Whatever Happened to US Spanish-language Publishing?

In Global Trade Talk by Emily Williams

This article originally appeared in our printed BEA Show Daily, which you can read in its entirety here.

By Emily Williams

With Spain as the Global Market Focus this year, we thought it worthwhile to look at the existing market for Spanish-language books in the US. The Hispanic book buying market is estimated at about $1 billion, of which 30-35% of those sales are in Spanish language books.

But less than a decade ago Spanish-language readers in the US were looked upon as next big untapped market, a rare bright spot of growth in the otherwise saturated book market.  The headline of a Publisher’s Weekly article in September 2000 trumpeted “Spanish-Language Publishing in U.S. Nears Critical Mass”, and the industry responded with a number of initiatives geared to this promising market, including Rayo, a Spanish-language imprint at HarperCollins, and Críticas, a Library Journal publication in English dedicated to helping librarians and book buyers navigate Spanish-language offerings from publishers, both launched in 2001.

Then came the financial crash at the end of 2008, followed by major layoffs and downsizing at a number of large New York publishers. By February 2009, Críticas had ceased publication and the head of Rayo was a casualty of a HarperCollins restructuring that saw the end of a whole division and the elimination of a number of high-placed editorial posts. This at a time when the Census Bureau projects the Hispanic population in the US will triple by 2050 to make up 29% of the population. So what happened? Did US publishers fail to find the Spanish readers, or were they never there to begin with?

“I think it’s a question of the expectations of the large publishers,” says Andrea Montejo, a former Rayo editor who left to found Indent Literary Agency in 2007. In the hype surrounding the Spanish-language market there was often a conflation of the potential number of Spanish-language readers with the general Hispanic population in the US — the majority of whom do not read Spanish. “You hear 40 million Latinos in the US and everybody was expecting those numbers to be reflected in a huge way in terms of sales, and I think that was a mistake,” Montejo says. “There was a lot of trial and error.  It all came together with the economy going bust, and that part of the business that was an innovation was just not seen as a priority.”

Hardy Survivors

While there was a certain scaling back of the exuberance of the brief boom era, however, publishers who have put down roots in the Spanish-language market, operating under a hard-won realism, continue to find their readers. Atria editor Johanna Castillo nurtures a small collection of Spanish-language originals under the broader international list. Santillana USA, under trade book director Silvia Matute, publishes some Spanish-language originals and does a creative job of funneling imports from their large Spanish parent house into whichever points of sale are likely to put them in front of readers — whether that’s a bookshop, big box store, or bodega.  And in February 2009, the same month that brought bad news for Críticas and Rayo, Random House’s 15-year-old imprint Vintage Español signed a joint venture agreement with corporate cousin Random House Mondadori that boosted their annual output from 15 titles to 55.

Newly promoted director Jaime de Pablos attributes the imprint’s success in no small part to his predecessor Milena Alberti, who carefully crunched the numbers to make sure their spending on books did not exceed likely sales. (The consensus among all the editors we spoke with was that a bestseller in the Spanish-language market translates to about 40-50,000 copies in sales, and that anything over 20,000 is a major hit.) The joint venture has allowed Vintage to mine Random House Mondadori’s rich backlist for titles that show promise for the US, then repackage and publish them in editions designed specifically for the US market.  Asked what advantage this gives Vintage Español over imports from other big Spanish publishers, de Pablos points out that other houses tend to stick to their international bestsellers rather than creating a list customized for US Spanish readers. “I think, because we’re here and we work here in the US, and we have our sales team all over the country, we have a better sense of what could work and what people want, and we can do much more publicity and marketing. In terms of logistics we have much more flexibility. Our books are made here, so we don’t have to ship them from Spain.”

The Bilingual Strategy

Another homegrown imprint bucking the trend is Penguin’s Celebra, founded in 2008. Under publisher Raymond Garcia, Celebra publishes about 12 titles a year, all originals, featuring Hispanic celebrities in sports, TV, music, politics and business. All of the titles are published in English and almost all are originally written in English. Where a celebrity author has strong appeal for Spanish readers, who tend to be mostly first generation immigrants, the book is translated and published in Spanish as well, explains Garcia. “Selling Spanish-language books is a viable market,” says Garcia, “but we’re seeing that second and third generation Hispanics do have higher levels of education and buying power, and they’re more likely to shop in larger national accounts, which is why we see about 75% of books purchased by Hispanics are in English. That’s also what drives Celebra’s strategy to publish about 30% of its books in Spanish, it’s mirroring the opportunities in the marketplace.”

Making sure the entire list is available in English also ensures Celebra authors can reach into every corner of the US. “It’s important for the imprint, especially when publishing Hispanics in English, to preserve its mainstream appeal so that it doesn’t get pigeonholed into just highly populated Hispanic areas. And then for those authors who resonate in Spanish, we have our targeted approach for Spanish-language media in helping to push that forward.”

Future Prospects

The fact that an imprint like Celebra publishes in English in order to reach second and third generation Hispanic readers begs the question of whether the Spanish-language book market has a long term future or whether it will assimilate itself out of existence. On this there is strong agreement among those working to reach Spanish readers and it is, perhaps surprisingly, entirely optimistic.

Jaime de Pablos at Vintage Español is testing out the Christian book channels and hopes to find new opportunities to promote books in the thriving Spanish-language media market and, as the audience evolves, online. “I think as the market grows, the opportunities will come in new media.” The internet is of course key to the next stage of book publishing, though the digital revolution driving so much conversation across the US industry is still at its barest beginnings in Spanish. ”We’re just starting to launch our first e-books,” says de Pablos, “so I don’t have any data yet.  My guess is it’ll be a small part of our sales, but will gradually grow alongside the economic and cultural level of Hispanics.”

Agent Andrea Montejo is equally positive, though with a few reservations: “I think there is opportunity there, it just needs to be done with the right expectations, and it needs to be nurtured, so it can grow.” When it comes to recognizing promising books, Montejo sees a need for more diversity within the New York publishing establishment. “There’s sort of a parallel world in the Spanish-language community that the English-language community isn’t always aware of, and there are still very few Spanish-speakers or Latinos inside the publishing community. I think there’s not enough knowledge in that sense.” Once the books are published, more agility is needed to make sure they reach their audience, which because of cultural differences might not know to look in the typical places like Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. “The final point of sale,” Montejo notes, is perhaps most important of all — “getting to the actual readers and letting them know the books are out there. I remember some books we would publish and we would get tons and tons of calls from readers asking, where can I buy the book?  It’s such a huge disconnect. There’s still work to be done.”

About the Author

Emily Williams

Emily Williams as Manager of International Digital Content at Barnes & Noble.com. Before that, she worked as digital content producer for Publishers Marketplace, contributor to Digital Book World and Publishing Perspectives, and also held a senior scout position with Maria B. Campbell & Associates.