Lost in translation: The Spanish-language puzzle
By HILLEL ITALIE, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins where the Spanish-language imprint was cut during recent companywide layoffs, said the publisher was in a "holding pattern" on that market until the economy improves.
Although Simon & Schuster had success with the translation of Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret," Reidy said the market "just hasn't coalesced."
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.
"We've been taking baby steps, but we should probably accelerate it," Young said.
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.
"I started at Random House 10 years ago and I said then that this would be a long-term project," Azula said. "It's not going to be 5 years or 10 years. It's going to take 20 to 25 years."
The BookExpo America, held at Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, was a low-budget, low-celebrity convention, with fewer parties and fewer advanced copies of books than in the past, and a sense that the best way to meet expectations was to lower them.
Publishers speculated about BookExpo's future. So much business is now completed online and the number of independent booksellers, who have traditionally been the heart of the convention, has dropped by more than 100 to 1,401 core members in less than five years.
"A lot has changed, and this show will have to morph into what the industry needs," said David Shanks, the CEO of Penguin Group (USA).
With a fingers-crossed outlook that the worst was over for publishing sales, the industry offered a long lineup of potential hits for the fall, from Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's memoir "True Compass" to Pat Conroy's "South of Broad." One of the Spanish-language market's most popular authors, Isabel Allende, has written "La Isla Bajo el Mar" ("The Island Below the Sea"), which will be available only in Spanish at first.
Other highlights included new nonfiction from Jon Krakauer, Malcolm Gladwell, Tracy Kidder and Barack Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe. Novels were expected from Patricia Cornwell, E.L. Doctorow and Jane Smiley, with a posthumous work from Michael Crichton.
Barnes & Noble Inc. fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley had special affection for Audrey Niffenegger's "Her Fearful Symmetry," the follow-up to the million-selling "The Time Traveler's Wife." She also liked Barbara Kingsolver's latest, "The Lacuna," which Hensley read on a recently purchased Sony e-book reader.
Hensley, who said that both she and her husband own electronic book readers, admitted she liked the device for its travel convenience but pointed out its inferior qualities to a book.
"The problem is, I like to flip back and forth in a book, but that's hard to do with the Sony," she said. "Another thing I like about a book is that you can bang it up — and you can't bang up a Sony reader."