Bookstores, Libraries Working to Meet Latino Readers' Demands

Boy reads book in public libraryGetty Images/Flickr RF
Boy reads book in public library

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery are among Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s bestseller lists for Libros en Español. And while the Latin American community in the U.S. is hungry for more books in Spanish, Latino readers, who are increasingly born here, want stories that also reflect their native English-speaking identity.

Amanda Schilling, the Spanish-language book buyer for Barnes & Noble, confirmed that a bilingual demand has changed the Latino market.

“The period of time in which a title in Spanish is published relative to its publication in Spain and Latin America or to the English edition here, if it is a translation, has shortened a great deal,” she responded via email in an interview with Fusion. “Inferno by Dan Brown was published simultaneously to the English edition. The new Mario Vargas Llosa novel, El héroe discreto will be available in the US the same day it will be in the Spanish speaking world this fall.”

Schilling also explained that teen titles like the Hunger Games series, which are popular with second and third generation Latinos, are currently trending. And consequently, Barnes & Noble is encouraging publishers to “publish more aggressively into Young Adult in Spanish to offer customers the same popular books available in English,” she wrote.

Even though Barnes & Noble and Amazon can reach a wide range of Latino book buyers, a growing number of Spanish-language readers are returning to neighborhood bookstores for a more personalized curation.

Javier Molea, manager of foreign language books at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City, explained that author presentations and book club events have driven a great number of readers to the store, increasing the Spanish-language selection from 200 to 2,000 titles in just eight years.

“A smaller space forces you to choose better, to know your buyer better,” he said emphasizing McNally Jackson’s strategy to build a community around the bookstore. And weekly events have created an intimate environment where Spanish-language readers and authors can come together to share their interests and talents.

Similarly, English-speaking Latinos are meeting through community-based reader networks. Nora de Hoyos Comstock, founder and president of Las Comadres Para las Américas, a Latino cultural network that hosts a national book club, described how the love of culture, the yearning to know where you come from and how to preserve family origins, empowered 20,000 people in 85 cities to come together.

“We started in 2000 informally with potlucks, building a culture club one Latina at a time,” she said. “We wanted to build a support group for the Latino community, because if you are born in the U.S., you may not know your Latino history.”

Las Comadres often bring Latino authors who are not always available in local bookstores, or remain largely unnoticed in English-language selections, to their members. “If you are looking for a Latino author you will need to know their last names because they usually get lost in the general market,” Comstock said. “But if we don’t know who we are, how are we going to find us?”

This drive to be interconnected, to share each other’s diverse Latino experiences, has also inspired Las Comadres to shift from readers to writers. In 2012, they published a collection of 12 nonfiction stories titled Count on Me that reflect on Latino unity and the importance of a community network to survive and thrive in the United States.

Veteran Latina writers like Carmen Tafolla similarly sustain that the success of the Latino book market depends on how well it captures diverse experiences.

“Latinos are not a monolithic culture,” she explained. “We are not defined by one experience or voice. We come from a diverse heritage – from American Indians who resided in North America for thousands of years, from a rich blend of Iberian and European immigrants who arrived 500 years ago and last night, to the full range of racial spectrums.”

In a 2012 survey of almost 10,000 Latino newspaper readers conducted by Latino Print Network, Latino buyers purchased an average of 27.8 books a year. Readers were nearly evenly distributed, with 22 percent buying children’s books in Spanish, 26 percent buying children’s books in English, 32 percent buying adult books in Spanish, and 20 percent buying adult books in English.

Kirk Whisler, president of Latino Print Network, pointed out that while the survey showed an increase over the last decade in Spanish-language adult books, English-language adult books have dropped in spite of the growing number of U.S.-born Latinos. As a result, Whisler said that many Latino readers are turning to libraries to satisfy their appetite for English-language titles, and other Spanish-language books that are sometimes hard to find.

“Librarians from our research truly celebrate diversity far more than book buyers,” he said. “Book buyers are by in large wondering how to sell a book. And because libraries do not have pressure to sell, they focus more on the community’s needs.”

The Latino community’s diversity, the double perspective that makes us both outsiders and insiders, Spanish and English speakers, is shaping the future of the Latino book publishing industry and attracting a growing number of writers and readers to explore their heritage.

“This is a story of immigration… settlement… adaptation... coming in Mexican… and… becoming… Mexican-American,” says Carlos Gil at a recent UCLA presentation about his 2012 book We Became Mexican American. Gil’s family story reminds readers and publishers that Latino books are part of a bigger national history. They are written testimonies, blueprints that show where immigrants come from, what they are looking for, and who they will become.