Somebody somewhere reported last month that the United States is the home country to the second largest number of Spanish-speakers in the world, after Mexico. Since I am speaking in Madrid to Spanish publishers at the end of May, that seemed like something I should learn more about. The US must be a market. The US Spanish-reading population must be of interest!
The idea that the market is significant was initially supported when I looked into what US publishers were doing to exploit it. Four of the Big Five have Spanish-language publishing programs aimed at the US market (although one appears much larger than the other three). The strategies and tactics of the companies differ and talking to them, as well as a distributor of Spanish-language books, made it clear that the nugget of information about Spanish speakers is a deceptive indicator of the market.
Because, long story short, the US Spanish-speaking market is not one market. The US residents from Mexico don’t have reading interests that are similar to those from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico (to name the three biggest sources of US Spanish-speakers and -readers.) They don’t even have identical versions of Spanish, and the differences between Spain’s language and Latin America’s can call for different editions of the book!
Before I spoke with anybody, I imagined a world like English, where publishers in the bigger English-language countries, especially the US and UK, are finding that global distribution opportunities — which are made even more accessible by ebooks and print-on-demand reducing the requirement for expensive inventory risk — are providing additional sales for many titles. And online marketing efforts often “hit” consumers outside a publisher’s home market.
For a variety of reasons, these factors don’t seem to be nearly as powerful in Spanish language publishing.
One of the publishers was able to tell me that sales for Spanish reported by Neilsen were $55 million for 2017, which this source figured was about 70% of the total. That would suggest a “market” of about $65 million.
By the same reporting, Penguin Random House has 26% of that market and HarperCollins has 12%, so they might be the only ones doing double-digit millions. A total of 51 publishers have more than 100 titles. The math makes it clear that the revenues available to other publishers, including all the Spanish-language publishers around the world, are actually pretty limited.
The major US publishers each have a unique approach. But only Penguin Random House has a longstanding and major commitment to Spanish-language publishing in the US.
Vintage Espanol is the biggest US-based Spanish language program at Penguin Random House and it runs through the Knopf Doubleday Group in New York. They publish hundreds of titles including all the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Paulo Coelho, Roberto Bolano, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz, Laura Esquivel, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Dan Brown, E L James, George R. R. Martin, John Grisham, Stephen King — really the biggest bestselling authors in Spanish in the US. They just published Michael Wolff in Spanish, and Jorge Ramos, the lead news anchor of Univision, is one of their authors. This program was founded in the mid-1990s and has been the longest continually-running Spanish publishing program in the US. A significant part of the strategy is parallel and simultaneous publishing in English and in Spanish.
Random House also has the Grupo Editorial, based in Miami and reporting up to PRH in Spain. They lean on the New York operation for back office support. Most of their executive connections are with Spain and Mexico. They have a dedicated sales team in the US of four people.
HarperCollins, on the other hand, has been housing their pretty robust Spanish program within their religious publishing group based in Nashville. A lot of their output is bibles. HarperCollins Espanol was placed under Harper Christian, which includes commercial fiction. The Fall catalog has about 16 trade titles. One person at Harper made the point to me that they sell a lot of books through ministries and those sales don’t show up in Bookscan.
In the past couple of weeks, Harper has announced that Judith Curr, most recently head of the Atria division at Simon & Schuster, will be coming aboard. Among her responsibilities will be to reconsider the strategy for the trade component of the Spanish language program, so the strategy and tactics for sales and distribution might change.
Harper has an interesting internal program called Harper 360 for English language books that could be utilized for the titles published by HarperCollins Iberica, the company’s full-fledged publishing operation in Spain. This is a technique by which Harper’s individual companies can look at the output of their sister companies for new titles. This addresses the challenge all the global publishers face: how do they “place” a title acquired in one national division into the others. On the one hand, they want to be ‘efficient” and keep acquisitions within the company. On the other hand, every publishing division wants to make its own title acquisition decisions.
The internal mechanisms they’d developed to tackle this challenge for English-language books could possibly be applied to Spanish as well. This should ultimately give Harper the ability to apply their scale more effectively to the Spanish title base.
Simon & Schuster and Hachette also have dedicated Spanish-language publishing programs, acquiring books for publication in the US market. Big hits are possible. Simon & Schuster reported that they sold 300,000 copies of a biography of Jenni Rivera, a well-known singer who died in a plane accident. They sold 700,000 copies in Spanish of their big English-language hit, The Secret. And then they sold rights for Mexico and Spain!
In addition, there are aggregators. Spanish Publishers is a consortium of publishers from Spain that distribute other publishers from Spain. And American Book Group is a publisher of educational content and distributor of Spanish language books for publishers based in Mexico and Spain. They have robust POD and ebook platforms, and they warehouse books in Miami. They emphasize to their publishing partners the importance of developing marketing plans to spread the word about their books in the US.
The Spanish-language books are sold primarily to accounts quite familiar to all American publishers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Readerlink. Costco is said to be expanding their Spanish-language business. Of course, there is a substantial amount of business in libraries reached through the wholesalers.
One observer pointed out that Spanish language publishing is nowhere near to mastering practices that English language publishers have taken on board to take advantage of the globally-connected market. 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. The belief is there is a lot of piracy in Latin America and Spain, but that’s hard to verify. And digital marketing of the books with a global impact seems not to be on anybody’s radar.
Ebooks just haven’t caught on in the Spanish-language market the way they have in English. So the global sales potential and marketing synergies that help cushion some of the digital disruption for English-language publishers are not being exploited.
So far, the English-language book publishing world appears to have changed more and to have been a much greater beneficiary of the digital revolution than Spanish. The superficially massive US market doesn’t really constitute a big opportunity, because it is really a bunch of smaller opportunities. And it appears it could be a long time before Spanish-readers in the United States will have the range of choice that, say, an English-reader would have in Mexico or Spain. There is a new Spanish-language online bookstore just opening now in the US. Perhaps they’ll change that trajectory, although their plan to start with “a couple of thousand titles” would seem to put them a long way from being a game-changer.