By Adam Critchley
MEXICO CITY: Bertelsmann’s 100% acquisition of Random House Mondadori, its trade book publisher in Spain and Latin America, allows the Barcelona-based company to continue to focus on what it knows best, the vast and growing Spanish-language market. But while united by a common language, a local focus is necessary in a region that is far from homogenous, and where ebooks are still in their infancy.
The market leader in Latin America, Random House Mondadori’s (RHM) fusion with Penguin won’t change the publishing firm’s fundamental focus, providing regional coverage through its iconic imprints while keeping the focus tight on local markets.
“In Latin America people always talk about Brazil as the big emerging nation, but it is really Mexico that has the potential for growth in the coming years,” Random House Mondadori’s (RHM) editorial director in Mexico, Cristóbal Pera, tells Publishing Perspectives.
“With a 30% drop in book sales in Spain since the onset of the crisis, business in Latin America is comparatively good,” Pera says.
But the characteristics of each local market make comparisons complex.
“Mexico has fewer readers in terms of percentage of the population, and fewer bookstores, fewer than 1,000 compared to more than 4,000 in Spain. And while ebook sales are beginning to take off in Spain, in Mexico the digital revolution has yet to arrive, although it will come.”
Mexico’s Gandhi bookstore has already launched an ereader, pre-empting the arrival of Amazon, which is slated to set up shop in the country soon.
But for RHM, Spanish-language ebook sales in the USA are already an important revenue stream. “We sell more ebooks there than in Mexico. In the USA, 15% of Hispanics have ereaders,” Pera says.
As part of its strategy to bring ebooks to a wider readership, RHM has launched a digital fiction collection, RHM Flash, comprising short pieces of 40 pages, or 10,000 words maximum, which will be sold like singles, for $1.99, or for 29 pesos in Mexico.
“This is for readers who are not tempted to buy an ebook, but can begin to explore a writer, while for non-fiction the En Debate series, in the same format, will be launched at the book fair in Guadalajara this month.” Mexican authors already involved in the project include historian Enrique Krauze and veteran journalist Julio Scherer. There will initially be six titles in each series.
“We also plan to take writers who have not yet had their works translated into English, translate them and launch them as ebooks, as a kind of test, to see how they sell. After all, Fifty Shades of Grey started life as an ebook.”
Pera also points to the advent of ebooks as beneficial to writers, as it will give their work greater reach.
“Many writers often think that by being in a big publisher like RHM they will automatically have their books on sale in numerous countries; Argentina, Mexico, Peru, and it’s not always like that, unfortunately. A book has to have certain characteristics in order to enter multiple markets.”
“In the new digital era this will be easier. A reader interested in a book by a writer from another country (writing in Spanish) whose books are not available in their country will be able to procure them.”
While united by the same language, each Latin American country’s book-buying public is quite distinct, with each market defined by readers’ tastes.
“We’re leaders in Argentina, through our Sudamericana imprint. It’s more of a literary market than Mexico, where literature is more difficult to sell, and where, for example, non-fiction has a larger market share than in Spain. And while literary fiction is the strong seller in Argentina, in Spain it’s commercial fiction.”
“Argentina is a special case. For example, we launched a collection of Jorge Luis Borges books, distributed to newsstands, and which sold around 20,000 copies, which is incredible.
“But Mexico is a more difficult market and we couldn’t apply the same strategy here,” he explains.
While RHM brings to a local market books that have posted strong sales elsewhere, as well as the classics and Nobel Prize winners, almost half of the firm’s list in Mexico is made up of local writers.
“We think this is a good balance. The local market is crucial for us, and we earn more from the sales of books by local writers, except in the case of (E.L. James’s) Fifty Shades of Grey. And it’s the same in Argentina.” This applies to fiction and non-fiction.
“For example, Mexican writer Anabel Hernández’s Los señores del narco sold 120,000 copies in its first year, which is a local phenomenon, and is evidence of the public’s interest in current affairs. And there is also huge interest in historical novels.”
But the popularity of genres varies across the region. Self-help books are a very important part of the firm’s sales in Mexico, but are not in Spain, for example.
Across Latin America as a whole, the chronicle is a very popular genre, as a reflection and a recounting of the current reality. The Ibero-American New Journalism Foundation, founded by Gabriel García Márquez, recently held a congress in Mexico, coinciding with the publication of two anthologies, by Anagrama and Alfaguara in Spain, of articles chronicling the regional reality.
The popularity of the chronicle is also reflected in Latin America’s flourishing magazine industry, where titles such as Gatopardo (founded in Colombia and now published in Mexico), El Malpensante (Argentina) and Etiqueta Negra (Peru) provide a platform for writers recording the social and political struggles that dominate daily life.
“The genre’s popularity is due to the fact that chronicles bleed across into fiction, without talking about magical realism. The reality is so brutal that it reads like fiction,” Pera says.
RHM’s catalog includes several Latin American chroniclers, such as Alma Guillermoprieto, Diego Enrique Osorno, Fabrizio Mejía Madrid and Julio Villanueva Chang, the latter the founding editor of Etiqueta Negra.
“The theme of the drug war is very important in Mexico, both in fiction and non-fiction. It’s a subject that is so terrifying that it transcends genres, and in which fiction falls short.”
RHM has published 15 titles on the drug war in collaboration with Mexican current affairs magazine Proceso, with print runs of 20,000, all of which sold out.
Pera also points to reality eclipsing fiction as a possible reason why Don Winslow’s 2005 novel The Power of the Dog, about a DEA agent’s involvement with a Mexican drug cartel, did not sell as well as had been anticipated in Mexico.
Lost in Translation
Pera also cites Winslow’s novel as an example of how linguistic differences between Spain and Latin America rendered the book’s translation, carried out in Spain, deficient, by not reflecting the local vernacular.
“When the book arrived in Mexico we realized the drug traffickers (in the book) were speaking a language (Spanish spoken in Spain) that is not spoken here, so we did something that is not common; the edition was corrected here in Mexico and a new edition was published in Spain.”
Translation is also a vital issue for a publisher placing books in multiple markets. As well as the occasional need to tweak a text translated in Spain in order to satisfy a Latin American readership or reflect a regional reality, certain genres only suit certain markets, while others will be distributed pan-regionally and require what Pera calls a “neutral” translation that can be read at a regional, rather than a local, level.
“Mexico is a center of decision-making regarding some books at an international level. In the case of self-help books, they are translated in Mexico because this is the market we are targeting. Jo Tuckman, Mexico correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, will have her book Mexico: Democracy Interrupted, translated here, because this is where its major readership is.”
Pera attributes RHM’s growth in Latin America to its decision to maintain its imprints, such as Grijalbo in Mexico, and Sudamericana in Argentina, with which readers identify and which have become emblematic.
“Grijalbo is the most important and well-known Random House imprint in Mexico. It was born here, too, founded by an exiled Spaniard in the 1940s, and who then took it back to Barcelona. And Sudamericana is our most important imprint in Argentina, and which is where García Márquez first published One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Cutting Out the Middleman
The major difference between publishing operations in Spain and in Latin America is the lack of a culture of literary agents, particularly in Mexico, where, in what sounds like a throwback to a romantic, idealistic past, writers send their manuscripts directly to publishers, who then sift through the slush pile.
“The big writers here have agents, but once they are consolidated, and those agents are in Europe or the US. Carmen Balcells (who set up an agency in 1956 in Barcelona) was the innovator, seeing the potential for Latin American writers at an international level. But agencies haven’t emerged in Latin America,” Pera explains.
But while slush pile-to-shelves success stories do exist in Mexico, such as Hilario Peña, who has published three titles with RHM since first pushing an envelope through their door, Pera is quick to point out that only 1% of received manuscripts reach publication.