How (Yes) Cardboard Is Revolutionizing The Latin American Book Industry

Once a month, near the bustling Baquedano metro station, 14 publishing presses gather together in the quiet Café Literario in Parque Bustamante. One might suspect that they are discussing marketing strategies, launching books, or comparing changes in the book economy. What they’re really doing is something far more artistic — something you might not believe until you stumble into one of their fairs: selling books made out of cardboard.

Editoriales Cartoneras is a collective of independent cardboard book presses in Santiago, Chile that collaborate to make the publishing industry more accessible, artistic, and environmentally friendly. Following in the footsteps of Argentinian bookmakers who began the cardboard book movement following a devastating economic crisis, these Chilean writers and artists seek to make high-quality books out of low-cost and recycled materials. In the process of making these cardboard books, Chilean bookmakers are not only beginning a new artistic movement, but also questioning the role of publishing in a country with a rich literary history, but also falling readership rates.

Indeed, Chilean bookstore owners across Santiago lament the decreasing number of people buying books in their stores. The Santiago Times reports that only 7% of regular Chilean readers read for pleasure, compared with 70% of Argentines and 49% of Brazilians. Booksellers blame the high value-added tax that raises the price of most products in Chile, as well as the growing presence of distracting technologies for taking away would-be readers.

The cardboard books movement began in 2003 following what many call Argentina’s Great Depression, El Corralito. Between 1998 and 2002, the country’s economy plunged and artists struggled to find affordable means of responding to the crisis. And so, writer Washington Cucurto and artist Javier Barilaro founded the first cardboard publishing press: Eloísa Cartonera. Olga Sotomayor Sánchez, founder of Olga Cartonera, a cardboard press in Santiago, recalls the economic crisis and how Cucurto and Barilaro worked to start a new movement of affordable and accessible bookmaking*:

“Cardboard publishing presses were born in Argentina in 2003 during the Corralito crisis. At that time, a painter and a poet began to buy cardboard from cardboard trash gatherers, but at a higher price. With this cardboard, they began to make book covers, paint them, and alter them by hand. Inside, the books were by new authors, by the artists themselves, by authors who had died and whose work was liberated from author rights, or by authors who had given the rights of a specific book to the firm.”

In launching the cardboard book movement, Cucurto and Barilaro emphasized artistry, by individually designing the cover of each book; accessibility, by keeping the books at a low price and allowing unknown authors to publish their work; and environmental awareness, by working from recycled materials.

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The cardboard books movement has since spread across Latin America, from hand to hand between artists and writers. Rather than growing into a competitive industry, cardboard publishing presses have stayed remarkably collaborative. Rodrigo Duran Huidobro, founder of Santiago cardboard press Editorial Cayó La Teja in Santiago, began making his first cardboard books shortly after attending a cardboard book fair like the ones held in Café Literario Parque Bustamante. After participating in a few fairs to learn how to make the books, Duran continued practicing on his own with the help of YouTube tutorials until he felt ready to found his own press, nearly three years ago.

The editors at Santiago-based Hipérbole Ediciones, Tatiana Cárcamo and Joaquín Antonio Eguren Alvarez, experienced a similar introduction to the world of cardboard books. After Eguren went to a poetry and self-publishing workshop conducted by the founder of a cardboard press, and Cárcamo subsequently attended a bookbinding workshop, the two decided that cardboard book-making was something they could do together.

Now, these and other cardboard publishing presses are passing their knowledge to others, by providing bookmaking workshops at each of their fairs and often sponsoring additional workshops with libraries across Santiago.

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All of the cardboard presses agree on one thing: Their field is not a business, but an art. And acording to Sotomayor, the movement is uniquely diverse in its approach to this artistry:

“We all work differently with the form of the book; there are people who sew, people who glue, people who staple to alter the cover, people who paint, and people who make collages, photographs, and drawings.”

For example, Duran, who is particularly interested in drawing, publishes a number of comics and illustrations. Another Santiago cardboard publisher, Hilando Cooperativa Cultural, prints books with poetry written by one co-founder and illustrations drawn by the other. Each bookmaker gets to choose and emphasize the aspects of their craft that they love the most. Eguren, a professor when he’s not making cardboard books, wishes that more things were as flexible as the world of cardboard books. “It’s how education should be,” he points out.

As a human craft, cardboard bookmaking also varies by person and by time. As Duran emphasizes, “I can replicate something many times, but it will never be exactly the same.”

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The cardboard book movement has tried to stay true to its roots in the Corralito crisis by remaining accessible and affordable. This accessibility has had especial significance in Chile, where books are notoriously expensive, largely because of the country’s 19% value-added tax.

While many booksellers and youth activists have turned to selling pirated copies of books to avoid the tax, the Editorales Cartoneras are taking a different path. “There is nothing pirated in the world of cardboard books,” Eguren emphasizes, “because, basically, we publish authors whose publishing rights are free.”

Hipérbole Ediciones, for example, has published work by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Blake that is now in the public domain, and translated their poetry into Spanish themselves. Similarly, Duran publishes copies of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which is also in the public domain. Many of the cardboard presses also print work written by themselves or other up-and-coming authors. While avoiding piracy, cardboard books remain affordable because they are made from low-cost materials. Additionally, as Duran explains, “We are free from paying the tax because our prices are below the value that requires giving receipts.” In fact, the average price of a cardboard book ranges from as low as two to five thousand pesos (about three to eight dollars). These low costs have kept cardboard books accessible for readers who may not be able to afford bookstore prices.

Cárcamo was particularly inspired by this accessibility when she began working in cardboard books: “What caught my attention [with cardboard presses] the most is to democratize in some way, to bring understanding, to try to bring books to people who might not have as much access.”

Along with being an accessible means of buying books, the cardboard book movement has also offered an accessible means of publishing. Many of the editors in the association of Editoriales Cartoneras are themselves authors, poets, or artists who have been able to self-publish their work with cardboard books. Additionally, the presses print work from writers and poets who give rights to their work. Eguren explains that “entering the world of literature is complicated in our country; many are afraid of it,” because it requires a high level of education. But cardboard publishers are trying to change that: “We think that we can democratize and incentivize Chileans to write.”

Visiting a cardboard book fair, one can see the number of writers who have found a space for their work, from teens and young adults to established authors. Cárcamo emphasizes that cardboard books are a smart place to begin as an author, because they can design their own books or work with publishers who are specifically looking for new writing.

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An art founded on recycled materials, the cardboard book movement is also well-known for its environmental friendliness. During the Corralito crisis, the founders of the cardboard book movement chose cardboard because of its availability and affordability, but also because of the social good they thought could be done by working with recycled material. When Cucurto and Barilaro began producing the first cardboard books, they decided, as Duran relates, “to help the people by buying cardboard from the people who gathered cardboard in the streets, but at a higher price to re-dignify their work.”

In this way, the art of cardboard bookmaking is not always about cutting costs. In fact, presses like Hipérbole Ediciones have specifically moved toward buying materials like recycled paper, which is actually more expensive than regular paper. Cardboard presses are looking to do social good alongside producing beautiful and affordable books, and that often means making decisions about environmental impact. Eguren explains that Hipérbole Ediciones tries to be conscientious about how many books they produce, so as not to overuse materials. The goal, as Eguren states, is “to demonstrate that one does not have to be a consumerist in this field, that it can be a humanitarian production.” Turning to cardboard that they find on the streets and other recycled materials, the cardboard presses are quite literally turning one man’s trash into another man’s treasure.

Editoriales Cartoneras, Santiago’s association of cardboard bookmakers, meets regularly in the Café Literario at Parque Bustamante. They host a fair on the last Saturday of every month where visitors can purchase books, speak with editors, and learn how to make their own cardboard book. The informally organized editors take turns leading each book fair and offering workshops where they pass along their own knowledge and learn new skills from one another. Outside of the literary café, many of the presses partner with local libraries or authors to host workshops and book exchanges during the rest of the year.

One scrap of cardboard at a time, these editors are creating an inventive space for readers, writers, and artists who want to push beyond the boundaries of traditional bookmaking.

*All responses translated from Chilean Spanish into English

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All images were taken by the author at a Chilean cardboard book fair

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