For decades, finding Spanish-language books in the U.S. was like tilting at windmills.
Booksellers stocked few titles in the language of Cervantes, and those they carried came at a hefty premium. A paperback copy of "Don Quijote" in the original Spanish could easily cost triple the price of a deluxe hard-bound translation in English — if it could be found at all.
Retailers blamed the expense of importing books printed in Spain and Latin America. And U.S. publishers lost faith in the market after botched attempts to translate English-language bestsellers produced error-ridden Spanish versions that sold poorly.
FOR THE RECORD:
Spanish-language books: In the Jan. 12 Section A, an article about the market for Spanish-language books referred to Libros Schmibros as a used-book store. Although it identifies itself as a "lending library and bookshop," it does not sell books but only lends them. Also, the caption on an accompanying photograph identified a Libros Schmibros intern as a customer.
The upshot was that even in heavily Latino cities such as Los Angeles, where Spanish-language television and radio command huge audiences, readers of libros en español found little more than bilingual dictionaries and religious tracts buried in the back of bookstores.
"There was a tremendous appetite for Spanish-language books that wasn't being met," said David Kipen, who runs Libros Schmibros, a used-book store in Boyle Heights with a large Latino clientele. "We might have 1,000 books in Spanish, but we're always ravenous for more."
But lately, thanks in big part to the Internet, the nation's 38 million Spanish speakers have been finding a lot more to read. The explosion of portable reading devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook has for the first time allowed publishers of Spanish-language content to market electronic books to U.S. buyers — often at a fraction of the cost of printed versions.
It's the latest twist on the disruptive power of digital publishing. But in contrast to printed books in English, which have lost sales to cheaper electronic versions, e-books in Spanish are delivering content where little existed before.
In the last two years, the number of Spanish-language titles available in the U.S. has tripled at some online booksellers. Imported hardcovers such as Colombian author Alvaro Mutis' "Maqroll" trilogy that once retailed for more than $100 can now be had online for less than $15. And entire genres of Latin American literature — think contemporary Ecuadorean poetry — that were all but impossible to acquire at any price are now a few mouse clicks away.
Spanish-language book sales are still small compared with those in English, accounting for less than 5% of the nation's $7.1 billion in annual sales, according to some estimates. But their rapid growth has fueled greater investment in the industry and challenged some long-held notions in the process.
"There has been a real shift," said Ed Nawotka, editor in chief of online industry magazine Publishing Perspectives. "I see confidence in the market that has never been there before."
When Luis Alcaraz bought a Kindle four years ago, he said, there was "practically nothing available to download in Spanish." The Mexico native, who lives in Las Vegas, bought the device to replace printed books, which were filling up his house and were cumbersome to travel with.
Today, the software consultant said, he finds a seemingly endless supply of interesting electronic titles in his native language, including arcane technical tomes and science fiction novellas he likes to read on flights. To date, he's bought 97 Spanish e-books for his Kindle. And he's completely given up on printed books.
"There's just been an incredible change," said Alcaraz, who recently read a translation of Steve Jobs' biography on his Kindle as well as "Administra Tu Pasión," a Spanish-only treatise on why playing video games can help executives gain an advantage in the workplace.
Alcaraz is no anomaly. Latinos are adopting tablet computers and e-readers far faster than the U.S. population as a whole, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. In 2011, about 1 in 20 Hispanics owned such a device, the group found; in 2012, the number had jumped to nearly 1 in 5.
"That study gave a lot of people belief that this market could work," said Patricia Arancibia, an expert on the Spanish-language book market who founded Barnes & Noble's Nook Books en Español site, the first of its kind in the U.S.
Before 2010, she said, only about 10,000 Spanish-language print titles were in stock at online booksellers in the U.S. out of a total of about 650,000 Spanish titles worldwide.
Today, a search of Barnes & Noble's website turns up nearly 65,000 Nook books available in Spanish. And Amazon's Spanish-language page — EBooks Kindle en Español — now boasts more than 70,000 titles. That's more than double the number offered when the site debuted in April 2012.
And although the overall growth in electronic book sales in the U.S. has shown signs of flattening in recent months, downloads in languages other than English are soaring.
According to Amazon, sales of foreign-language e-books in English-speaking markets (including the U.S.) were expected to rise 40% in 2013 compared with 2012, once final sales are tallied. Meanwhile, Audible.com, an Amazon subsidiary, said that foreign- language audio book sales are increasing at a more than 25% annual rate.
"Digital removes all the obstacles you have with a printed book," said Carmen Ospina, director of digital development at Random House Mondadori, which is based in Barcelona. The U.S. makes up 19% of the publisher's worldwide e-book sales, compared with less than 10% a year ago, she said.
This month, Ospina said, the publisher will release Chilean author Isabel Allende's new novel, "El Juego de Ripper," simultaneously in the U.S., Spain and Latin America. In the U.S., a Kindle or Apple iBook edition will cost $9.99, about half the price of a hardcover copy.
The digital expansion in Spanish has also had spillover benefits for printed books in Spanish as foreign publishers grow more optimistic about the U.S. market.
Last year, the Library of Congress acquired 9,974 titles published in Spain, compared with 8,178 in 2009, according to Beacher Wiggins, the library's director of acquisitions and bibliographic access. Independent Publishers Group, a national distributor based in Chicago, has seen its revenue from Spanish-language print books jump 40% over the last five years, according to Diana Calice, head of Spanish books at the company.
And in July, the paperback version of "Inquebrantable," the autobiography of deceased recording artist Jenni Rivera, hit the No. 1 spot on all of Amazon.com, outselling every other book on the e-commerce site — including "Unbreakable," the English version of the same memoir.
It wasn't always thus. For decades, foreign publishers largely ignored America's Spanish-speaking population.
That changed after the landmark 2000 U.S. census revealed that 12.5% of the U.S. population, or more than 35 million people, were of Hispanic origin, an increase of more than 57% from a decade earlier.
Overseas publishers quickly opened offices in the U.S., while one of Spain's three largest publishers, Grupo Planeta, opened a warehouse in Miami. Online booksellers created Spanish Web pages. And American publishers launched domestic imprints in Spanish.
"Publishers suddenly realized there are a lot of Latinos in the U.S. and they could be worth a lot of money," said Arancibia, who no longer works at Barnes & Noble and is a consultant to the industry.
But not everyone hit pay dirt. Without Spanish-speaking book buyers on staff, some booksellers chose titles that flopped with U.S. Latinos. Most Mexican immigrants, for example, have little interest in Nicaraguan politics or travel to Spain's Canary Islands.
Hastily translated English-language bestsellers, meanwhile, were often riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. Sales were tepid and publishers withdrew; HarperCollins, for example, dramatically scaled back its Spanish-language imprint Rayo, which launched in 2000 and had been publishing 75 titles a year.
"They thought they could come in and immediately grab 15% or 20% of the U.S. market," said Alex Correa, president and chief executive of Lyndhurst, N.J.-based Lectorum Publications, one of the country's oldest Spanish-language publishers and distributors. "In fact, they were fighting over perhaps 3% of the total."
Still, the publishing industry had awakened to the market's potential.
By 2010, the U.S. Hispanic population had climbed past 50 million. That year, Barnes & Noble launched its Spanish-language Nook site. Other sites followed. Today, even foreign retailers are attempting to get a piece of the market. In April, BajaLibros.com, based in Argentina, entered the U.S. with a catalog of 50,000 e-books in Spanish.
Getting out the word about the flood of new books remains a challenge, however.
Spanish-language media in the U.S. pay scant attention to books and rarely host authors on talk shows. Leading industry publications, including Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which are highly influential among buyers at retailers and libraries, do not review foreign-language titles.
Still, Publishers Weekly published two special Spanish-language supplements last year and is considering a monthly column on Spanish-language books, according to Editorial Director Jim Milliot.
Meanwhile, LeaLa, a Spanish-language book fair launched in Los Angeles in 2010, is expanding quickly. Nearly 85,000 people attended this year's event at the Los Angeles Convention Center in May, up from 36,000 in its first edition.
The market shift is also benefiting authors.
A year after publishing her first novel in 2006, "Across a Hundred Mountains," Whittier author Reyna Grande published it in Spanish. In 2012, she released a new memoir in English and added a Spanish translation when the paperback came out in April. And she's now at work on a historical novel about the Mexican American War that will come out in Spanish and English.
"I've noticed that having it in Spanish helps increase sales in English and vice versa," said Grande, who does her own translations. "I plan to do all my work in both languages now."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun