By Adriana V. Lopez
MADRID: This past June, I boarded a plane at Madrid’s Barajas Airport bound for Bogotá, Colombia when I noticed several women on the plane with the same book. When you’ve worked in publishing, and by serendipity spot more than one person reading the same book in a public setting, and in one condensed space, it can signify pure zeitgeist or signal the sighting of a damn good book. What I didn’t know then was that this book — La reina en el palacio de las corrientes de aire — was the third and final book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. It had just gone on sale the day before my flight and sold a stunning 200,000 copies in just 24 hours.
The first of the trilogy, Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres, went on sale in Spain in June 2008. The publisher Destino, an imprint of Grupo Planeta, also distributes to Latin America and the book has become a bestseller in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and several others. In all, the Millennium trilogy has sold a total of 3.4 million individual volumes in its Spanish translation, while the Catalan version accounts for another 300,000.
Asked to speculate on Larsson’s popularity, Destino editorial director Emili Rosales credited the writing. “The potent characters and the themes of crimes against women, the injustice in the political system ring true in Spain right now during these corrupt times,” he said.
Rosales added they followed a formula that worked with another of Planeta’s colossal bestsellers, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, opting for a “personal, artisanal” approach to publication, one that called for paying particular attention to the covers.
The covers are, indeed, distinct. Though Larsson’s enfant terrible hacker, Lisbeth Salander, is described as shorter-haired with piercings, Planeta decided to go with the image of long-haired goth girl with an oversized head and a lithe, cartoonish body which is seen posed in a unnatural position. (As opposed to the UK and French editions which stuck with the short hair).
The image is based on a series of photographs of the Argentine artist and model Tamara Villoslada. Years ago Villoslada was photographed by the Mexican-born Spanish artist Gino Rubert who then converted those into paintings. An exhibit of this work left an impression on Destino editor Silvia Sesé, who later contacted Rubert to rework it for Millennium’s launch.
The result is the character of Lisbeth depicted as a devil in a red dress, dominating the cover of these enormous black books so fat they could that could easily pass for Bibles (this is Spain after all).
I’ve been taught not to judge books by their covers, but I found myself drawn to these covers time and time again. After that initial sighting on the plane in June, I continued to spot the Larssons all throughout the summer.
Two weekends after my return to Madrid, now mid July, I was invited by my friend Natalia to her parents’ beach house in a remote town, on the southern coast, called Cabo de Palos. Their house was on a private alcove beach. No tourists, just a handful of local families. We spent two full days there, eating clams and paella, lying on this tiny strip of pebbly beaches, on which I saw to my surprise three copies of the book, again at different times. In the heat of that very strong sun, the readers’ noses were happily buried in those hefty noir novels. Larsson fans, it seemed, were lurking everywhere.
Then, about a week later, while riding the metro back in Madrid, I had a third mass sighting. In one packed car I counted four people armed with Larsson. Never have I seen a book being read as widely. Not the Da Vinci Code, not Harry Potter, not Stephenie Meyer, not even the Bible itself. Larsson was a publishing phenomenon in Spain. But why? Why was this market, dominated by female readers, hooked on a lengthy summer read about espionage and crime, set in Sweden of all places?
Natalia’s mother Maira offers one clue. She read it after she first saw the ad in Babelia, El Pais’ literary supplement, and it drew her attention. Then, a friend of hers really really liked it. Finally, to top it off, for Spaniards like Maira, Stockholm is a curiosity. So, it appears that reviews and word of mouth still work.
Spanish publishers, of course, are on the lookout for their next “floater book,” as they call the phenomenon of a book that sell in such abundance over a short period that can help a publisher weather a difficult fiscal year. But what remains for Larsson’s fans now that the trilogy is finished? The movie adaptations, of course. The first of which was released this June, just as the third and final book landed in stores. The remaining two are coming later this year and next, all but guaranteeing renewed interest in the books and ensuring Larsson will remain a bestseller for some time to come.
READ: An interview with Destino’s Silvia Sesé about the Larsson phenomenon.
BROWSE: Destino’s Larsson Web site (in Spanish)
MORE: On the stunning covers