By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘All Those People Who Had Flocked to the Bookshops’In an article at El Pais, Laura Fernandez writes about spotting Javier Castillo’s face, so easy on the eye, festooned with emoji—hearts, applause, smiley faces. It was his first online meetup to promote last month’s release of The Snow Girl, his latest and fourth book from Suma, an imprint of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial. And that digital appearance gave new traction to a release that might otherwise have skidded right out of sight.
The event was born in the terrible crisis of a moment that has rocked Spain to its core.
Gonzalo Albert Bitaubé, literary director for both Suma Hispánica and Aguilar at PRH Grupo Editorial, points out that the new title had been released only two days before Spain’s government imposed one of the harshest lockdowns in Europe, a wrenching attempt to short-circuit transmission of the coronavirus COVID-19. That lockdown has been renewed twice and with such a grinding impact on daily life that a primetime show, Quarantine Diaries, is coming to Spanish television.
Surpassed today (April 9) only by the Italy’s and the United States’ death tolls, Spain—with a population of some 47 million—has suffered at this writing a stunning 14,792 fatalities in the pandemic, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Spain reports 148,220 confirmed cases, the second highest national tally in the world after the American total. The Spanish lockdown goes on at least through April 25.
In interviews with both Gonzalo Albert and Javier Castillo, Publishing Perspectives gets a wide-angle snapshot of what can happen when a bestselling author who normally is extensively toured by his publisher—not just throughout Spain but also into Latin America—is suddenly homebound, surrounded by stacks of books he’s just signed, and ready to take questions from his readers.
“The Snow Girl book tour was planned to go to more than 30 cities,” Castillo says. ‘And I usually end the day in a bookshop with my readers, signing books late into the night. Every signature is a good chance to thank my readers for the time they’ve invested in my novels and for being with me on this mysterious and thrilling journey.”
“We decided immediately to do this online live event,” Castillo’s publisher Albert says, almost mirroring the urgency talked about by public-health experts, themselves.
Castillo points out with pride that the event, hosted on his Instagram account, was moderated “by Maria Gomez, a wonderful and creative TV presenter. Gomez conducted an informal interview with Castillo, after which there was a time for an exchange with the readers, who sent their questions and comments on Twitter.
“It was an exhilarating experience.” Castillo says. “I still feel how nervous I was beforehand—and the thrill of finding more than 60,000 people there, including people from Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, the US, Mexico, Italy.”
What’s clear is that Castillo and Albert’s context for success depends not only on that quick recognition of what to do but also on a brand-author’s popularity, a publishing house’s commitment to its product, an author’s avid engagement in the marketing of his work, and the profound importance of digital agility in today’s staggered world publishing markets.
Along the way, we’ve also been reminded that however internationalized publishing professionals today may believe their industry has become, there are big-time stars, heavy sellers, who still find linguistic frontiers to be as stubbornly closed as some of the borders now slammed shut under the threat of the contagion.
“Many of these young and talented authors are true experts in this new means of communication, they have a built-in and natural dexterity for it.”Gonzalo Albert, Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial
Castillo has sold, by Albert’s estimation, factoring in the recent release of The Snow Girl, more than 680,000 copies of his four thrillers. And yet, have you read him in English? “His previous titles have been sold to several countries,” Albert says, “and I’m sure The Snow Girl will as well, but the UK and US are always the most difficult countries for any Spanish author to crack.”
There’s a chance that The Snow Girl can break through, by virtue of its setting. It opens at a shrine of American holiday tradition, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, 1998, when 3-year-old Kiera Templeton, disappears into the crowd. Frantic searches turn up no more than some strands of hair and her clothes. Five years later, her parents are sent a videotape of the child playing in a room. The chase is on, led by a determined journalist who Castillo tells us “has a very painful inner fight with her own feelings.”
And with the panic of the pathogen’s pressures closing in, “Javier longed to ‘meet’ his readers,” Albert says, “all those people who had flocked to the bookshops and had bought 11,000 copies of La chica de nieve in just two days. And it was marvelous, with those 60,000 viewers.”
Written on a Train, Self-Published With Amazon
Castillo’s own story is one that will warm the hopes of many self-publishers. Years after the great, explosive successes of the original class of Amazon’s “Kindle Million Club” bestsellers, what happened with this author’s first book, El día que se perdió la cordura (The Day Sanity was Lost, 2017) will remind many of the Hugh Howey (Dust) story, in particular.
Having started writing in his early teens, when he’d created “small short stories inspired by the books I read” by Agatha Christie and others, “I started my first novel while commuting by train to work” as a financial advisor.
“I lived 50 minutes away from where I worked, very long hours, and that was the only time I had to do it. When I’d finished the novel a year later by writing only on that train from Fuengirola to Malaga, I submitted it to four Spanish publishers. One of them replied that It would take almost a year to receive a response. So I decided to upload it to Amazon.
“I didn’t expect it to sell any books,” Castillo says, “so I didn’t check it for the first two weeks. But when I did, I discovered that it was the No. 1 bestselling book in Spain.
“I was shocked, with thousands of people asking me by Twitter if I was the writer of that book. The novel was selling more than 1,000 copies a day, and I began to receive several publishing offers from the main publishers in Spain.
“By the time the Penguin Random House offer came, I had already sold 40,000 books online.”
Albert, now the lucky publisher who captured Castillo’s success, seems to like this story as much as his author does, not least because it demonstrates both the viability of a good author and what a powerful publishing house can do for him.
“There was a moment, during the first online presentation, when my daughter interrupted me to give me a kiss and tell me goodnight, letting me know that she was going to bed.”Javier Castillo
“The Day Sanity was Lost really caught our eye,” he says. “We’re always seeking new voices in every form and every place, and Amazon is a place we’re always searching through.
“And I like that it proved that although Javier had already sold more than 40,000 copies by himself, there was a lot of scope ahead for him. It also proved that a good novel is a good novel, no matter the format or the source.
“And yes, it’s the dream of any publisher” to find something like this rocketing across the charts.
With a charm typical of many authors whose work starts in self-published formats, Castillo admits to being bowled over by what happened when the Spanish division of the world’s largest publisher went to work on The Day Sanity Was Lost.
“The surprise was that when it got published it all become a lot bigger,” he says. “There were four new printings of the book in the first week, 10 in five months. I had already passed 100,000 books sold in the first four months.
“I hadn’t expected it. I was still working full-time as a financial advisor, and I realized that I had to pursue that dream I’d had as a teenager” writing short stories based on mysteries. “It was a difficult decision,” changing careers, “but the best of my life. I could focus on writing more—the thing that I loved most—and focus more on the promotion of the book which, until then, I’d just done in the spare time my job left me.”
Albert: ‘These Young and Talented Authors’
Next to “It’s already sold 40,000 copies,” surely the most beautiful sentence an author can say to a publisher is what you just heard from Castillo: “I could focus more on the promotion of the book.” No wonder Gonzalo Albert is smiling.
Not only had he and his team captured a shooting star of Spanish-language self-publishing, but that star is good in social media, knows money, and loves marketing.
“We’ve always worked hard on social media contacts” for authors, Albert says, “and we’ve developed very interesting and varied strategies for our authors, so they’re in touch with their readership.
“And this new generation of authors is so on top of this means of communication that they’ve taught us quite a lot. Many of these young and talented authors are true experts in this new means of communication, they have a built-in and natural dexterity for it. They were born into this new world. In many cases, it helps an awful lot, along with our own social media, so I’d always recommend working on this side as well.”
What Castillo knows, it turns out, as one of Albert’s digitally fluent authors, is that events IRL—in real life—can have the biggest impact in the virtual world.
“What makes it challenging” to do the live digital readings and Q&As he’s now making a specialty, Castillo says, “is that while I do an online presentation, my two children are in the next room, playing or waiting for me to go to bed. There was a moment, during the first online presentation, when my daughter interrupted me to give me a kiss and tell me goodnight, letting me know that she was going to bed. I think it was the best moment of all the presentations I’ve done in these last three years.”
The exigencies of the physical realm, mind you, still can get to the author. “When bookshops closed because of COVID-19,” he says, “we opted for signing lots of copies for the online bookshops that still delivered sales to readers at their homes.
“When a whole truck came to my house with those books that I had to sign, it was really unbelievable. I spent a whole week signing them, and I’ve just starting receiving images from readers of them—I signed them with a special COVID-19 quote on the first page. It’s wonderful to have my work be their book of choice during the lockdown, and that huge signing is one of the ways I can thank my readers.”
Castillo: ‘The Hours of Sleep They’ve Lost’
So is this the turning point for Castillo in world publishing? Does his success finally translate into the international rights sales that will take his work into the major English-language markets and many others?
“I’d say that most of Javier’s work’s elements are really universal,” Albert says, pointing to The Snow Girl in particular.
“The journalism world, a girl gone missing in a crowd, the desperate search. We’re confident that having reached his level of sales and with such a solid piece, this new title is one the States will be considering” for English-language rights contention.
As most of our readers know, the national offices of Penguin Random House operate with a lot of autonomy. PRH in the States “will read the novel as the rest of the US publishing houses will,” Albert says.
For now, Castillo says he’s enjoying the sense of mission for storytelling inherent in the necessary isolation and dread of the pandemic.
“This is a time when books are among the key entertainment media, and we authors and publishing houses have to be there, more than ever, to create stories, worlds, and alternative realities that are so attractive and thrilling that they get everyone to forget for a few hours what’s happening outside.
“I don’t know a better excuse for being at home reading a good book.”
Albert says that PRH Grupo Editorial is “getting along quite well, really,” in working remotely since the start of the lockdowns in Spain. The emergency is, of course, first devastating for its lethal contagion but secondarily for what it’s doing to publishing “with all the bookshops closed and everything completely paralyzed.
“It’s a one-off situation,” he reminds people, “and we’re all trying our best and making the most of everything to minimize the impact and allow people to read and stay entertained.”
Gonzalo Albert concedes that for all Castillo’s and other authors’ digital success, he’ll be glad for a return of normal human interaction. “There’s nothing quite like meeting your favorite author.”
And Javier Castillo, certainly ready to get back to his 1,200-seat theater presentations and those late-night book-signings in the shops and stores, is making the most of his eloquence online.
“I think there’s no better compliment than receiving a direct message at 4 or 5 a.m. from a reader saying they’ve just finished your novel and they wanted to thank you for the hours of sleep they’ve lost.”
(This article is sponsored by Javier Castillo’s media team.)
More from Publishing Perspectives on the Spanish market is here. More from us on Penguin Random House is here, more on authors is here, more on international publishing rights is here, and more on the coronavirus pandemic is here.
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