Posted on June 1, 2009

Lost in Translation: The Spanish-Language Puzzle

Hillel Italie, AP, May 31, 2009

The long-rumored e-book boom at last has arrived. But publishers still wait, and wait, for another supposed surge: Spanish-language titles.

Thousands of booksellers, publishers and authors gathered for BookExpo America, the industry’s annual national convention, which ended Sunday. Along with much discussion about rapidly growing digital sales, there was disappointment, and some confusion, about the relative slowness of Spanish sales in any format.

Publishers have looked for years to the Hispanic market, which back in 2000 was spotlighted at BookExpo as one of great promise. The Hispanic population is at least 45 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and ever more prominent, especially after the recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

But Spanish-language sales remained small and sporadic. A handful of books–translations of such blockbusters as the “Harry Potter” series and “The Da Vinci Code”–might sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Otherwise, a Spanish work is lucky to sell more than 10,000, according to Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy.

And the e-book market for Spanish titles is virtually nonexistent, publishers said.


Publishers are as unsure of solutions as they are of causes. They debate the need, or the possibility, of a single breakthrough book with the impact of Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” which sold millions in the 1990s and awakened the industry to the size of the African-American market. And they wonder whether immigrants are more eager to learn English than to read in Spanish.

David Young, CEO of the Hachette Book Group, said the industry needs to hire more Hispanics and develop a more focused strategy.


Carlos Azula, vice president and director of foreign language sales at Random House Inc., said most publishers don’t understand the people they’re trying to sell to. The Spanish-speaking population is too diverse and spread out for a unified, best-seller approach, he said, and Spanish-speaking immigrants need time to adjust, to figure out where to buy books, what to read and even whether to read.