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How Do You Say ‘Bestseller’ in Spanish?

January 4, 1995

When Doubleday published ``Like Water for Chocolate″ more than two years ago, readers were drawn to the novel’s blend of mystical eroticism and spicy Mexican recipes. The publishing industry was aroused by something else: U.S. sales of more than 70,000 copies of the hardcover in Spanish, after an initial printing of only 5,000.

That surprise success _ along with brisk sales of the Spanish-language edition of Pope John Paul II’s ``Crossing the Threshold of Hope″ from Alfred A. Knopf _ has book publishers reconsidering a market they have long ignored or approached halfheartedly. Several big U.S. publishing houses are now gearing up for a major _ and risky _ push into Spanish-language publishing, with books ranging from self-help to serious literature.

In June, Simon & Schuster Inc., a unit of Viacom Inc., will launch Simon & Schuster-Aguilar-Libros en Espanol, a new imprint, with such titles as ``Como Evitar El Insomnio Infantil,″ a translation of Richard Ferber’s best-selling guide. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., News Corp.‘s book-publishing arm, has formed HarperLibros, an imprint that this spring will begin publishing fiction by Spanish-speaking authors, as well as Spanish translations of U.S. bestsellers, such as John Gray’s ``Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.″ And Random House Inc.’s Vintage Books and the big Spanish publisher Grupo Santillana have joined forces to found Alfaguara-Vintage Espanol, which this week begins shipping its first titles.

``Publishers have been late to come to this,″ says Christine Lloreda, a Simon & Schuster vice president and publisher of the Aguilar-Libros line. ``This community has been here all along. It didn’t just show up yesterday.″

Notorious for their weak market research, publishers concede they are still hazy about the actual size _ and reading tastes _ of the Spanish-speaking market in the U.S. And they are aware how hard it is to find dependable distribution channels in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Their current strategy is to issue a hodgepodge of titles _ both literary and lowbrow _ hoping that some will do as well as ``Like Water . . .″

The case of ``Like Water . . .″ may be anomalous, however. Sales of the book were bolstered tremendously by the popular movie. And the Spanish hardback edition sold far fewer than the 900,000 hardcover copies sold in English, says its editor, Martha K. Levin, vice president and publisher of Anchor Books, an imprint of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. and a unit of Germany’s Bertelsmann AG. ``I just don’t know what the real market is″ for Spanish-language books, she says.

It’s clear to publishers, however, that demographics suggest a strong Spanish market. While the total U.S. population has grown 71 percent since 1950 to 260 million, according to U.S. Census data, the number of Hispanics in this country has surged 500 percent, to more than 25 million. Of adult Hispanics polled in the latest census, more than 92 percent said they speak Spanish at home. Publishing executives speculate that if given the choice, bilingual Hispanics would prefer books in Spanish.

Meanwhile, promising new distribution channels for Spanish books are opening up. Traditionally, Spanish-language books _ mostly imports _ have been sold through neighborhood bodegas, community centers or churches, never generating enough business to interest big publishers. Now, the nation’s largest bookseller, Barnes & Noble Inc., is opening separate Spanish-language sections in some of its superstores. Barnes & Noble says it has received many customer requests for books in Spanish by best-selling authors such as John Grisham and Anne Rice. (As yet, neither author’s work is available in the U.S. in Spanish.)

``Our feeling is the mass-market categories will do well,″ says Maureen Golden, Barnes & Noble’s general merchandise manager. But the chain remains cautious about the niche. ``Just because it’s a book in Spanish doesn’t mean we will automatically go for it,″ Ms. Golden says.

More important, powerful Spanish media are emerging, which have the audience to promote Spanish-language books and authors nationally. The Spanish-speaking broadcast networks Telemundo and Univision reach millions daily. In Miami, the nation’s third-largest Hispanic market, Spanish-language media include 12 radio and two TV stations, five magazines and two daily newspapers.

Like other publishers, Simon & Schuster hopes to use Hispanic media to promote its Aguilar-Libros line. With publication next fall of ``Always Running,″ the memoirs of former gang member Luis Rodriguez, it will have a promotable, Spanish-speaking talk-show guest. (Until then, it must rely on the crossover appeal of infomercial queen Susan Powter; a translation of her ``Stop the Insanity″ is among the first six books Aguilar-Libros will publish this spring _ none by Spanish-speaking authors.)

Simon & Schuster still doesn’t know how big a first printing to order for its spring list. If a book clicks with Spanish-speaking readers, ``we will follow with more,″ says Carolyn K. Reidy, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s consumer trade-book group. Like Vintage, Simon & Schuster is creating its Spanish book line with the help of Madrid-based book publisher Grupo Santillana.