In March of last year, Rodrigo Rosales, the director of the Peruvian offices of the international publisher Planeta, got an urgent call from Madrid. Paulo Coelho’s people were upset. It seems the Brazilian writer’s latest novel, O vencedor está só (published in English as The Winner Stands Alone), had been seen on the streets of Lima in an unauthorized edition. Rosales was taken aback. Coelho is a steady bestseller in Peru (and everywhere) and any new title by him is certain to be pirated almost immediately upon publication, but this one wasn’t scheduled to be released until July. In fact, it hadn’t even been officially translated into Spanish.

Though book piracy exists all over Latin America and the developing world, any editor with international experience in the region will tell you that Peru’s problem is both unique and profound. According to the International Intellectual Property Alliance, the local publishing industry loses more money to piracy than any other South American country, with the exception of Brazil – whose economy is more than eight times the size of Peru’s. A 2005 report commissioned by the Cámara Peruana del Libro (CPL), a national consortium of publishing houses, distributors and booksellers, came to even more alarming conclusions: pirates were employing more people than formal publishers and booksellers, and their combined economic impact was estimated to be 52 million US dollars – or roughly equivalent to one hundred per cent of the legal industry’s total earnings. The pirates operate in plain sight: vendors ply the streets of the capital, carrying heavy stacks of books as they drift through stopped traffic, or spreading a torn piece of blue plastic tarp on a sidewalk, laying their wares out hopefully for all to see. You can find them in front of high schools, institutes and government buildings, or wandering the aisles of the markets where most Limeños do their shopping. One Saturday, I came across a man selling pirated law texts (cloth­bound, official-­looking copies so well made I had a hard time believing they were fake) who told me that on weekdays he rented a stand at a local university, inside the law school – where presumably Peru’s future lawyers are taught about copyright law, intellectual property and other fantastical, irrelevant concepts. On summer weekends, these salesmen work the beaches south of the city, or congregate at the tollbooths on the way out of town. On the margins of this business are the thieves, bands of skilled shoplifters who specialize in stealing books, trolling all the major fairs, hitting all the official bookstores and supplying a vibrant resale market with their so­-called libros de bajada. Then there are the pirates themselves, the informal book manufacturers whose overworked, antique presses are hidden in nondescript houses in slums all over the city. The larger of these operations can crank out some 40,000 volumes a week, and because of their superior distribution, the pirates can sell three times as many copies of a book as the authorized publishers can. For a bestseller like Coelho, the figure could be even higher.

It didn’t take long for Rosales to confirm the story. He went out to look for Coelho’s unpublished book and found it at the first major intersection. Something had to be done. Peruvian book pirates are among the world’s quickest and most entrepreneurial, some would say most treacherous – a reality Coelho and his handlers are well aware of. At the start of this decade, the pirates had nearly killed the Peruvian publishing industry; its survival and subsequent resurgence are seen by many as something of a miracle. Counterfeit books printed in Lima have been known to show up in Quito, Ecuador, in La Paz, Bolivia, in the towns of northern Chile, as far east as Buenos Aires, Argentina. This same Coelho edition, if it were to be imported, could conceivably nullify the sizeable investment Rosales’s house had made to publish the novel in the Spanish-­speaking world. Coelho’s people demanded action.

So began the latest skirmish in the on­-again, off­-again battle against Peruvian book piracy. The CPL registered a formal legal complaint, an investigation began and a few months later, on June 23, after failing to find the presses where Coelho’s book was being printed, the CPL helped organize a police raid on the points of sale instead. The chosen site was Consorcio Grau, a market on a busy avenue in central Lima notorious for its counterfeit merchandise. The operation seized a million soles’ (348,000 US dollars’) worth of pirated books, nearly 90,000 volumes in all. All the major networks covered the story, though few noted the fact that within twenty-­four hours the stands were open again, fully restocked. Perhaps this wasn’t news. Book pirates, like drug traffickers, always assume a certain percentage of their merchandise will never make it to market. These losses are budgeted for, part of the accepted cost of doing business.

But there was still one more surprise. In July, when Planeta finally published the official version of Coehlo’s novel in Peru, Rosales decided to compare the two texts. He went through line by line, page by page, and discovered that the translations were essentially the same. The Peruvian book pirates hadn’t commissioned their own translation, as Rosales had previously assumed. Instead, they had infiltrated Planeta in Spain and stolen the official translation before it was complete.

New books in Peru – new, legally produced books, that is – are often sold bearing a sticker that reads buy original, just one of the small ways the publishing industry has responded to the threat from book pirates. The fact is, though, being pirated is the Peruvian equivalent of making the bestseller list. One writer I know ends all his readings by urging those in attendance to ‘buy my book before it gets pirated’. When I asked him about it, he confessed he hadn’t actually been pirated yet, but hoped he would be soon. The award­-winning novelist Alonso Cueto told me he receives unsolicited sales reports from the man who sells pirate novels in his neighbourhood. At first it made him angry, but by now Cueto has learned to tolerate it. Less tolerable is that the same vendor feels authorized to give the writer advice on potential subject matter that might be more commercially successful.

Pirates reach sectors of the market that formal book publishers cannot or don’t care to access. Outside Lima, the pirate­-book industry is the only one that matters. Oscar Colchado Lucio, one of a handful of Peruvian writers who actually make their living from book sales, told me of the time he’d gone to the town of Huancayo to do a reading at a very poor school. He signed some 300 books without coming across a single original. The authorized version simply wasn’t available – there were no bookstores in Huancayo. One novelist, who preferred not to be named for fear of being sued, was disappointed that his novel wasn’t available in his hometown. In response, he contacted a pirate in Lima, made a deal, and soon his book was for sale all over the country. When I asked him about it, he made no apology: ‘If someone can produce for three dollars what the editor is selling for twenty, then I think perhaps the editor is a terrible businessman.’ In a few cases, pirates have rescued work by writers the formal industry has forgotten. A friend told me the story of Luis Hernández, a little-­known avant-­garde poet with a cult following among university students. Photocopied versions of his out-­of-­print collections have been passed around for years, but no publisher had bothered to reissue his work – until a vendor from downtown Lima recognized the need, partnered with a press and came out with his own, unauthorized edition.

I remember riding to lunch in 2007, around the time my first novel was published, with Titinger, a friend of mine, who also had a new book in stores. We worked at the same magazine, and Huberth, the owner, our boss, had offered to take us out to celebrate. Along the way, we came to the traffic light at an intersection that doubled as a marketplace, where vendors sold fruit and whiteboards and newspapers and inflatable children’s toys. It’s a scene repeated on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of street corners in the Peruvian capital, an image familiar to anyone who has lived or travelled in Latin America or anywhere in the developing world. There were booksellers too, naturally, and Huberth called one over. The salesman was heavy­-set and awkward, moving clumsily between the cars, and carried his books before him like a shield, the covers facing outwards: self­-help titles, mostly (it was the season of the Peruvian edition of Who Moved My Cheese?, I recall), books about local scandals and worldwide bestsellers like El Código DaVinci.

‘Anything by Alarcón or Titinger?’ Huberth asked.

The man frowned. ‘Who?’

That was all. Huberth rolled up his window.

‘You’re both failures,’ he said, turning to us.

My first story collection has, to my knowledge, never been pirated, which is something of a disappointment. The day of our lunch with Huberth, my novel had just gone on sale and was retailing for around fifty soles, the equivalent of eighteen US dollars. This is nearly the same price it might fetch in an American bookstore, with one crucial difference: in Peru, that figure represents about twenty per cent of the average worker’s weekly income. I was frankly embarrassed by the price. How could I, in good conscience, expect my friends and family to pay that much for a book? Except for the small middle and upper classes, who has that kind of disposable income?

A few weeks later, I was doing a reading at the library of one of Lima’s prisons. I’d brought a copy of my novel along, to donate to the collection, but to my surprise the inmates already had one. They were rather embarrassed about it, but eventually they agreed to show it to me. The cover looked a lot like the original, except that the title had been rendered in incongruously playful red bubble letters with white trim. It was printed on cheap white office paper and the photocopying wasn’t particularly well done: every few pages, a stray hair floated over the text, and some pages had been copied at an angle, so that my sentences slid towards the outside margin at a melancholy slant.

One of the inmates explained that he had received my book as a gift from the outside. He claimed he hadn’t known it was pirated.

I nodded as if I believed him.

‘Could you sign it?’ the prison librarian asked me.

I did, of course, and left the prison that day feeling as if I had accomplished something.

If there is a certain allure to book piracy, it is only because we imbue this business with the same qualities we project on to the book itself. We focus on what is being manufactured and sold, as opposed to the fundamentally illicit nature of the enterprise. There are many reasons for this, of course. As a cultural artefact, the book has undeniable power, and the idea of a poor, developing country with a robust informal publishing industry is, on some level, romantic: the pirate as cultural entrepreneur, a Robin Hood figure, stealing from elitist multinational publishers and taking books to the people. The myth is seductive and repeated often: book piracy in Peru, the story goes, responds to a hunger for knowledge in a country that throughout its history has been violently divided between a literate upper class and the poor, unlettered masses. Literacy grew dramatically through the last century – nearly sixty per cent of Peruvians were illiterate in 1940, compared with only 7.1 per cent in 2007 – and along with this progress came a desire for books and all they represent. Still, millions of rural Peruvians are monolingual speakers of indigenous languages, and remain politically and economically marginalized as a result. In a country divided by race, ethnicity and language, acquiring fluency and literacy in Spanish has often been seen as an important first step towards socio­-economic advancement.

Still, original books remain a prohibitively expensive luxury item, out of reach for most of the population. There are vast swathes of the country with no formal bookstores. Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, with nearly 400,000 residents, has only two, and had none as recently as 2007. Trujillo, the country’s third largest city, has only one. School libraries, if they exist at all, are usually nothing more than a few dozen mouldering titles of little literary or historical value. More often than not, the only significant collections are housed at private universities, where neither students nor faculty are permitted to roam the stacks, where checkout privileges are limited to twenty-­four hours – that is, just long enough to photocopy (read ‘pirate’) a book and return it. Nor is this bleak situation confined to rural areas or the provinces. An estimated eighty­-five to ninety per cent of books are sold in the Lima metropolitan area, but for a city of nearly nine million, there are relatively few formal bookstores, the majority concentrated in the upper-­middle class districts of San Isidro and Miraflores. North Lima, for example, comprising eight districts of the Peruvian capital, home to roughly two million people and half the city’s middle class, has none. The wealthiest of these eight districts, Los Olivos, has a municipal library of only 1,500 most donated volumes, including, naturally, a few counterfeit editions. On a larger scale, the National Library suffers the same neglect. For some thirty years its acquisitions budget remained unchanged – zero – and it too relied on donations to build its collection.

Given this context, is it any wonder that books are pirated? You can lament the informality of it, you can call it stealing, you can bemoan the losses incurred by the publishing industry – but if you love to read, it’s difficult to deny the hopeful logic: if someone is selling books, someone must be buying them. And if someone’s buying them, someone must be reading them. And reading, especially in a country as poor as Peru – isn’t that a good thing?


In July, a few weeks before the start of the annual Lima book fair, I went to see Germán Coronado, the director of Peisa, one of the last independent publishing houses still functioning in Peru. It was an odd day in the city: a heavy drizzle fell from a textureless, milky-­grey sky, so thick it could almost be called rain. The precipitation had caught Limeños unprepared. Traffic in this desert city had gone from merely chaotic to frankly terrifying. Cars slid haphazardly along the roads and pedestrians were spooked.

Coronado is among those who have fought the hardest to protect the rights of authors in Peru, and he has paid a high price for his efforts. Founded in 1968, Peisa once published Mario Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce Echenique in Peru – our country’s two bestselling and most respected novelists – and by rights, Coronado should be wealthy. He is not. The day I met him, he looked haggard and worn, unshaven, with the pallor of a man who hadn’t been outside in weeks. His office, on the ninth floor of an inelegant building in San Isidro, was cramped and narrow. The windows offered a view of the hills, but that afternoon he had the shades pulled down. I had the sense he hadn’t raised them in months.

Coronado’s thesis was simple. While book piracy has always existed in Peru, for years it was small-­scale, serving primarily the needs of university students. He recalled shopping for second-­hand books in the Plaza Francia when he was a student at San Marcos, a prestigious public university in Lima, the oldest institute of higher learning in the Americas. Then came the 1980s, years of general disorder. The nation barely survived the trials of that decade: a civil war claimed 70,000 lives before it ended and the economy all but collapsed. By 1990, hyperinflation had reached an annual rate of 7,649 per cent and the middle class had been nearly wiped out. Thousands of Peruvians emigrated in search of a better life in the United States, Europe or richer neighbouring countries like Chile and Argentina. Even in this dire context, Peisa managed, but things were about to get worse. According to Coronado, the first sign of doom came in 1988, in the final years of Alan García’s disastrous first term as president, when he said in an interview that, given the economic crisis, it didn’t make sense for parents to buy original school books for their children – the president, in other words, advocating piracy.

Then Peisa’s star author, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, entered politics: he ran for president in 1990, receiving the most votes in the first round, before eventually losing to Alberto Fujimori. As Coronado tells it, Vargas Llosa lay low after his defeat, but in April 1992, when President Fujimori dissolved Congress and declared that the constitution would be rewritten, he could no longer keep quiet. To his credit, Vargas Llosa correctly identified Fujimori as a dictator and a menace at a time when many other observers were still ambivalent. In his weekly column in El País, he denounced Fujimori’s coup as an attack on democracy and called for a worldwide embargo on Peru. The media allied with (or bought by, depending on your interpretation) Fujimori struck back, initiating a ruthless and coordinated campaign of character assassination against Peru’s most accomplished novelist. He was attacked and ridiculed, all but declared an enemy of the state. For Fujimori’s allies, it was simple: if Vargas Llosa wanted an embargo on Peru, then Peru should embargo him right back.

For Coronado, this marked the beginning of a grave shift. Over the next few years, book piracy became a project of state. As Peru emerged from war, Fujimori opened up the economy to imports, new presses arrived and overnight the country was flooded with cheap, fifty-­cent newspapers whose editorial content was quite literally dictated by the government. Coronado believes this same machinery was used to grow the book-piracy industry. As publisher of Fujimori’s most vociferous and internationally prestigious critic, Coronado too became a target. His brother­-in­-law, financial head of Peisa, was kidnapped in a dramatic case that was never solved. ‘Three months of hell’ was how Coronado described the ordeal to me, and he suspects it was a reprisal for publishing books the government didn’t appreciate. Meanwhile, his core business was under economic assault. The pirates were everywhere, sprouting like mould all over the city. Coronado estimates his losses at around 600,000 US dollars a year in the 1990s. ‘We were very quickly transformed from a successful business to one in crisis, overwhelmed by debt.’ Peisa filed more than 250 lawsuits in those years against book counterfeiters. They hired private investigators, sent the police detailed lists of pirates, their names and aliases, physical descriptions, home addresses, suspected locations of presses, and known points of sale. As we spoke, he pulled up the files on his desktop – letters, complaints, lists, accusations.

‘And after all that effort?’ I asked.

‘There’s not a single person in jail for book piracy in Peru,’ Coronado said. ‘Not one.’

Fujimori’s corrupt regime was eventually toppled, but the pirates were here to stay. By 2001, the Peruvian publishing industry was in freefall. Book production had declined by twenty-­eight per cent in only four years and the industry had shed forty per cent of its workers. This was due in large part to the competition from the pirates. Fake copies of Vargas Llosa’s 2000 novel The Feast of the Goat were available on the streets of Lima the same day it was published, and there would eventually be seven different unauthorized editions. How could an honest publisher compete?

I presented the usual arguments in defence of piracy: principally, inescapable poverty and the relatively high cost of books.

For Coronado, these arguments neglected a very important fact: the street-­level vendors tend to congregate in the same middle-­ and upper­-class neighbourhoods where you find the bookstores. Their clients are people with money. Coronado could do little to mask his disgust. ‘It’s a cultural problem. The same people who would never consider buying fake whisky think nothing of buying a pirated book. There’s no respect for intellectual production in this country.’

After the fall of Fujimori, some publishing houses, in desperation, tried appeasement. Perhaps they had been seduced by the romantic idea that the pirates were simple, poor merchants taking culture to the masses. Or perhaps they felt they had no other choice. A movement began within the CPL to organize the thousands of informal booksellers, the men and women working the street corners, and provide them with authorized editions at lower prices. Coronado has nothing but disdain for this idea, and for ‘the wise, the illuminated’ publishers who believed in what he derisively called ‘the splendour of piracy’.

Vargas Llosa, with his new publishing house, was invited to Amazonas, the largest informal book market in Latin America, to give a reading. It was a media spectacle – the return of the exile. The publisher dropped the price of the book for the event. The informal booksellers toasted our internationally prestigious writer. They posed for pictures with their famous guest and, once the cameras had gone, went back to selling pirated editions.

‘Those people can’t be trusted,’ Coronado said.

I mentioned that I would be keeping an eye out for my new book – I was publishing a collection of stories that month to coincide with the book fair, and I wondered aloud if the pirates would get to it before I returned to the United States in mid­-August.

He smirked and shook his head. ‘Will you be pirated?’ the editor asked. ‘I can guarantee it.’

The book market known commonly as Amazonas is a few blocks east of Abancay, one of the main avenues that leads to Lima’s old city centre. It sits on a sliver of land on the southern bank of the Rimac, a murky, polluted river that neatly divides the capital into north and south. The wall on the far bank is decorated with a mural – a painting of green hills, bright blue skies and palm trees, a verdant, inviting scene that contrasts starkly with the actual view – a dusty, monochrome slum beneath a hill hidden in thick fog.

At Amazonas, you will find more than 200 vendors of used, antiquarian and pirated books, most of whom have known each other for twenty years. They formed a loose cooperative in the 1980s, when thirty or forty booksellers began congregating on the median strip of a downtown avenue called Grau. They sold second-­hand books, were inoffensive and not particularly prosperous. In those days, the old centre of Lima had been overrun by informal commerce, an unsightly by­-product of the social disarray and economic turmoil. The stately, colonial­era buildings, once the pride of patrician Lima, had been taken over by merchants and transformed into dense black­market labyrinths. Trade spilled outdoors, over the sidewalks and into the streets. In some areas, six lanes of traffic had been reduced to one in each direction, the rest given over to the informal economy. These vendors are known as ambulantes, which literally means ‘wandering’ or ‘itinerant’, but they had become a permanent part of the urban landscape. When they were finally moved from the major avenues, it was discovered that some carts had been there so long, their owners had affixed them with metal plates and screws to the very sidewalk. In the case of the Grau booksellers, the long­-term urban plan for the city included an expansion of the avenue (which, eleven years later, is only now under way), and finally, in 1998, then­mayor Alberto Andrade convinced the booksellers to relocate to an empty lot along the Jirón Amazonas. They were joined by 160 more book vendors scattered throughout downtown and formed what is now the Cámara Popular de Libreros – which, not coincidentally, also uses the abbreviation CPL, like its official rival, the Cámara Peruana del Libro.

You can find almost any book or magazine at Amazonas, provided you are willing to wander its aisles and search amid the stacks of mouldering volumes spread out on wobbly tables or crammed into rusting metal bookshelves. There are many original books, but counterfeits aren’t hard to find. If you don’t see what you want right away, just ask for ‘the Peruvian edition’ or ‘a more economical version’, and most booksellers will get the hint. Alongside books, some vendors have begun selling grade­-school science projects, styrofoam monstrosities representing the water cycle, the greenhouse effect or the vascular system. While you look for, say, a readable edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, you might see a young woman behind a counter, hard at work on a diorama of Machu Picchu, a look of grave concentration on her face, as she glues a plastic llama to a green, spray­-painted mountainside. These projects sell for twenty soles, less than seven US dollars, a price which includes a lesson on the topic, so the student can be prepared to present his or her science project in class. Some might consider this cheating, but all the students I spoke to said it was their teachers who had sent them here.

Science projects are a lucrative but relatively new product at Amazonas – and a controversial one. For more than a decade, Amazonas has been synonymous with books, and some vendors told me they were concerned about diluting the brand with these school projects. To be sure, books still make up the bulk of what is sold: second­-hand, stolen originals, counterfeits, along with the sorts of oddities a culture of piracy will inevitably produce – an unauthorized edition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example, its cover emblazoned with a drawing of a revolver, smoke rising from its barrel; or a hundred­-page, abridged version of a much longer Bryce Echenique novel, a few chapters excised arbitrarily to save printing costs. It was Bryce himself who told me he’d once seen a pirated edition of La palabra del mudo (literally, The Word of the Mute, though it sounds much better in Spanish), a famous story collection by Peruvian writer Julio Ramón Ribeyro, now out of print because of a dispute with the author’s estate. The pirates had made one important alteration in order to maximize sales: instead of Ribeyro’s, they’d printed Mario Vargas Llosa’s name on the cover.

One morning I met with a man I’ll call Jacinto in a drab, grey restaurant across from the Amazonas market. We were served coffee, watered down and steamy, before we’d even ordered it; Jacinto was clearly a regular. He’s in his late forties, with a wide, squarish face and greying, spiky hair. He didn’t want to be seen with me at Amazonas – the other booksellers were, by nature, suspicious people, and it was best not to appear too friendly with strangers. Though it’s not necessarily obvious, some of the booksellers at Amazonas are very wealthy. They might own three or four stands there, a few more scattered around central Lima and, somewhere in the city’s endless outer districts, a press. It’s often a family operation and they might have a relative in the provinces who sells books at local fairs. They earn thousands of dollars a month and are careful to protect their investments from nosy outsiders.

When Jacinto was a boy, only rich people had books. Though his father loved to read, the family never owned more than a handful of old volumes. They lived in the provinces, in a jungle town called Pucallpa, 500 miles from Lima, and buying a single new book would have required saving money for a year or more. There was no piracy in those days. Books were printed in Lima or imported, which, if you lived in the jungle, amounted to the same thing. Jacinto had inherited his father’s love of reading and was a good enough student to be able to study sociology at Federico Villarreal, a public university in Lima. It was the 1980s and he got caught up in the radical politics of the time. He didn’t tell me much in the way of details, but then he didn’t have to – it’s a common enough tale for a man his age in Peru. In the 1980s, Jacinto left the country for a while – he had to leave, I gathered – crossed into the United States illegally and spent a few years pumping gas in the Bronx, painting houses in New Jersey. He returned to Peru in the early 1990s, but two years later, after Fujimori’s coup, he had no choice but to flee again. He spent some time in Los Angeles, a place about which he had remarkably little to say. He made friends with Mexicans; he rode the bus a lot. It wasn’t a very happy time. In 2000, he came back to Peru for good and took over his uncle’s stand at Amazonas.

Working with books was a dream, Jacinto said. He had fond memories of shopping for second-­hand books in his student days, before Amazonas, when the business was still concentrated on the median strip of Grau – and now he was the one doing the selling. After all he’d been through, he considered himself lucky. Being a reader made him something of a rarity among the booksellers at Amazonas. To most, it was just way to make money, whereas to Jacinto, books meant something. Homer, Magellan, Marx – these men had changed his life with their writings. There were only a few vendors who really knew anything about what they sold. Jacinto could count them on his fingers. The rest were poor, barely literate men and women who’d come from the provinces fleeing the violence. They could be selling books or anything. Books held no special value to them, which is why piracy came so naturally.

Jacinto claimed he’d never participated in piracy. It was excessive courtesy that kept me from pressing him on this, or perhaps the statement was so transparently untrue there was no need. By his own admission, he’d done well, earned a decent living, even managed to buy an apartment and a car. Things had changed since the days of Grau, when people sold dusty old books and struggled to get by. He agreed with Coronado’s thesis – the Fujimori years had been the golden age, everyone knew it, but there were still people making money. Jacinto cultivated high­-end clientele: he sold books to well-­known critics, to academics and intellectuals, his steady customers, and enjoyed the conversations he sometimes had with these educated people. But it was a sordid world and there were snakes all around him. He told me of being robbed in the streets of Amazonas and having to pay petty ransoms to get his merchandise back from the stick­-up kids. They were always disappointed when the bags they stole happened to be filled with books. They were high all the time and couldn’t read anyway. Even if you explained that there was money to be made in books, they’d never believe it.

‘And the pirates?’ I asked. If anyone seemed to have figured out this basic truth it was the counterfeiters.

Jacinto nodded. ‘Do you watch gangster movies? Have you seen Carlito’s Way?’

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘That’s what the pirates have understood.’

I asked him to explain.

Jacinto’s hometown, Pucallpa, is where Peru’s first generation of successful and notorious drug traffickers came of age. He claimed to have known some of these men, to have watched them and their businesses grow. He’d learned a few things that applied to his own line of work, most significantly that illicit enterprises don’t get big without the cooperation of the authorities. That’s how it had happened with the future drug dealers, the men of Jacinto’s generation who made their fortunes in the cocaine boom of the 1980s.

According to Jacinto, the pirates had first come to dominate Amazonas, then all of Lima, because they ran their business according to the same ruthless codes that any criminal organization might employ. They protected their territory and competed viciously against one another to get their products out as quickly as possible, at the lowest price. They paid cops to look the other way and bought off judges. In the days after a raid, police officers would show up at Amazonas, selling seized books on the low. Jacinto had seen it all himself. Books are wonderful. Books are beautiful. It was a privilege to come to work every day and be surrounded by the written word. He had some volumes of inestimable value, books that he’d never sell because they were so special to him. But he wanted me to be clear about one thing: in the underworld of booksellers, it was business first. If one illegal press were brought down, two would take its place. And as long as there was money to be made, the pirates would never disappear.


If I spend too much time in Lima, I am eventually overwhelmed by a feeling that the entire life of the city revolves around books. It has to do, I suppose, with the world I’ve fallen into, the friends I’ve made, but this disconcerting sensation is most pronounced in late July, during the weeks of the annual book fair, when writers from all over Latin America converge on the Peruvian capital. You see old friends, go to dozens of readings, and when you can’t stand it any more you hide in your apartment and wait for it to be over. It is a lovely, intoxicating time, in no small part due to the democratic ambience of the Lima fair. Entrance is very affordable – two soles on weekends, around seventy US cents, half that on weekdays – and so most events, regardless of who might be reading or how obscure the topic is, tend to fill up. This year’s fair was held across from the site of the new National Library, at the National Museum – or, more specifically, in a giant leaky tent in the parking lot of the museum – and despite its rather precarious structure, the event was a great success. Quino, the beloved Argentine cartoonist, was the opening-­night draw, and more than 10,000 people piled in to hear him speak. Afterwards, he signed books for two and a half hours, and could have gone on much longer had the excitable, overflow crowd not knocked down a wall in its enthusiasm. On weekend nights, the fair was teeming, sales were brisk and the strange, heavy drizzle kept falling. It pooled above, occasionally dripping in through the sagging tent, the staff scrambling to anticipate just where and when the waterfalls would appear next.

No one seemed to mind; the intermittent cascades just added to the atmosphere of it all. The Lima fair is not a place for staid academic discussions. Audience members are likely to use the question­-and-­answer period to recite poems they’ve written themselves (often to applause), and since many can’t afford to buy books, it’s common to see authors signing the diaries of would-be readers or posing for photographs with children. People who don’t know your name or the titles of any of your books congratulate you as they walk past, and fair­-goers feel no compunction asking for your email address or cell-phone number. One year at the fair, I was in the bathroom, standing at the urinal, when a college­-age kid tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would read his novel.

Since the fair is held over the long Independence Day holidays, when many of Lima’s wealthiest residents are on vacation outside the city, the events fill up with students or ordinary working­-class Limeños and their families. Many of these visitors might only be able to afford one or two books a year, and the fair is where they do their shopping. This year, over the course of two weeks, 270,000 people attended, an increase of fifteen per cent from the 2008 fair, and sales were nearly 2.5 million US dollars, up twenty per cent from the previous year. In fact, since 2003, sales at the fair have nearly quadrupled, and last year, in an attempt to take the publishing industry out of its usual environs and challenge pirates on what amounts to their home turf, the CPL (the real CPL) inaugurated a book fair specifically for north Lima. It too was a success. In April, I went to hear Alfredo Bryce Echenique read to a packed auditorium. Hundreds lined up for hours to have their books autographed, though a few scurried out of line when it was announced that Mr Bryce would only be signing original copies. When the final receipts were added up, sales at the 2009 north Lima fair had doubled from the year before.

This is the kind of growth pirates were seeing just a decade ago, when the formal publishing industry in Peru was on the verge of collapse. What’s behind this remarkable turnaround? Broadly speaking, the legitimate publishers have benefited from a few years of economic calm. The situation began to rebound after the fall of Fujimori. By 2007, the fourth consecutive year of growth, the economy was expanding at a galloping annual rate of 8.2 per cent and Peru was generally considered to be one of the most dynamic markets in Latin America. Even now, within the context of worldwide economic calamity, Peru seems fairly well placed to ride out the storm. In a country accustomed to crisis, I can attest to the fact that news of a global recession was greeted with a collective shrug. Of course, many in publishing don’t trust their recent success. What will happen when the situation inevitably turns? The concern is warranted. After all, anyone – even booksellers – can make money when the economy is expanding at eight per cent a year, but what about when money is tight? Won’t people go back to buying pirated books? Nor, it should be noted, have pirates suffered. In fact, they’ve grown right along with the legitimate publishing industry, fifteen per cent over the last five years, according to the CPL.

And as the fairs have become more important to the legitimate industry, they have for the pirates as well. There are, of course, the writers who stand at the entrance and sell their chapbooks to passers-­by. More significantly, there are the book thieves, for whom the fair is a particularly busy time. These bands thrive on the bustle and hide among the crowds. They come in groups, case a stand, searching for the most expensive book, then one person moves it away from the stack. Another comes and scoops it into an open bag, while a third accomplice, often a woman in a very short skirt, distracts the booksellers and security guards. These books end up for sale at Amazonas or downtown on Quilca, another street well known for pirated and stolen books.

It was a bookseller named Ángel who told me about the thieves. He was plainly fascinated by their cult-­like devotion to the art of stealing books. The chain of bookstores Ángel worked for, Íbero, became aware of these mafias in 2007, when their warehouse was robbed. It seemed like such an odd crime to me – hitting a warehouse of books? – but as Ángel explained it, the crime made good business sense. Íbero was the exclusive importer of Larousse, a pocket dictionary popular with university students in Lima. Each year’s edition can be counted on to sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies. It’s the sort of book people are willing to splurge on. Pirates know this and one night half the stock at the Íbero warehouse disappeared. There was no hold­-up, no break-­in. It was an inside job. In a matter of days, the dictionaries were on sale at Quilca for half the price. Because Íbero had no way of knowing who had betrayed them, they dismissed their entire warehouse staff, and ever since, they’ve taken special pains to keep tabs on their stock. Ángel, as lead bookseller, even printed up a dossier of photographs featuring the most notorious book thieves, which he distributed to his salespeople at the start of the fair. In spite of these efforts, Íbero loses roughly ten per cent of sales to theft each year, mostly, Ángel suspects, the work of specialists.

But the fair is critical for a much simpler reason. Pirates, like their counterparts in the legitimate publishing industry, know how difficult it is to predict which book will sell. Though they don’t spend on editors, designers, much less on authors, and though they don’t pay benefits to their workers or taxes to the state, pirates also have to anticipate the market, and make risky investments on books that sometimes don’t pan out. The fair, then, is a good barometer of what’s selling, what’s hot. Which events draw the largest crowds? What books are being talked about? It’s all part of the informal market analysis pirates use to decide what to counterfeit next. They read the cultural pages of the local papers, which in the weeks before, during, and after the fair are brimming with news about books and interviews with writers. They pay attention to the buzz. From the book fair the conversation spreads to the rest of the city. What are people asking for at Quilca? At Amazonas? At the intersections where books are sold? And word filters up the chain – from the street corner to the distributor to the producer. If you give a few interviews, or pack an auditorium at the book fair, it’s done. It may be a few days, or a week, but chances are you’ll soon be seeing your book on the corner.

It had been over a month since the raid at the Consorcio Grau stalls, and everything was back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened. The legal case had gone nowhere and not a single pirate or merchant had been jailed. One morning I paid a visit, to see for myself what impunity looks like. Unlike Amazonas, there were no second-­hand books here – everything was pirated. In the hour or so I was there, deliveries kept arriving: boxes of children’s books, vampire novels, thin pamphlets by bestselling Mexican self-­help author Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez and, sure enough, Coelho’s The Winner Stands Alone. The justification one hears most often from those who buy pirated books – ‘These writers make so much money, they won’t even notice it’ – was surely true for some authors. I mean, is Stephenie Meyer really concerned about her sales in Peru?

But I also saw novels by friends of mine, books I know they nearly lost their minds trying to finish, on sale for less than three US dollars. I saw my first novel and took it down from the rack, just for kicks. Same cover I’d seen at the prison, same red bubble letters with white trim. I had no intention of buying it and when I put it back, absent-­mindedly, in the wrong place apparently, the young lady at the stand snapped: ‘That’s not where it was!’

I strolled further into the galleries, and when I saw my novel again, I asked the vendor if he had the new one by this same author.

The salesman was just a kid. He looked up from the crossword puzzle he was doing. ‘What is it?’

‘A book of stories,’ I said.

He looked at me funny, and turned his newspaper over so I could see it. There was a picture of me on the back. ‘But aren’t you Alarcón?’

I shrugged.

He nodded, and didn’t seem to care one way or another, as if authors routinely came in to buy their own works in counterfeit editions. Maybe they do.

‘Check back next week,’ he said.

The previous afternoon, I’d met with Raúl Villavicencio, lawyer for the CPL, to get the backstory on the Consorcio Grau raid. He’d warned me not to ask about it when I visited, lest someone take my questions the wrong way. I followed his advice.

Villavicencio is tall and thin, with the rigid posture of a young man carved out of stone. He wore an argyle sweater vest and spoke in careful, measured tones. To really combat piracy in Peru, Villavicencio told me, the CPL would have to organize a raid like the one in June every few weeks. Every month at least. Hit the pirates where it counts – in the pocketbook. They can replace stock once, twice, three times, but if their merchandise were constantly being seized, eventually they would feel it.

If that was the case, I asked, why weren’t there more raids?

It wasn’t that simple. The June raid was the product of months of planning by the CPL. The complaint had been filed in March, but the police had done nothing about it. The CPL’s own investigators hadn’t been able to locate the press that was printing Coelho’s new book, and though they’d expected the police to help, this hadn’t happened. The CPL decided to go after the Consorcio Grau galleries instead, but the police were again slow to respond – until the prosecuting judge became impatient and ordered them to investigate.

‘Do you want to see it?’ Villavicencio asked. ‘The investigation?’

It was a memo, just over a page long, that said (in a slightly wordier form): ‘Yes, piracy exists at Grau.’ This document was attached to an area map of the sort a nine-­year-­old might draw: a simple square representing a city block, labelled ‘Galerías’, the names of the adjacent streets written in block letters on each side. That was the entire police investigation.

In a city like Lima, with so many real security concerns – from small­-time gangs and bands of kidnappers to drug cartels with frightening international connections – convincing a police officer he should worry about someone selling unauthorized books is not easy. A sweep of itinerant booksellers could net 10,000 suspects and fill a jail, but what would that accomplish? And where, for that matter, would the authorities house these supposed criminals, when Peruvian prisons are already at capacity? For the police and the justice system, it simply isn’t a priority, nor can it be. The CPL managed to pull off this raid for one simple reason – and it happens to be the same reason why it can’t happen every week or two or three. They paid for it.

What does it cost to organize a midnight raid on an unauthorized marketplace in central Lima? Villavicencio showed me the budget, where it was all laid out in great detail: twelve US dollars for markers (‘To label the bags of seized books,’ he explained); one hundred dollars for padlocks (‘For each stand we raided, we had to cut the old lock and replace it’); five dollars for videocassettes (‘We recorded the raid, for legal reasons’).The list went on. The CPL discarded the police map and paid for their own; they bought duct tape, manila folders, spray paint, photocopies, even the vests the cops wore that night. They had to hire locksmiths, purchase the bags the books would be carried in, rent cargo trucks and contract the men who would load them. Meanwhile, the most expensive item on the budget, the one that stood out to me, was for 1,500 soles (roughly 500 US dollars) or nearly twenty per cent of the total cost of the operation. It was labelled police honorariums.

I asked Villavicencio about it.

He smiled uneasily. Though I pressed him, he refused to call it a bribe.

‘Incentives,’ he said.

Whatever one calls it, that budget item is recognition of a stark cultural reality. Nothing happens without money, and it’s just not possible for an organization like the CPL to stamp out piracy on its own, or even with the help of the police, if it has to pay for it every time. There are state entities that are supposed to protect intellectual property. Year after year, they don’t do their job. If you have to pay to have illegal books seized, then by that logic someone else – pirates, for example – can pay to get them back.

I asked Villavicencio where the books were now.

‘In a warehouse in downtown Lima.They’re still being counted.’

‘And what will happen to them?’

The fate of the books, Villavicencio explained, was still in dispute: the CPL wanted them pulped. While the judge wanted to donate them to Promolibro, a miserably funded government programme charged with promoting reading in under­served areas. Given that, by any realistic definition, most of Peru’s territory could be described as under-­resourced, the judge argued it was unethical to destroy the books, even if they were pirated. For the CPL, it was unthinkable that a government entity could officially make use of illegally produced books. It was tantamount to condoning piracy. They had reached an impasse.

Meanwhile, the books sat in a warehouse. More than a month after the raid, the official count still hadn’t been released. Villavicencio saw this delay as dangerous. The longer the tally wasn’t made public, the longer the books weren’t pulped, the more likely the worst-­case scenario became.

‘Which is?’ I asked.

‘Half the seized books will make it back to the market,’Villavicencio said. ‘I would bet my life on it.’


I’ve seen Limeños grind a coin between their molars. I’ve seen them crumple a paper bill, scratch it, smell it, hold it up to the light. These are all idiosyncratic methods of distinguishing real money from fake; perhaps there are others. And when we discover we’ve been had? Most of us frown, feel a tinge of anger, then mix it in with our real money to pass off on someone else. In Peru’s more remote provinces, where the presence of the state is weak, no one knows for certain what legal tender is supposed to look like. Or perhaps they don’t care. I’ve been handed coins that resembled rusty bottle caps flattened beneath the heel of a boot and never had much trouble getting rid of them. We live immersed in a world of counterfeits; what’s worse, we’ve come to accept it. This is the essence of what is known as la cultura bamba. Every Limeño knows about Azángaro, that narrow downtown side street just behind the Palace of Justice, smelling powerfully of ink, where you can get a Harvard diploma, a business licence, a European visa or a national ID card printed up within minutes. How do you get there? Jump in one of Lima’s 210,000 taxis, nearly seventy per cent of which operate without the necessary legal paperwork. Or maybe board a fake bus, operating well-­established routes in vehicles painted to look just like their authorized competitors. But along the way, be careful to avoid the real or staged construction sites. In May I was teaching a class in north Lima, and every Saturday would come across the same half­-block patch of broken road where two men in hard hats and orange vests, carrying buckets and sledgehammers, stopped traffic and asked for money – fake city workers, asking for funds to repair a road they’d most likely destroyed themselves. My taxi driver was unimpressed. In south Lima, he assured me, you could find roadblocks too, only there no one pretended to be working, and if you didn’t give them a coin they just broke your windows.

When I was young, growing up in the United States, my family’s periodic trips back to Peru usually included a suitcase packed with Reeboks and Levis for my cousins. In a closed economy, devastated by war, the real thing was a rare prize. These were the early days of Peruvian piracy, when you might come across a pair of MIKE sneakers or a CAISO wristwatch. The quality was laughable and there was an innocence to it that was almost moving. Counterfeiters toyed with logos, but always gave themselves away; they were, after all, copying consumer products they’d most likely never seen.

It is very different now. Counterfeiters are among Peru’s most talented professionals and their economic impact is real. With each passing year, the technology improves and copies get closer to the original, until the two are essentially indistinguishable. In the age of PDFs, photocopying an entire book is no longer necessary, though producing a readable volume that won’t break the first time you bend the spine still requires some experience, skill and, most importantly, expensive machinery; one pirate I interviewed calculated that his workshop, which reprinted hardback academic texts by publishers like McGraw-­Hill and Prentice Hall, had at least 30,000 US dollars’ worth of equipment. He complained that newer pirates, less committed to quality, were forcing him to cut corners.

In other fields, the cost of entry is not quite so high: anyone with a $200 CPU can start pirating computer programs or digital music in a matter of minutes. In these sectors, the effect of counterfeiting has been catastrophic. The multinational video rental chain Blockbuster arrived in 1995 and was, for a time, thriving. Then, in 2005, it saw its revenue drop fifty per cent, and by the end of the following year the company had left Peru. Blockbuster wasn’t killed off by Internet downloads, but by local DVD pirates. I once met a drug-­addled street kid with a runny nose and disastrously bloodshot eyes who told me he was saving up to rent a stand and sell pirated DVDs. With luck, he said, he would have enough capital in a few months. These are the small, tangible illusions the most helpless among us cultivate. It was midnight and we stood in a wasteland beneath blown-­out street lamps. There was trash everywhere and the buildings were in such disrepair you could hardly tell if they were falling apart or had never been finished in the first place. Prostitutes roamed the streets. Thieves. This boy would be sleeping there, dreaming of pirated DVDs.

It’s hard to quantify the cumulative cultural impact of all this rationalized dishonesty; nor is it clear how we arrived at this juncture. To be sure, the Fujimori regime was overwhelmingly corrupt: one after another, journalists, judges, editors, businessmen, ministers and opposition politicians were caught on video accepting bribes. It was a veritable parade of powerbrokers on the take – smug, cynical men stuffing their pockets with stacks of bills, joking aloud that they couldn’t carry it all. Perhaps, as Coronado argues, it’s no coincidence that piracy exploded in those years, but it would be unfair to blame it all on Fujimori. The current administration is certainly as depraved and greedy as any of its predecessors. In December 2008, President Alan García’s entire cabinet resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal involving bribes and the sale of Amazonian natural gas exploration licences to multinational firms. This should come as no surprise. García has been hounded by similar accusations since his first failed term in the 1980s, and the fact that the nation chose to give a man like this a second chance at the presidency says a good deal about the standard of ethics in Peru. In Lima, this is known as la criollada. Bending the rules and getting away with it have always been admired skills, and the grey area between right and wrong, between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, is dismayingly vast and well trodden. For better or worse, this blithely codified cynicism has become our popular culture.

One afternoon, over a few drinks, I was discussing all this with a friend of mine named Sergio. He’s a writer and editor, and he told me he’d never bribed a police officer. ‘I just don’t believe in it. I know this isn’t something to be proud of,’ he said, ‘but in this country . . .’

I congratulated him – sincerely. I, for example, cannot make the same statement.

But something had happened. A few weeks before, Sergio told me, he was pulled over while driving in Miraflores. The cop wanted a bribe and was crude about it. Vulgar and insistent. Sergio told him straight up, ‘No pago coima, jefe.’ ‘I don’t pay bribes, boss.’

‘How did the officer react?’

Sergio laughed. ‘He said, “No need to get upset, son.” Imagine: refusing to pay a bribe is interpreted as an aggressive act! Then he said, “How can we work this out?”’

This is role reversal: the common script has the civilian asking the police officer some version of that question.

Sergio sipped his wine and shook his head. ‘I should amend my previous statement,’ he said. ‘I’ve never bribed a police officer . . . with money.’

It turns out my friend was in a hurry. He had his principles, but this was taking too long.

‘What did you do?’ I asked.

Sergio was embarrassed. ‘I gave him a copy of my book. I had one in my trunk. He didn’t believe it was me until I showed him the author photo. He was impressed. I even signed it for him. He only agreed to take it after I convinced him it wasn’t counterfeit.’

It got dark around us. We kept talking, finished the bottle of wine, then another, trying to decide if this anecdote was depressing or hopeful.

The authorized Peruvian edition of my new story collection was published in late July, with its blue buy original sticker in the upper-­right-­hand corner. I did a bunch of interviews, gave a few readings; the hubbub of the fair came and went. Suddenly it was August and I still hadn’t been pirated. I was starting to get nervous. There is great vanity in this concern, of course, but so much of publishing is vanity – why should this be any different? I couldn’t help it. Then, on the morning of August 14, my last day in Lima, my editor called with the good news. He’d seen the book for sale in San Isidro, on the corner of Aramburú and Vía Expresa. I happened to be downtown when he called – at Amazonas, actually. I’d decided to squeeze in one more visit before leaving town, hoping I could talk to some more booksellers, maybe find my new collection, but I’d had no luck. My editor’s tone was congratulatory. I was frankly relieved. I spent the next few hours downtown and every time I came across a bookseller – five or six between mid­-morning and lunchtime – I stopped to ask.

No one had it.

But all of them could get it.

By tomorrow, they promised.

It was late afternoon before I made it back to San Isidro. The Vía Expresa is a sunken eight-lane highway that connects Lima’s southern districts to the colonial centre; above, at street level, two lanes on either side feed cars into the highway. Back­ups are common on this narrow frontage road, so naturally the area is crawling with ambulantes. About half a mile from Aramburú, traffic just stopped. We inched forward, braked, lurched ahead, then stopped again, until the waiting was too much. I decided to walk.

It’s not an area designed for pedestrians. To be more precise, the only people not in a car are selling something: DVDs, batteries, fans, combs, brushes, model planes, potted plants, sponges. I teetered along the side of the highway, hugging the railing, watching the pedlars filter through the traffic. The air was acrid and dense. Every few yards, I saw a backpack tied to the railing, lying on the grassy slope along the side of the highway. It was the extra inventory each of these salesmen and women might need in the course of a day, bags bulging with fruit, CDs, even books – all invisible from the street, hidden from view unless you happen to be driving very slowly on the highway below. I kept walking. A hundred yards before the intersection, I saw the first book pirate. I asked him. He shrugged. Nothing.

But at Aramburú there would be another. I knew that. I knew they probably had a gentlemen’s agreement not to poach one another’s clients – one man gets Via Expresa heading north, the other gets Aramburú heading west. Perhaps they even worked for the same distributor. I saw him from a distance and recognized my book’s white back cover. I waited for the traffic cop’s signal and meanwhile I watched the vendor as he went up the line of idling cars. His books hung from a wire in four rows of three, covers out. He had two of these wires, one for each arm, and a backpack too, tied to a post, where he could keep an eye on it. As soon as I could, I crossed the street and called out to him, pointing at my book.

‘How much?’ I shouted.

He looked surprised – he most likely didn’t sell to many people on foot.

‘Twelve soles,’ he said.


‘Don’t be greedy. It’s new. I just got it today.’

‘I know it’s new,’ I said. ‘I wrote it.’

He looked at me like I was crazy. We stood in the narrow median strip, afternoon traffic blurring past us. He put his books down, leaning the wire contraptions against his leg. I took out my wallet and showed him my ID. He held it in his hand, inspecting my name and the photo, glancing back and forth, at the ID, at the book, at me.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘Jonathon,’ he said.

‘Jonathon, you really should give me my book for free.’

He smiled nervously. I could see the very idea made him anxious. He was short, dark-­skinned and young. His black hair fell into his eyes, and his jeans were too big for him. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other.

‘Do you know how long I spent writing that book?’

‘No,’ he said.

‘Three years.’

He didn’t respond.

‘How many have you sold?’

Jonathon gave me a confused look, as if trying to guess what answer I’d most like to hear. ‘People ask about it,’ he said finally, ‘but they don’t buy.’

He took the book out now and let me hold it. The cover image, which my editor and I had argued about for days, was the same, but there was something wrong with it, a slight greenish tint. The paper size was different, making the book shorter, wider, thinner. Less substantial. I found it upsetting.

‘You’re stealing from me,’ I said.

It was more complaint than accusation.

To my surprise, Jonathan nodded. ‘I know.’ His voice was barely audible above the noise of the street. ‘But I’m small.’

Somehow it was a crushing admission. I felt awful. By the looks of him, Jonathon did too. His shoulders slumped. His books leaned against his leg.

I took out my money, a ten note.

He smiled.

Of course, this being Peru, the first thing he did was hold it up to the light.


Photograph © Claudia Alva

Orhan Pamuk | Interview