the classification given by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its report of April 2010, although in the chapter on China we have included references to Taiwan and Hong Kong, which for the IMF belong to the advanced economies. Cf. “Emerging and Developing Economies”, International Monetary Fund.
  2. Throughout the presentation we will use the terms “North” and “South” as synonyms for “more industrialized nations” and “developing countries”, respectively, while fully conscious of the fact that this distinction is highly schematic; indeed, developing countries like India or Mexico are located in the northern hemisphere and, inversely, a high income country like Australia is situated in the southern hemisphere. In addition, we will use the expression “emerging country” to refer to the subset of developing countries that demonstrate high rates of growth and possess significant geopolitical weight, particularly in the case of the BRIC group – Brazil, Russia, India and China.
  3. To avoid an unnecessary proliferation of hyperlinks in the main text we will only apply links to the most noteworthy portals when they first appear; the remaining references will be included in the footnotes.
  4. Apple usually releases figures for the total number of downloads but not for sales. The recent project by the company from Cupertino, aimed at preventing the distribution of publications by third parties through its store, may be a sign that sales at the iBookStore have not been as high as expected, so – we might suppose – the 100 million downloads announced by Apple in March 2011 correspond to free texts. Cf. Cain Miller, Claire and Helft, Miguel: “Apple Moves to Tighten Control of App Store”, The New York Times, 1st February, 2011 and “Starting With a Bookend: Today’s iBooks Announcement”, iSmashPhone. Of course, this does not in any way diminish the noteworthy performance demonstrated by Apple’s markets for applications and music, which – so far at least – appear to be much more successful than the market for books.
  5. The inhabitants of the nations of the South represent around 82% of the global total, according to recent figures provided by the World Bank. Cf. World Bank: “Population 2009”, World Development Indicators database, 15th December, 2010.

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