Sunday, May 29, 2011

Culture Shock: The American and the Spanish Publishing Industries

For the past two years, Sister Lorena and I have been comparing the Spanish and American publishing process, and current literary scenes. At first glance, they were so different that I switched from writing in English to doing it in my native language, hoping that the Iberian market would prove more hospitable. Alas, the differences are fewer than the similarities.

Although the Spanish industry is much smaller than its American counterpart, it still manages to bring out 70,000 new titles to bookstores every year. Aside from producing material for its native population, it also caters to the literary needs of three million Spanish-speaking people throughout the globe.

The publishing process is not dissimilar from its American equivalent. Agents and publishers rule supreme. The process includes proposal, query letter and credentials. Having a mentor or knowing someone in the business could be crucial, as well as having a reputation in journalism. Bestselling authors like Julia Navarro, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Arturo Perez Reverte share a common journalistic background.

When it comes to target audience, the Spanish industry also has a much broader reader profile than the American, and it’s filled with extraordinary generalizations. Apparently, the target reader is female, under forty-five years of age and has a college degree. This potential client favors Dan Brownish conspiracy tales and historical novels a la Ken Follet. She reads for leisure, but her reading hobby competes heavily with TV, films, music and video games. Last, but not least, she suffers from attention deficit.

I know that in United States, the publishing industry does profile and have target groups, but hopefully it does not pigeonhole potential clientele in such an imprecise, indiscriminate and almost offensive manner. Although, the easily distracted reader is a universal misconception. At work, I’m constantly berated for writing long articles. “Remember,” I am told, "users get bored after the third paragraph.”

So, you may ask, what are the main differences between both markets are. The major differences lie in content. Spanish novelists are not afraid of the caveats we are so familiar with. On reading any bestseller, you are bound to find backstory and head-hopping galore. Length is not an issue (despite the attention deficit that supposedly afflicts its users). Spanish bestsellers usually run over six hundred pages. They are the type of book that, after falling on your foot, will have you limping for a day. I speak from experience since I was almost crippled after La Catedral del Mar landed on my toes at the supermarket, where I was leafing though Idelfonso Falcones' bestselling historical novel.

Spanish writers don’t need to be glamorous, gorgeous or young. A couple of years ago, an 80-year old great-grandmother won a literary award for a historical novel. And Manuel Maristany, well in his eighties, published his debut novel, La enfermera de Brunete (another huge volume) in 2006. For years, Maristany had been seeking a publisher for his Spanish Civil War epic. He eventually sold it to a small publishing house. Then, Planeta, a larger house, bought it and turned it into a success, despite the fact that the content was written from a point of view that might be considered “politically unfashionable” in 21th century Spain.

Unlike American publishers, Spaniards are not too interested in genre, aside from historical fiction and thrillers of all kinds (some of which are described as “mainstream” literature). That explains why their bestsellers lists always include mysteries and historical novels. Most probably, writers know better than attempt other genres. I will include a link to current Spanish bestsellers (Los más vendidos) as provided by "El Corte Inglés", the largest department store in Madrid. You may see that, aside from Jean. M. Auel and the well-loved Follet, you find native novels set in medieval Barcelona, World War II Morocco, and Early 20th century Spain.

Another surprise is the lack of local YA literature. It appears that young adults are not a target group. El Corte Inglés includes a brief list of books for young adults. Curiously, all are written by foreign writers, half of them are fantasy and yet are not cataloged as such. Claudia Gray vampire’s saga is described as “novela romantica."

I ‘m sure there are more differences and similarities between both industries, but those are the ones that hit the eye. Does it seem as they are poles apart? In which ways would you like the American publishing process to copy its Spanish counterpart? Are you familiar with the ways the publishing business operates in other English-speaking countries?


  1. From where I'm sitting, the biggest surprise is the lack of YA fiction-- as the American markets are currently geared in that direction almost exclusively. Well. Maybe not exclusively. Damn near.

    An erudite post, my dear. It is late, I am up correcting text and have taken a break to read your words. Incidentally, I made it past the third paragraph just fine. ;)

  2. Sounds weird right? Although you must realize that teenagers are not seen as target audiences outside the English speaking world. The consensus is “kids don´t read, kids don´t buy books, they are into video games and music."
    Funny, because in my country (Chile) I have met plenty of young readers and I could tell you what they like: magic tales a la Harry Potter, vampire sagas, epic fantasy, and science fiction. And yet there is no Spanish material for those genres. Years ago, I met a young man who had contacted the Iberian market via Internet and had sold them some of his Sci Fi stories. According to him, the Spanish industry was on the lookout for science fiction and fantasy. However, in the five years since, I have yet to see or read a native fantasy or futuristic novels by Spanish-speaking authors.

  3. Thanks for a fascinating post, Sister Violante! I'd have to agree about the lack of a YA market. Considering how much money it rakes in, I'm surprised the Spanish market doesn't jump on that bandwagon. I enjoy the fact that the rules aren't as strict as they seem to be in the American market. Every time a writer turns around they are told not to do this or that, and if they do then their work will not sell. It's more frustrating than it needs to be, in my opinion. It's refreshing to see some foreign markets know how to lighten up a bit.

  4. That was very interesting. I like that length is not an issue. I'm reading Jane Eyre right now and loving every one of its 550 pages.

  5. Yes Sister Mary, Mary. They haven’t seen the possibilities (and not only in Spain and Latin America) of a whole new market of teen readers. I get the feeling that the Hispanic/Latino entertainment industry is not big on genre or subgenre (I notice it in the way they classify telenovelas).

    True, the Spanish publishing industry is much more relaxed when it comes to subject and style, but it is as competitive and hard to break in as its American sister.

  6. Hi Missed Periods,
    There is not a superfluous word in Jane Eyre. In fact, I complain because I wanted it to go on and on.
    I wonder when the American industry became so stingy? Late 20th century bodice-rippers usually went over 400 pages.
    In general, Euopean bestsellers are fat volumes. Look at the Stieg Larsson trilogy. Each volume is about 700 pages or more.
    I wonder if it has to do with the short attention span fear. J. K. Rowlings was rejected on grounds that "no child would read such a long book". I can't think of a lovelier sight than a child engrossed in the "overly long" Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It proves all this atencion deficit issue to be complete humbug.

  7. Interesting subject, Sister Violante. I love to learn how other markets/industries compare to the US.

    After four or five years of studying the rigid rules in the current American publishing industry, it was incredibly refreshing for me to read The Shadow of the Wind. I loved every irreverent transgression (Ruiz Zafon was probably not even aware of any of them since like you say, in Spain there are no rules of this sort.) So what if he jumped into someone else's head from time to time or included long (but well written) paragraphs of narration? As a reader, I didn't care, I was still immersed in the story.

    I hadn't noticed until this past summer in Ecuador that the only genre fiction available were translations from American books. It seems like in Latin America and Spain local authors are pretty big on literary fiction. Almost all the commercial stuff I found was translated from the US (the Twilight saga, Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, etc. Another big one down there is the Millenium Trilogy.) There seems to be A LOT of non-fiction (self-help and cooking in particular) and children's books. Also a lot of classics. Unlike Spain, in Ecuador, there are a lot of children's books written by local writers (especially picture and chapter books.) I'm not sure about YA (I'll pay attention this coming summer.)

    Great post. Hope your foot is feeling better! :-) Did you end up buying the book?

  8. No, din't buy it. Spanish books are terribly expensive. La Enfermera de Brunete costed me $64.
    It´s the samehere. there are children authors, but no real YA, and no fantasy or Sci Fi.

  9. Wow, could "Medianoche" be a little more of a Twilight rip off? Down to the cover!

    I laughed at the image of the dangerous toe-crushing book, though I've done the same thing and it does hurt.

    I agree with my sisters that the American industry seems beyond rigid. The rules are sometimes arcane and often frustratingly restrictive, and what's weirder, actual published writers authors break them all the time. That said, I confess I found some of Zafón's broken rules distracting. I love Jane Eyre though! :)

    The "rule" about book length: is there any evidence to back up the publishing industry's assertion about book length? Because when I look at both bestsellers and literary books, I see a huge variety. Do shorter books actually sell better?

  10. Stephanie,

    I've always heard when it comes to book length that the reason new writers are given a guideline to follow is because it is all about how much it will cost to publish the novel. X amount of pages for a certain genre have an X price tag on them. Now, if you're self-publishing in e-book form then it doesn't really matter. Middle-grade and YA are much shorter in length due to the fact that they are primarily for children and I can't imagine many 8-10 year-olds wanting to read a 500 page novel. There are exceptions, though, like Harry Potter. Once an author is established and has made great sales, then (depending on the genre) the page count goes out the window.

    Mass Market novels (the cheap paperbacks usually in genre form) tend to be shorter in length because they are cheaper to publish. These differ from the soft-cover paperbacks (which I can't think of what these are called right off the top of my head), which are a little more pricey to publish and don't necessarily fall into a strict genre. Then, the creme de la creme, there are the hardbacks, the most expensive to publish because of the materials used. I think I might do a post on the differences . . .

  11. There seems to be a feud between Mozilla Fox and Blogger. It won´t let me post. Thank Heavens for IExplorer!
    Sister Mary, Mary answered about the lenghth. I hear that lenghth maters litle when it´s genre like Fantasy and Historical Fiction. That might explain Twilight getting away with its ponderous size.
    Sister Stephanie, the English edition of Midnight has a red rose on a black backgound so it does follow the Twilight design. Formula sells!

  12. I have been looking to learn spanish since long time and I am glad that i found online website that offers Free Spanish Classes. They offers LIVE one-way video chat that is very helpful for those who are looking to learn spanish online.


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