The Book Scene in Puerto Rico
Sally Taylor -- 9/18/00
Borders Makes A DifferenceWhether or not you count Puerto Rico as part of the USA Spanish language book market, this rich little Caribbean island Commonwealth of 3.7 million Americans is a big deal.
Already it is roughly a $30 million book market, but mostly in Spanish.
Puerto Rico's already strong intellectual community was enhanced with the influx of Franco exiles from Spain in the 1930's. The links to the former mother country, while over a century old, are still strong, and keep Puerto Rico very much in the Spanish language world, with a strong emphasis on education.
A higher percentage of Puerto Ricans graduate from high school than in any State in the Union and over 800,000 currently attend public school. More than a third of graduates go on to higher education. Over 50,000 are enrolled at the various campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, alone.
The island is also well served by Universidad Interamericana, the largest private university in the Western hemisphere, with tens of thousands of students on eight campuses.
The Government's $22 million educational budget and bilingual curriculum draws the major Spanish language textbook houses. McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Santillana and Norma, each has offices and warehouses in the capitol city, San Juan.
Last year, these educational publishers got a happy surprise. A tobacco industry settlement brought a whopping increase in the school textbook budget, to $78 million. Everyone benefited.
But that was a one-time thing. This year something even bigger, and more permanent, jolted the local book industry.
Up to February of this year, the book industry was as it had been for decades: Books are adopted for school texts and sold, alongside trade titles, through small independent retailers. The market, about 60% Spanish language and the rest English, has Spain as the number one importer.
All stocks not part of the wholesale operations of the major educational houses move into the bookstores, schools and libraries through local importers and distributors.
That has probably changed forever. On February 19 of this year, Borders opened the first super store in Puerto Rico.
The huge (28,750 square feet) two level Borders is typical of the American model: located in one of the fanciest super malls on the island, with 150,000 titles and advertised (something totally new) on highway road signs. "books, music, video, café" is easy reading on a freeway.
Puerto Ricans already love mall shopping. The tropical climate encourages them to spend much of their time in these large, appealing, air-conditioned spaces. Mall anchors, the chains like Kmart, Office Max and Walmart are ubiquitous and local lore claims these Puerto Rican outlets are among the chains' most profitable.
In six months, Borders' coffee shop alone has the highest sales volume in the company, according to General Manager Julio Reyes. (One possible reason: they serve wine and beer!)
Music and videos, including the DVD format popular in Puerto Rico, still don't count for as much as the books.
"For some reason, Puerto Rico has good music retailers already," says Reyes. Borders is stretching the limits of the Puerto Rico book market in all directions.
According to Reyes, whose retail training was with OfficeMax, the top five categories so far are: literature, juveniles, computer, history and self-help.
He hopes to improve his own stock of books with "as big a selection as possible in Spanish.
"Eighty percent of our titles now are in English" Reyes explains, as we walk through the enormous space where dozens of customers study the shelves. "We hope to offer 80,000 titles in Spanish, but it is not easy to find the stock."
English language titles come in easily from USA headquarters. For Spanish language resources, Reyes has to reinvent the wheel...working with the local distributors when he can, and finding other more flexible suppliers from elsewhere in the Spanish language world.
One problem in Puerto Rico is that most local publishers haven't bothered with ISBN numbers, and Borders can't handle stock without them. Margaret Melcher runs Puerto Rico's the Bowker sub-agency for ISBN in Puerto Rico, as well as NISC Puerto Rico, publishers of the world's only Books in Print in Spanish (Libros en Venta) and LEER (see our online report).
She says local self-published authors coming to her in dramatic numbers to register for ISBN, thanks to Borders.
Another problem is local discount practices. Borders isn't used to the 35% discounts from local suppliers, especially when they often discount popular titles by 30% from suggested retail.
In July, they introduced the new Harry Potter book, in both English and Spanish, at a 40% discount...a price no other retailer in San Juan could match.
"When we first opened this store, people told us 'Puerto Ricans don't read'," says Reyes. "But we get new book customers in here every day."
In addition to the coffee shop, Borders attracts buyers who like the bargains and the less intimidating atmosphere of the store.
"I'm also developing information for our whole system," Reyes adds. Our headquarters are looking at what I find and what sells here as the model for the rest of the stores in the USA, especially the new one opening in Miami in September."
This will be Borders' first bilingual store on the Mainland. Although the outside signage will be the same as other Borders' stores, the directional and category signage will be in written in both languages, reports Borders' Spanish buyer in the USA, Diana Calice.
Plans include stocking up to 40% of the store with Spanish books. Calice says that this new bilingual store, combined with the Borders in Puerto Rico, will change the way Spanish book buying is done on a retail level.
"In an attempt to stay in touch with the Spanish Language publishing industry in Spain, South America & Mexico, we are establishing direct relationships with a few international houses," she tells PW. "Whether by means of a distributor or by any method available we intend to stock all major international publishers."
This further threatens the way business is done in Puerto Rico, of course. The complaints PW heard about Borders are typical of arguments expressed in the pages of this magazine ever since discount mega-store book retailing took off in the nineties.
Puerto Rican retailers, in the old Spanish tradition, have offered small spaces with limited clientele, usually at the high end of the market with fixed prices. Often they would supplement income with a small publishing operation and even some importing and distributing.
While there is no fixed price law in Puerto Rico as there is in Spain, the tradition had much the same effect. Borders blows this wide open, with advertised discounting, and they are already having copycat effects.
Wilfredo Jimenez at Cronopios, an 18 year old upmarket book and music store in historic Old San Juan, admitted that his business had dropped for "about a month" when Borders opened. But it has now sprung back. He has added comfortable chairs to his store to help attract them.
On the other end of the spectrum is popular book store owner José Gómez of Books and Papers. He offers Spanish language titles only in his two mall outlets in towns in the middle of the island, Caguas and Guayama. Gómez, who also d s a cable TV show about books and is vice-president of the Camara, says most of his clients are interested in new age, self-help, local history and politics, and mass market literature.
He feels his most serious competition is Walgreens and K-Mart, but even Gomez finds stocking titles difficult.
With four years of book retailing under his belt, Gómez is astonished at the number of books he was not able to get until he began going abroad to find them for himself.
"I discovered the Selector titles in Guadalajara," he gives PW as an example. "Now I import them to Puerto Rico, but they weren't available before."
Distributors in Puerto Rico are beginning to wake up also to their advantages in selling into the Mainland USA.
"People don't realize that we can deliver Spanish titles to them through the U.S. postal system," says Jorge Merino, President of the book chamber this year and also Managing Director of Merino & Sanchez, Inc., a major importer of books from Spain.
"Our prices are lower here than in the Mainland, or even in Mexico," says the Spanish transplant.
Ulises Roldán, Sales & Marketing Manager for Puerto Rico and the USA at Norma, handles a list of 7000 titles that spans many genres. Roldán admits the educational markets are their most important right now, though he has high hopes in trade.
Their best selling authors including Garcia Marquez, Deepak Chopra, Tommie de Paola, Elsa Borneman, and Frank McCourt. And Roldán is looking to his own island community now for good writers.
"I think Puerto Rico's Luis Rafael Sanchez will be the next Garcia Marquez," he predicts. Roldán says their USA markets have grown in each of the last three years and he expects them to continue to grow.
Right now, most distribution in Puerto Rico is in imported Spanish titles. René Grullón, a protegé of Margaret Melcher and native of the Dominican Republic, is the exception. He has developed a remarkable service in recent years to the U.S. academic market through his Libros de Barlovento. He painstakingly gathers recent publications, journals, videos, and government documents from all over the Caribbean for institutions such as Berkeley, Yale, Princeton, New York Public Library, Columbia University and the Library of Congress.
But most distributors in Puerto Rico are not so highly specialized and import far more than they export. Jorge Merino's wife is the popular Cuban fiction author, Mayra Montero. His company has just begun their own publishing house, together with local retailer La Tertulia, called Edition Callejón. Two are local cultural studies, one is fiction by Leonardo Padena Fuentes.
"We want to reach the academic market with these, and then cross over into the popular markets," Merino says. They hope to publish a book soon on Salsa, the music that was born in the Caribbean.
Many Puerto Ricans (most of them not bookstore owners or distributors) are pleased with Borders' succes.
"Borders is not hurting anything," says Ulises Roldán at Norma in Puerto Rico. "We were known as the people who don't read and now Borders have proved that wrong."
"Borders brings the democratization of the book business here, at last" one local writer observed recently.
Some more enlightened high-end retailers, like Maritere Matosantos, President of Castle Books, see the value of the new challenge created by Borders.
Located in a shopping mall not far away from the Borders' mall, Matosantos has been running her store less than a year. The former owners went bankrupt, leaving her, a former employee, not only with outstanding debts, but without credit with distributors. Hardly had she begun climbing out of that hole than Borders opened.
Matosantos is sanguine. "We have to compete with a better bookstore," she says simply. "We must have a deeper selection of books and people in our store who understand our products."
Eighteen years teaching has helped. Two of her staff are former students. And she has 19 part time people to man the long hours, nine am to 11 pm every day.
By promoting new Puerto Rican, Mexican and Spanish authors and more high-brow titles than one usually finds in a mall book store, Matosantos is creating a customer base Borders can't touch.
"We change our front display tables every day, just to give people an idea of our range of product," she says. She is pleased that she gets visits from the Borders folks to check out what she is doing.
She is discouraged about the price differences, especially for new hit titles.
"I can't offer the new Harry Potter book for more than a 20% discount, but I'll be doing unique special activities around the book, and I'll have it in my store the same time as Borders."
Castle Books has a "resident princess" who d s activities for children twice a month and readings at 2 pm on Sundays. For adults, there are creative writing workshops. Her book shelves are on wheels, so they can moved around easily to create spaces needed for events.
"Anything that improves book reading is good for Puerto Rico," says this retailer.
Francisco Vazquez of Editorial Cultural, is a publisher and distributor with a 60 year old family business. He was at BEA this year and told PW he has recently expanded outside of Puerto Rico into Mexico.
"There is a symbiosis going on between the USA and Mexico," he says, speaking as an American. "We Puerto Ricans have a strong presence now in the Guadalajara Book Fair. Our books are doing well there and in Monterey...both natural markets for our writers and the first step for us to the Hispanic markets in the Mainland."
Editorial Cultural is also launching a virtual marketplace. "Technology plays a very important role in the educational community," says Vásquez. "Already Amazon and B&N.com are buying from us."
At Librería La Tertulia, near the main UofPR campus, 60% of the inventory is from Spain, 25% from Puerto Rico and the rest from Argentina. Only 5% of the books are in English, mostly in the humanities. Alfred Torres Otero runs the store, the website and the new publishing venture with Marino Y Sanchez, Ediciones Callejón.
Right now tertulia.com is the only online bookstore in Puerto Rico. The online list is the same as the bookstore inventory.
General interest and academic titles involving the social sciences, psychology, politics, philosophy and history line the shelves, by subject and then alphabetically by author. But there are no labels on the shelves.
"Everybody just knows where the books are," explains Torres. "We have been here 36 years."
Just around the corner from Tertulia is its former owner, the publisher Carmen Rivera Izcoa and her house, Ediciones Huracán. (See History, below, for etymology of the name.)
A hurricane in her own right, Rivera has run the press for 35 years, specializing in academic, history and children's titles. She was a government planner before that.
"We do mostly local books, for the university students," she says modestly. "So it is difficult to expand beyond Puerto Rico. And while children's books are in demand, they are expensive to produce."
Rivera belongs to a consortium of juvenile publishers in Latin American doing co-editions of children's titles, usually just one or two a year. More than a dozen of them are involved. But the biggest market for children in the region is in education.
The Educational Book Market and The Future of the CaribbeanPuerto Rico is McGraw Hill Mexico's most important export Spanish language market, according to Javier Neyra, who is in charge. Education in Puerto Rico is bi-lingual and the K-12 textbook market is open to bids. A staff of 32 in the Puerto Rico office of McGraw develop and improve teaching materials locally and for the rest of the Caribbean, already creating a $10 million business for McGraw, which Neyra hopes to grow.
For Pearson's Steve Marbán, one of the most under-exploited areas of his current market is the Caribbean, where higher purchasing power combined with less attention from book publishers makes several countries very promising, including: Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the English Caribbean (Bermuda, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad).
The Dominican Republic, with a population twice that of Puerto Rico, shows promise, with an increasing appreciation of copyright law and a government dedicated to the education. Neyra plans a McGraw-Hill office there soon. Oceano is also reporting increases in textbook sales.
Of course, one fine day there will be a new Spanish language book market in the Caribbean: Cuba. With the largest book reading population (14 million literate souls) as Cubans earn tourist dollars and as USA trade restrictions diminish, all publishers look for more business there.
Mexico's Selector is among the first to start selling into Cuba, swapping rights to Cuban authors for books.
Carlos D'Alzina, head of the University of Puerto Rico Press, is publishing four Cubans this year and has a license to trade with Cuba, which he thinks will be a major book market in the next decade.
In recent years, the education market in Central America and the Caribbean, especially the smaller retailers, have been helped a great deal by BIS (Books, Information & Services).
The BIS Puerto Rico office, opened in May 1998. René Greenwald Jr., son of the founder, runs this operation with his General Manager Magali E. Grajales, who spent 25 years with Addison Wesley in Puerto Rico before she joined BIS. In addition to their university textbook distribution to smaller and medium sized bookstores, they have added drugstores and school supply outlets, mostly with children's supplementary materials and literature and self-help titles for adults.
"Our stock is 40% English language and 60% Spanish," says Greenwald. "The schools are all bilingual in Puerto Rica and it is a very competitive market, but we offer credit to smaller bookstores, which helps them keep stock. And we do 'box orders' to drugstores, choosing titles for them that we think will sell best for them. This was something other local distributors weren't doing."
The BIS warehouse, just down the street from Norma and from a major magazine wholesaler on the island, lures booksellers who browse for their orders weekly.
"To keep credit under control here, we deliver books weekly, against weekly payments," Greenwald says. "People are more and more interested in books in Puerto Rico. The local chain stores now want to include them. So we find ourselves diversifying, though we try to avoid returns, which Borders and Walgreens want."
One publisher benefiting from the BIS network is Edamex, a Mexican house specializing in "libros para ser libres" (books to make you free).
The new export manager, Adrián Zeferín, told PW that they are having good success in Puerto Rico, through BIS, with their popular lines of esoteric literature, novels and personal growth non-fiction.
As Borders expands their Spanish language offerings, Puerto Ricans will see an array of books never before available on the island. (See related story on religious book publishing in Spanish)
History of Puerto Rico
While the money is greenbacks and the post office is the USPO, Puerto Rico retains a deep Spanish affiliation that ech s in her book industry. Named "Borinquen" by the Tainos, Arawak Indians who arrived in the 7th century AD, the island was invaded twice in the 15th century, first by the Caribs of South America and then by the Spanish, during the second voyage for King Ferdinand and Queen Isalbella by Spain's most famous immigrant, the Italian Christopher Columbus.
It was settled by Ponce de Leon in 1509, who managed to subdue both the Caribs and the local Tainos. The family home of that famous seeker of the Fountain of Youth still stands in Puerto Rico and he is buried there.
Our word "hurricane" comes from the name of the Taino goddess, Jurakán, who controlled the evil forces from the Lesser Antilles, the source of majority of the Northern Atlantic tropical depressions.
When Puerto Rico was finally granted permission for a printing press from Spain, in 1807, the island began producing p ts, essayists and novelists in abundance, starting with Alejandro Tapia y Rivera and Manuel Alonso. Recently writers such as Luis Rafael Sanchez and Esmerelda Santiago have crossed over into the U.S. market, both in Spanish and in English translation.
Hurricanes, pirates and political discontent have always been part of this island, but independence it has never known. In 1897 Spain had no sooner granted autonomy to Puerto Rico, under a Spanish governor, than they lost the Spanish-American War to invading U.S. troops on the island. It was ceded to the U.S. in the settlement the next year.
Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1917 and their first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, took charge in 1940. But they continued as a commonwealth, without Federal taxes but also without Federal voting rights. In 1998, Hurricane Georges caused $15 billion in damage to the island and a referendum to give Puerto Rico full statehood failed.
(Information gathered primarily from
Lonely Planet's Puerto Rico Guide, 1999)
Volume 246 Issue 38 09/18/2000