A multitude of oportunities

By Cristóbal Pera

Three years ago an article by Erik Riesenberg in Publishers Weekly presented a realistic panorama of the ups and downs in the U.S. Spanish publishing industry over the past two decades. Riesenberg begins mentioning the alternating cycles between publisher’s optimism and the changes due to distorted expectations. As Riesenberg notes, “at the beginning of the 21st century, Spanish-language readers in the U.S. were considered the next big thing, with many articles heralding the Hispanic market as an untapped frontier of publishing.” Such optimism had been fueled by the census numbers in 2000, indicating that the U.S Hispanic population had increased nearly 60% between 1990 and 2000, from around 22 million to more than 35 million. 

After chronicling the raise of the market with imprints like the veteran Vintage Español, Random House Español, Rayo in Harper Collins, Atria in Simon and Schuster, Celebra in Penguin, following the cycle of optimism, the industry, however, failed to live up to expectations: “By the end of the decade, the Random House Español imprint had ceased to exist, Rayo was downsized and no longer publishing new titles, and Reader’s Digest dropped its effort. A weak economy and the demise of Borders, a key retailer of Spanish-language books, were two important factors in softer-than-expected sales.” 

Now we are approaching the second decade and still some changes are giving the impression of an unstable market, industry and audience. Random House Español, Penguin Celebra or Rayo are not current players. More recently Johanna Castillo, one of the key editors in Spanish from her work in Atria, left her position after the exit of Judith Kerr, who from her new role in Harper Collins is announcing a come back of some Spanish publishing in the future.

Three years after Riesenberg’s article Mike Satzkin, considered a “guru” of the publishing world in the United States through his posts in "The Shatzkin Files" shifts his focus for the first time on the Spanish market in the US (“The US Spanish-reading population must be of interest!”). In his article "Lots of Spanish speakers in the United States, but not much of a book market for Spanish books". Many consider Shatzkin an oracle in the industry, and his reflections in times of crisis and changes of the publishing world have always been illuminating, especially in the years of the digital disruption with the arrival of the ebook and his constant scrutiny of Amazon and the new book retail ecosystem. 

The fact that a publishing market that serves a growing "Latino" population of more than 50 million had not deserved Shatzkin’s attention could be a symptom of the lack of reliable information on the subject. It could also suggest a cycle of pessimism about Spanish book sales in the US, which the title of the article seems to hint. Shatzkin tries to ascertain the size of such market in the United States and arrives to the figure of $65 million from Nielsen sales and other projections without clarifying what part of those sales are books edited and printed here, third-party distribution from publishers in Spain or Latin America or textbooks and other educational publishing. Shatzkin devotes most of his blog entry on the Spanish market to look at the current outlook of publishing companies that are sharing the pie. Apart from the main players mentioned by Riesenberg (Penguin Random House, with Vintage Spanish in New York and PRH Grupo Editorial in Miami, Harper Collins and Atria, Shatzkin mentions other important players in the equation of Spanish in the US: the distribution operation of  Spanish Publishers, a consortium of publishers from Spain and American Book Group, a publisher of educational content and distributor of Spanish language books for publishers based in Mexico and Spain. Other companies like Lectorum, with their efforts to bring Children book in Spanish to the educational market could be added to the list.

In my opinion Shatzkin hits the mark again. On the one hand, the market in Spanish is not one, but many, diverse according to readers of different cultural and linguistic origins, and often in different geographical areas. But on the other hand the offer that these readers find in the bookstores of this country is limited. 

He also notes that the book offer the Spanish reader has in the US is limited in comparison with the offer that has a reader in English, considering availability and prices, which the online stores cannot compensate. “There is virtually no coordination across national territories. Sales are lost because titles are not published simultaneously across the globe and because books can even have different titles and certainly will have different covers in different countries.  And digital marketing of the books with a global impact seems not to be on anybody’s radar.”

Expanding the offer and raising the quality in all book categories, and getting to know our readers better are, in my opinion, some of the real challenges of the Spanish publishing market in the United States. The lack of dependable information about the Hispanic population reading habits should be a goal for publishers and investment in in-depth market research should be a priority. Sometimes one has the impression that publishing is akin of publishing in the dark. We insist in what we think works but we might not consider how the changing population and demographics could be changing the demand. Publishing what one knows works without venturing beyond into unexplored areas could end up reinforcing the cycle of the same “subjects”, “interests” of “quality” for the readers.

Among all this stands out the new demographic information from the Pew Research Center devoted to the Hispanic population. In his article “The Changing Fortunes of U.S. Spanish-Language Publishing: Spanish Publishing 2015” Erik Riesenberg mentioned how at the time “the feeling of optimism had been fueled by the 2000 U.S. census, which indicated that the U.S Hispanic population had increased nearly 60% between 1990 and 2000, from around 22 million to more than 35 million.” Almost 20 years later, if we look at the latest US Census information about the Hispanic population the number is now 57.5 million people of Hispanic origin, making them the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority with 17.8 percent of the nation’s total population. And the projected Hispanic population of the United States in 2060 will be 119 million which will constitute 28.6 percent of the nation’s population by that date.

With these numbers and projections at hand history could repeat itself if publishers don’t look back and consider again the Hispanic market the “untapped frontier of publishing”. But the “changing fortunes” of such market mentioned by Riesenberg in 2015 and Shatzkin’s recent writings, augur a substantial book market for Spanish books. This time, let’s be prepared for the challenge.

Cristóbal Pera

Publishing Director

Vintage Español