Three Writers. Vicissitudes of Publishing in Spanish, a Tale

Carlos Maza
A moderately well-known Spanish author has managed to sell out the first edition of her first book and has managed to get it reprinted, thus recouping the advance that the publisher paid her at the beginning of their relationship. Let’s calculate it: each copy of the first edition of the book will sell for 15 euros; the contract states that the author will get 8% of the book’s retail price as royalties and that the print run of the first edition will be 5000 copies. The advance payment is 6000 euros, about 120,000 Mexican pesos. Once the first edition is out of print, the publisher reprints and continues to pay royalties semi-annually or annually. It is even possible, given that the book has sold out in less than a year, that the reprint will be of 10,000 copies: the book, as they say in the book industry’s jargon in Spanish, “has an exit”. Two years later, our author will have collected the equivalent of 360,000 pesos for the dissemination of her written work.

A similar, moderately well-known author in Mexico—or in Argentina or Colombia; the situation for the rest of the countries in the region would be even harder than the following—has signed a contract with a young indie publisher who has offered her 10% over the book’s retail price for the one of which he will print 1000 copies and sell for 150 Mexican pesos a copy. He cannot offer an advance on the royalties (of half of the print run, which would be 7500 pesos if he could) because the market prevents him from having investment resources: indie publishers in Latin America, and many corporate too (although the latter case is due not to lack of resources but to their habit of speculating with values in the stock markets, even if these values are writers’ royalties) live a permanent cash availability problem. The young indie publisher will report sales after six months and based on it will finally pay the author her royalties. But after six months, he has only been able to sell 250 copies out of a thousand; another 250 are on consignment in various bookstores, so he has not been paid for them. Some of those bookstores, the larger ones, will pay six months after sales are made. The rest of the books, half of the print run, lies in boxes scattered throughout the hallways of his small flat (indies solve their production costs, such as storage costs, on the way, the way they can). He now owes the author 3750 pesos, but since he is out of cash, he pays with 25 copies of her own book.

The Spanish author has found some 8000 readers for her book in Spain, a country that has much higher reading rates than Latin America, not because it has done anything right but for structural geopolitical, economic, and cultural reasons. She will find perhaps another 2000 readers in America thanks to monopolist promotion and distribution strategies that are inaccessible to American indie publishers (the copies of the book by our Spanish author and those of the translation of a German author that we will soon meet, have arrived in America by sea, in a giant container, along with hundreds of thousands of copies of other books produced by a publishing monster, which has reduced the transportation costs per copy to a minimum). Not that our Spanish author can live only on the proceeds of her work; the cost of living in Europe is higher than in America, but it will certainly have allowed her to pay part of her rent and living expenses, helping out a teaching job or something like that (perhaps copy-editing for her publisher) and getting the time she needs to write her next novel.

The Mexican author, in the meanwhile, wrote and published her second book. It was the winner of a narrative contest that gave her a lot of exposure (although no cash prize) but all she got is a box with 25 other copies that she doesn’t know how to handle. She leaves five on consignment at his neighborhood second hand bookstore and has to agree to let the bookseller keep 40% of the book’s retail price her publisher established (her royalties had shrunk by almost half). She leaves another five, also on consignment, at the corner shop on her street and gets the shopkeeper to agree to keep only 10% of the book’s retail price (she prefers not to inform the shopkeeper that when the publisher sets the book’s retail price, he is also setting the margin he will be able to earn above the 40% he must give to booksellers).

Now let’s add a new author to the exercise, the German we already mentioned. She is beginning to be known in Europe since her first book sold out an edition of 25,000 copies in six months and her publisher was able to place translation rights in several countries: 10,000 copies in France, another 10,000 in the United States, 7000 in Italy, 5000 in Sweden, some others in Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium… In addition to the six-monthly royalty deposits from sales, the author receives another check from her publisher each time he signs the cession of translation rights; one is already in process in Korea and, once that market is opened, China and Japan await. About the Spanish translation, last week, during the “experts’ days” at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German publisher was visited by an Argentine indie publisher interested in producing a 1000 copies edition of the book in Spanish in that country, with the possibility of distributing some copies also in Uruguay and perhaps in Paraguay, but SuperNova Verlag preferred to cede the rights to Penguin Random House Spain, which has bought them on an exclusive basis for the “language area” and will be able to immediately produce 50,000 copies of a neglected translation thought to be read exclusively by Madrid readers: 45,000 for the Spanish market and the rest for “The Americas”, including the Spanish-speaking markets of Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

The young indie publisher who published the Mexican author has given up trying to keep the book on the new releases tables of Gandhi and Fondo de Cultura Económica bookstores. Years ago, he ruled out the possibility of his editions being in Sanborns or in supermarket checkouts, that distribution channel known as “superstores”. He has no choice but to rely on his distribution network: a Facebook business page with its respective bounces on Instagram; a grueling marathon of online events with the author—in the post-pandemic inertia—attended always by the same four writers from the same imprint, authors of editions also short and impossible to disseminate, and on the display of his catalog (the five avant-garde-designed titles) alongside scouring pads of zacate, wooden spoons and organic cucumbers in a stall he borrows on Sundays at “El 100”, the organic fair in the Benito Juárez Urban Center, next to the Roma neighborhood, where hordes of new young residents spend endlessly on vegan, organic and gluten-free products at fair trade prices, but never on a book—their reading universes take place on screens.

Our three writers, the German, the Spanish, and the Mexican, meet at the Guadalajara International Book Fair (the Mexican author has arrived there by bus paid for by her pocket, and will be staying with friends). They will all present their editions at this magnificent cultural event; the German, in a central activity because her country is guest of honor (and she is already famous, everyone wants her signature on the cover of the marvelous Spanish edition that occupies all the novelty tables of the American continent); the Spanish in a big event that brings together the main authors of the publishing monopoly that produces it, including a couple of lucky Latin American writers, and the Mexican in a reading in which she shares with three other Mexican writers published by indie publishers, each of whom has brought 10 copies of each of their editions to exhibit them all together in a collective stand where the offer is blurred in chaos and disorder.

Our acclaimed German writer—who in Latin America has been read in a Spanish from Spain translation that makes it foreign to the local language, accessible only to a specialized elite—has already guaranteed her retirement and the time she will need to calmly write her next books. Our Spaniard struggles a little more, but thanks to the strength of the monopoly that supports her, she will begin to grow in sales in the conquered territories and although she will not yet have enough for retirement, she will even be able to quit her job at the academy and finally dedicate herself only to writing. The Mexican will now have another 25 copies of her book as a result of the new payment by her cash-less publisher, to give away to whomever she meets, while she is losing the rhythm to write another book because the nine-hour day of typing at the job she has just obtained leaves her exhausted.

For their part, the Spanish employee of the corporate publishing house and the German editor have been earning salaries all this time that seem exorbitant to the Mexican publisher. In the meanwhile, he can no longer afford to pay the rent for his apartment-turned-warehouse, nor does he wish to re-enter into a contractual relationship with any writer after the angry complaints he has received because their books are not in the bookstores and their royalties are not in their bank accounts. In addition, he is tired of doing the work of eight or nine people (editing, proofreading, design, layout, advertising, administration, sales, warehouse, and janitorial) by himself. He sells all the company’s assets, basically an obsolescent computer, declares bankruptcy, closes the company, and buys a hot dog cart.

* * *

The field where Spain’s linguistic, economic, and cultural dominance over its “daughter republics” (there are still those who call it “motherland”) becomes most problematic is the publishing industry. It is enough of a dilemma that the world of books is reduced to an industry and a market: the production of reading material for all should be above the discriminating and inequitable logic of the market, given that it serves a human right, that of access to information. This reduction of an entire cultural universe to the logic and dynamics of money only reinforces the dominance of Spain over the Americas in the world of books, a domain in which today, moreover, it is no longer Spain that dictates the dynamics but only the intermediary of a stronger dictator, the huge transnational media monopolies like Bertelsmann, which have benefited from the fact that in Spanish language, there is already a centralized structure, from Spain, of market domination over America.

The ratio of ten Spaniards to ninety Americans seen in native Spanish speakers is almost reversed for books. There are no reliable statistics to support these hypotheses (the analyses by CERLALC, the UNESCO agency in charge of promoting the publishing industry in Ibero-America, are based on ISBN data that are far from covering all Latin American publishing production and do not include information on the dimensions of print runs, so they establish a biased equality between a title of which one thousand copies were printed and another of which fifty thousand have been released). However, we calculate that the ratio of Latin American production to Spanish production is at least one in seven, and the number of copies is at least one in fifty.

Latin American publishing markets are so saturated with Spanish books that there is no room for locals: most of the global best sellers are translated and produced in Spain; the most widely sold books in open channels, the series on sale in bookstalls, come almost entirely from Spain; and for the channel in which local content must be developed by law, the school textbooks, the large Spanish publishers open offices in the Americas and also end up monopolizing this market, which in some countries is the biggest in the entire publishing system.

An authentic environment of possibility for the Latin American publishing sector will only be possible if criteria are established in the sphere of public policies in the cultural sector that contribute to a leveling of the Spanish invasion with American production, which can put an end to the unequal Spanish dominance in markets outside Europe. This is something that cannot be solved by the forces that the unwary attribute to markets: it will not be solved by competition because the starting points are not the same, and there are structural differences that can only be solved by the joint action of the States.

Especially in the world of translations, publishers in languages other than Spanish must avoid ceding exclusive translation rights for an absurd entelechy such as the language area based on the erroneous idea that Spanish speakers form a homogeneous community. To continue insisting on this is tantamount to stopping the process of liberation of diversities and differences; it is tantamount to continuing to believe that the talk of the streets, towns, and neighborhoods, are incorrect to a cultured norm, or that the speakers are enemies of language. 
Carlos Maza is editor of UNAM Internacional.
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