Thursday, January 05, 2006

Books in Spanish Making Headway in the U.S., but Still Have Ways to Go

This is a summary in English of a story from Mexico's newspaper El Universal. I got the tip to the story from the REFORMA listserv, of which I am a member. The headline in Spanish is "El libro en español se abre camino en EU." The story appears in today's issue, and it was written by Luis Espinosa. The summary is mine.

The story begins with the observation that the constant influx of Latin Americans to the U.S. (EU is the Spanish abbreviation for U.S., Estados Unidos) has made Spanish into the second most predominant language in the U.S. after English. This means there is a great market opportunity for Spanish books. However, this also represents challenges for this market due to a lack of bookstores that provide Spanish books. For instance, ten years ago there were four Spanish language bookstores in New York. Today there are only two. The article provides insight from Teresa Mlawer, director of Lectorum Books, the largest Spanish books distributor in the United States. Lectorum is owned by Scholastic.

According to Ms. Mlawer, the lack of bookstores makes distribution of Spanish books difficult. It is necessary to reach the Spanish reading population in the United States through the American chains, who are attempting to provide this service, but they just lack the personnel to provide adequate help to the Spanish language customer seeking books. A book company can have a good Spanish language selection, but it is not worth it if a person comes in and is unable to find what they seek.

Another factor that makes distribution difficult is the wave of puritanism that is running rampant in the United States. Even children's books have to go through a censorship process. Books need to leave out references such as the word "negro," no one can be depicted smoking or drinking, and even Darwin's theory is restricted in some areas. Ms. Mlawer adds that this puritan position has always existed in the United States, but not in all regions of the nation. In some places, even Harry Potter is banned. She clarifies by praising public libraries for their role and vocation in serving their communities and for the fact that often public libraries ignore/disregard groups that advocate such puritanism.

Yet another challenge facing Spanish books distribution is the vast geography of the United States and the diversity of Hispanic groups in the United States. Ms. Mlawer points out that serving Hispanic communities can be challenging because there are communities from Central and South America. Bringing every book published in Latin America is impossible, but her company strives to provide what the readers want. The Spanish language itself faces challenges in the United States in spite of its growth. For instance, the loss of bilingual education in California. This meant a five million dollar loss for Lectorum when it happened because most of their sales were in California.

The article provides some demographic numbers to illustrate how the Hispanic population is the largest growing group in the United States. Mexican editorial houses see this growth as a great opportunity. In fact, the Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE by its Spanish acronym) just signed a contract with Lectorum for distribution of materials in the U.S. According to Mlawer, the only place that Spanish editions were sold during the 60s was on college campuses for Spanish classes. Today, Lectorum distributes books to schools, public libraries, school libraries, bookstores, commercial chains, universities, and nonprofit organizations.

When asked if racism makes the distribution of books in Spanish difficult, Mlawer says that as a Cuban American, she has not suffered racism, and she does not believe that books have been affected by this but rather by the lack of bookstores and capable personnel.

The article ends with a brief company overview of Lectorum. It went from a bookstore in New York four decades ago to the largest and main Spanish books distributor in the U.S. Mlawer sold Lectorum to Scholastic in 1996. The deal allowed her to remain in charge of the company. Lectorum Bookstore was opened on May 1, 1960, and it is located on 14th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan. Mlawer recalls buying it from an Argentinian friend in 1971, a man she calls the true pioneer. It is a store where you can ask for the latest work by Elena Poniatowska, and the sales associate will know where to find it; no need to use the computer to look it up. Who sells the most? According to Mlawer, it is still the big names like Carlos Fuentes, and more recently Laura Esquivel and Ángeles Mastretta.

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