As part of a cross-cultural exchange between Mexico and Los Angeles, the California Institute of the Arts, the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles, ProMexico, and the Los Angeles Times presented MXLA, a symposium on exploring the economic and cultural value of this binational relationship, on June 26 and 27. The symposium included panels on the film, music, arts, and book publishing industries.
Participants in the book publishing panel included Marisol Schulz, director of the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) and LéaLA, the University of Guadalajara’s Spanish-language book fair in Los Angeles; Jorge Volpi, Mexican author and coordinator of cultural diffusion for the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM); David Shook, poet, translator, and publisher; Chiara Arroyo, co-owner of La Librería, a bookstore of children’s books in Spanish; and Edgardo Moctezuma, owner of Latin American Book Source, an importer and distributor of books in Spanish. The panel was moderated by this reporter.
The panelists discussed current trends and issues that books in Spanish face in the U.S. When they were asked who today’s buyers of books in Spanish are, the responses ran the gamut from schools and universities to public libraries and the general consumer. The wide range of customers makes it necessary for distributors to carry a wide selection of titles, panelists said.
Moctezuma observed that, for Latin American Book Source, Amazon has become much more important. “In the last few years what we are selling through Amazon has been growing, and today it accounts for about 35% of our sales,” he said. He noted that about 45% of the books he imports are from Mexico, about 40% from Spain, and the rest from Latin America, making his relationship with Mexican publishers imperative to the success of his business.
La Librería, which is located in the Los Angeles area, also does a significant volume of business with Mexico. Arroyo said that about half of the books the store offers are imported from Mexico and the other half are mostly composed of imports from the rest of Latin America and Spain. Arroyo noted that the demand for high-quality children’s books in Spanish has grown steadily since the store opened in 2011. That higher demand is one reason La Librería added book distribution to its business mix and began to organize school book fairs.
Schulz discussed FIL’s strong ties to the U.S. market, but not necessarily with U.S. publishers. She noted that the number of librarians and distributors attending the fair seeking new titles to purchase for the U.S. has grown.
Volpi brought up the fact that only 3%–4% of books published in the U.S. are translations. Shook estimated that of books being translated into English, only about 10%–15% are translations from Spanish—that is, about 58 books per year. Of those, only about 20% are books from Mexico. Schulz noted that, indeed, when literary agents and rights representatives from the U.S. go to FIL, they are often looking to sell rights into Spanish, but they do little purchasing of rights of books to translate into English.
Shook pointed out that, although the Mexican government has been generous in funding translations of Mexican literature and poetry, it is often only independent publishers that are taking the financial risk of doing translations. Arroyo mentioned a similar trend with children’s books: many good titles are published by independent Mexican publishers. Though this is a positive development, Arroyo said it also poses a challenge, since their print runs tend to be very small, making it difficult for them to fulfill the orders placed by La Librería. “These publishers want to come into the U.S. market, but they don’t understand what it really takes to do business here,” she pointed out.
The challenges of Mexico–U.S. business were another main theme of the discussion. Schulz said organizers were forced to cancel LéaLA last year for a variety of reasons, among them the devaluation of the Mexican peso. She added that she hopes the fair will return in 2018.
Moctezuma discussed the high operational costs involved in importing books from Mexico. He emphasized that many logistical issues could be resolved by working with the Mexican government: “Sometimes the truck driver is in line for hours to cross the border, and, when you are paying him by the hour, the cost of the books just increased. These are issues that can be worked out. It is these issues that keep us from offering a wider range of books at a better price.”
Arroyo said that there is also a significant difference between the ways people work in the two countries. She explained that U.S. customers are used to receiving their books shortly after placing an order, so when orders get stuck at customs or half the order doesn’t arrive, distributors miss their clients’ deadlines, leading to financial losses that they must absorb.
When asked what would improve business between the U.S. and Mexico, Arroyo identified greater media coverage of books in Spanish as a potentially helpful factor (and thanked PW for its coverage). Schulz discussed the importance of support from U.S.-based organizations for LéaLA. Several of the responses centered on the need for publishers and distributors in Mexico to further understand the U.S. market. When the idea of a similar panel discussion in Mexico came up, Volpi and Schulz agreed that FIL and UNAM would work together to make it happen.