Ten years ago, when Lectorum celebrated a half-century in business as the largest distributor of Spanish-language books in the U.S., the advent of e-books looked to upend the market. “It was all anyone wanted to talk about—it was a scary moment for us, as we had just acquired the business,” says Alex Correa, who bought the company in 2010 along with his brother, Luis Fernando. But Correa, who is CEO and president, says that as the surge of interest in e-books has waned, the company has seen steady growth. “The thing is, with electronics, you have to replace them every few years, and with books, you don’t.”
Lectorum, now based in Lyndhurst, N.J., began as a bookstore on 14th Street in Manhattan and after adding distribution and publishing operations was bought by Scholastic in 1996. Correa acquired it in late 2009. Today the company functions both as a distributor and as a publisher with a backlist of 200 titles, many of them Spanish translations of classic children’s books, such as Gracias a Winn-Dixie (Because of Winn-Dixie) by Kate DiCamillo, which the company says has sold 16,000 copies and was its overall bestseller last year. “We publish about 10 books per year on our own,” Correa notes.
In 2014, Lectorum won a bid to be one of three companies that would provide trade books (not textbooks) to New York City schools, an event Correa calls “a milestone” in its history. It changed the company from being focused almost exclusively on Spanish to being fully bilingual.
“Overall, 95% of the sales to N.Y.C. schools are of English K–12—trade books and picture books,” Correa says. “We supply books from all the domestic publishers.”
Lectorum has gone on to win incremental contracts to supply some books to schools in Chicago and Omaha. The New York contract expires next year, but Correa is confident he can be competitive in the next round of bids as well.
As a result of this shift, Lectorum’s 30,000-sq.-ft. distribution center now carries 6,000–8,000 English-language titles, in addition to the typical 25,000–30,000 titles it imports from publishers across the Spanish-speaking world. The publishers the company works with abroad include Anaya, Juventud, and Planeta from Spain; Ekare from Venezuela; Progreso from Mexico; Panamericana from Colombia; and V&R from Argentina.
Correa estimates Lectorum is working with between 80 and 100 Spanish publishers at any given time. “Our competitive advantage is that we have remained the biggest and best source of Spanish-language books in the U.S,” he says. “We always travel to book fairs in search of titles from new and upcoming publishers that no one else has. Guadalajara is the most important fair, and then there is Liber in Spain, Filbo in Bogota, and the Buenos Aires Book Fair. We are able to add five to six new publishers every year.”
Schools represent 60% of Lectorum’s business, and children’s books for K–8 account for 70%–75% of sales overall and have been the fastest-growing segment for the company over the past 10 years. But with so many schools and libraries closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and various supply chain disruptions, Correa admits that the company had to shift strategy a bit in 2020 to focus on... e-books.
Correa had started discussions in January to offer e-book packages of Spanish-language children’s books from MakeMake, a Colombia-based e-book distributor. When the pandemic hit, he managed to launch the service in just a few months over the summer. Since the launch, Lectorum has signed up 10 library systems—including those in Austin, Tex.; Boston; and Los Angeles—and five school districts, and it’s in discussions with several more.
The move will further strengthen Lectorum’s market position. Correa says he plans to grow the company by bringing in books by more publishers and seeking out new clients, with a focus on small publishers outside the U.S. “Our priority is always to focus on the distribution side, and we want natural organic growth,” he adds.
Correa cites institutional knowledge and his 40-person staff as key components of Lectorum’s success. “We have been lucky over the last 60 years,” he says. “We have some employees here who have been working for more than 30 of those years. I have a valuable, expert, and passionate team who are very committed. We read about 1,000 children’s books every single year, from foreign and domestic publishers. It’s in our DNA to find the best content and bring it to the market. The company is really the staff, and they deserve all the credit for all we’ve been able to do.”