Publishers find big market for Spanish-language books
McClatchy Newspaper
By Monica Hatcher
Tucson, Arizona | Published:
A little over a decade ago, Spanish-language books occupied the smallest slice of shelf space at bookstores around the country. They were dusty, overlooked and undervalued, and there were few titles beyond the classics — a little poetry and reference materials, most pertaining to the Spanish language itself.
But the 2000 census and its revelations about the fast-growing Hispanic population sparked renewed interest among U.S. publishing houses in meeting the reading desires of Spanish-speakers. Many who had tried — unsuccessfully — to market books in Spanish in the 1990s supercharged their plans.
Then came Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."
This thriller wrapped in an enigmatic riddle that shakes the foundations of Catholicism not only shot up the international charts but quickly became one of the best-selling translations into Spanish of all time.
While successful Spanish-language titles in the United States typically sell between 15,000 and 20,000 books, more than 300,000 copies of "El Codigo Da Vinci" were scooped off bookstore shelves across the land, ushering in what some described as a new era for Spanish-language books in America.
"Distributors saw the potential," said Lucia Laratelli, president of Urano Publishing in Miami. The firm's Barcelona, Spain-based parent company, Ediciones Urano, hit the jackpot with its purchase of the book's Spanish publishing rights.
"If we can sell 300,000 copies, the readers are out there," Laratelli said.
Booksellers and publishers agree that the potential of the Spanish-reading market and the market for Spanish-language translations is only now becoming evident.
Even industry veterans are surprised by its scope. The recent explosive success of "El Secreto," the Spanish translation of "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne, opened eyes. After its June release, the self-help book almost immediately hit the top spot on the charts of Criticas magazine — the equivalent of Publishers Weekly for Spanish books.
Simon & Schuster's Atria Books has printed more than 245,000 copies in anticipation of a megahit by Spanish-language standards.
Aida Bardales, editor of Criticas, said the phenomenon around "The Da Vinci Code" made publishers realize that Hispanic readers in the United States don't live in a publicity vacuum.
" 'The Da Vinci Code' confirmed that Spanish-language readers were paying attention to what was going on in the English-language market," Bardales said. Now, publishers are starting to time the release of English and Spanish versions so they coincide. Best-selling translations have helped the book market overall by alerting readers to the broadening selection of Spanish titles available at their local bookstores, Bardales said.
While the major industry groups, including the Association of American Publishers and the American Booksellers Association, don't track the sales of Spanish-language books, evidence of real growth in the Spanish market began about six years ago.
That's when several major U.S. publishers began establishing divisions to cultivate new Hispanic talent and focus on the sale of both Spanish-language books and English books geared for the HIspanic market. Notable were the efforts of HarperCollins, which announced the expansion of its Spanish imprint, Rayo, in 2004, and Atria Books, which established a Spanish publishing program the following year.
About that time, large chain booksellers began hiring Spanish-book buyers to study market demographics and expand their Libros en Español sections.
Foreign-based publishing houses such as Santillana USA, Planeta Publishing and Urano Publishing have begun partnering with smaller Spanish publishers to beef up their portfolios of Spanish-language titles as well.
Publishers from Spain were for many years the only players serving the Hispanic market. But now they are competing with U.S. houses for new authors and translation rights.
"When we started publishing, it was really difficult to get people to take us seriously outside of the independent bookstores," said Marla Norman, U.S. sales director of Planeta Publishing, whose Spanish parent, Grupo Planeta, is that country's largest trade book publisher. "To go mainstream was almost unthinkable."
While foreign-based publishers now must go head-to-head with their heavyweight U.S. counterparts, Norman said their participation has led to bigger market growth overall and is welcome. Last year, Planeta partnered with HarperCollins to co-publish a list of Spanish titles — including two novels by best-selling Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon, "La Sombra del Viento" and "El Principe de la Niebla" — for publication in the United States.
Profits also are now coming more easily — even for lesser-known titles, Norman said.
"We can start to sell 1,000 copies of a single book and there's some profit, finally," Norman said. "It's gone beyond being a hobby into being a much more interesting business. You can actually create some momentum within the marketing area when you have more people involved and more dollars being invested from a number of different entities."