Chronicle of a Rebirth Foretold: The Second Rise of Spanish-Language Publishing

A Column by Sarah Vogelsong

There’s no doubt about it: the Hispanic and Latino populations in the United States are growing. Between 2000 and 2010, this group swelled from 35.3 million to 50.5 million, accounting for more than half of the U.S. population’s total growth during the decade. Today, Hispanics and Latinos represent 16 percent of the nation’s people—and that percentage is steadily increasing.

This growth, dubbed “the browning of America,” has caused publishers around the country to sit up and, these days, tear their focus from the fifty shades of grey consuming the industry. To publishers, the Hispanic segment of the “browning” phenomenon means one thing: an untapped market. After all, according to the Census Bureau, more than two-thirds of this group speaks Spanish at home. When combined with their rising levels of educational and professional attainment, it seems clear that demand for Spanish-language books should be high.

The equation sounds straightforward. The problem is that it’s been tried before, and the results haven’t been quite as expected.

Back in the mid-1990s, the phenomenal success of the Spanish edition of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate produced a wave of enthusiasm for Spanish-language works, sending the Big Six on a race to establish imprints. In 1994, Random House founded Vintage Español. HarperCollins quickly followed suit with HarperLibros and Harper Arco Iris, and in 1996, Simon & Schuster teamed up with Mexican publisher Santillana to launch Libros en Español. It seemed like a brave new chapter in publishing.

But today, of those three major imprints, only Vintage Español remains vibrant, while the other two seem to have quietly shuttered. A representative from HarperCollins confirms that neither HarperLibros nor Harper Arco Iris exist anymore, and although the website of the publisher’s Rayo imprint announces that it publishes Spanish-language editions of books “that embody the diversity within the Latino community,” I am told that no one is available to speak about Spanish-language publishing. At Simon & Schuster, information about Libros en Español is surprisingly hard to find, with no one in the communications department seeming to have ever heard of it.

Overwhelmingly, the sense that I get in reaching out to more than a dozen people in the industry is that Spanish-language publishing is not the hot topic that it once was—and there is a great reluctance to discuss the mid-90s imprints that failed. Whether expectations were too high or investments and demand were too low, the reality is that although Spanish-language publishing has grown over the past two decades, the process has been strangely slow.

Nevertheless, its presence cannot be ignored, and a group of publishers are today doggedly pushing the field forward book by book.

As the oldest of the imprints, Vintage Español is in the vanguard of the Spanish-language movement. Since 1994, the company has put out around 300 Spanish-language books in multiple genres, including cookbooks, self-help, sports biographies, and fiction by such literary heavyweights as Garcia Márquez, Roberto Bolaño, and Paulo Coelho.

“We really try to be a standard bearer,” says Vanessa Lopez, Vintage Español’s associate publisher. “We try to offer readers the best of what’s out there.”

A more recent imprint established in 2010, Penguin’s C.A. Press, may lack Vintage Español’s superstar authors but has already made an impression on the industry. The publisher has chosen a strategy of retaining world Spanish rights, which allows them to sell Spanish-language books directly to U.S., Latin American, and Spanish markets.

“Our mission is to be a global provider of Spanish-language content,” says Erik Riesenberg, C.A. Press’s editorial director.

It’s an ambitious plan, but with one tried-and-true Spanish-language imprint, Celebra, under its belt, Penguin seems happy to gamble on it. While Celebra publishes works by celebrities, C.A. Press has expanded into multiple genres, including cookbooks, novels, current events, self-help, and children’s books. According to Riesenberg, the imprint now publishes around 20 books a year.

Vintage Español and C.A. Press are not alone. Although its Libros en Español imprint no longer exists, Simon & Schuster established a new dedicated Spanish-language imprint, Atria Books Español, in 2005, and other imprints at the company also issue books in Spanish. Since its inception, Atria has put out roughly 80 titles in the genres of fiction, current events, and inspirational self-help. Various imprints at Hachette are also experimenting with Spanish editions, with Sophie Cottrell, vice president of communications, reporting that their Nashville division (which includes the FaithWords and Center Street imprints) is the furthest along.

Other companies besides U.S.-based publishers are also contributing to the Spanish-language publishing market. Santillana sells books within the United States, and Lectorum, the largest distributor of Spanish-language books in the United States, warehouses over 25,000 titles.

Nevertheless, Spanish-language publishing faces some formidable obstacles, with one of the biggest being the problem of marketing and selling books. Convincing booksellers to buy and stock a book, always a challenging task, becomes even more complicated when factoring in the difficulty of getting the broader public to take notice of a work that may not even be in their primary language.

“In the U.S. there are not as many Hispanic media outlets as in the Anglo market, so there is more competition in a smaller space,” says Riesenberg. Teresa Mlawer, the former president of Lectorum, notes that few, if any, English-language magazines today review Spanish titles, which discourages librarians and teachers from purchasing works that might appeal to their audiences. As for book tours, Mlawer says, “authors going on the road to promote their books is practically nonexistent for a book in Spanish.”

In the face of these hurdles, some publishers are turning away from the more traditional promotion strategies to embrace marketing and sales grounded in the web.

“The Internet has really helped us overcome those challenges by allowing us to target readers via social media,” says Lopez.

But the relationship between Spanish-language publishing and new technologies is a unique one. While the ebook is ubiquitous in the United States today, other countries have been slower to embrace electronic publishing. At Lectorum, which brings a large volume of Spanish-language books into the United States, the process of transferring works into electronic formats has only just begun. Gaining the necessary rights and permissions to produce electronic versions can be both difficult and expensive, posing extra challenges to publishers who may already be taking a risk on a foreign work.

“[These publishers] aren’t going as fast into it as American publishers,” says Mlawer. “But eventually they’ll get there. There’s no doubt about that.” In the meantime, American publishers such as Penguin and Simon & Schuster’s Atria are releasing all of their Spanish-language works concurrently in print and digital formats.

“Although not at a fast rate, digital content is becoming more widely embraced in the Hispanic community,” says Riesenberg.

On the whole, a cautious optimism toward Spanish-language publishing seems to pervade the industry. To Riesenberg, Spanish-language publishing is undergoing a “renaissance.” Changing attitudes may be due to an increasing acceptance of Hispanics and a growing comfort with the dual existence of two languages within U.S. borders.

“More and more in the U.S., people are realizing that we can no longer be a monolingual society,” says Mlawer. “And maybe Spanish isn’t a bad idea, because we’re so close, and there are so many Latino people in the United States.”

Simultaneously, another market is growing that may help bolster sales: English speakers eager to learn Spanish themselves or raise bilingual children. Mlawer cites the high sales numbers of children’s board books that tell a story using both languages as evidence of this expanding demand.

“Spanish is becoming more and more a part of the North American landscape,” says Lopez. “We'll continue to grow along with that market just as we have, keeping our finger on the pulse of what those readers look for in terms of books.”

And for those publishers still convinced that Fifty Shades of Grey is what readers are looking for, no need to worry: Vintage Español has just released Spanish editions of all three installments.

“The responses to the Spanish editions . . . have been tremendous,” says Lopez. “Just as they have in English.”

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