With more than 40 million Spanish-speaking readers and language learners, according to the Census Bureau, the U.S. has the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, after Mexico, Spain, and Argentina. What’s more, if demographic trends continue, the Instituto Cervantes estimates that by 2060, 27.5% of the U.S. population will speak Spanish, which would make it the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, after Mexico. It therefore comes as no surprise that the U.S. market for Spanish-language books is growing. Accordingly, PW is now offering a quarterly spotlight on developments in that market. This will include discussions with authors, booksellers, librarians, publishers, and others in the value chain.
The U.S. market for Spanish-language titles is largely being driven by bilingual families, schools that offer dual-language classes, and libraries that service communities with large numbers of Spanish speakers. In addition, there are heritage-language customers who want to practice their Spanish, and language learners seeking cultural immersion.
Bilingual books have proven popular with children, parents, and students alike. In 2022, two new services, Enlingos and Curio, launched to cater to this audience, offering subscription boxes for bilingual and Spanish-language children’s books.
Historically, one of the most prolific and inclusive publishers of bilingual books is Star Bright Books in Cambridge, Mass. Founded in 1994 by Deborah Shine, a former bookseller and publisher from South Africa, the company offers more than 200 board and picture books in monolingual and bilingual editions covering 33 languages. After English, Spanish is most widely represented on the list, which includes 27 monolingual Spanish titles and 68 bilingual books.
“There are some immigrant families that want books in their native language, while others want books they can read in their native language, while their child may only speak English, so they will also read to them in English,” Shine says. “It varies.”
Accordingly, Star Bright often offers multiple editions of the same title, including English, Spanish, and bilingual versions. “In our bilingual books, we always put the foreign text above the English translation, which is often different from how other publishers do it,” says Shine, who is in her 90s and continues to run the company. “English is always secondary to the foreign language in our books.” Star Bright’s latest release is Arletis, Abuelo y el mensaje en la botella by Lea Aschkenas, illustrated Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. The picture book, which tells the true story of a young Cuban girl who strikes up an unlikely pen pal friendship with a Californian, is offered in English and in a Spanish translation by Lawrence Schimel, senior editor of Swiss publishing house NorthSouth Books. “The book was written in English and then we had it translated,” Shine says. “It was a natural decision to publish it in Spanish, for the story’s main character is Cuban and it is set in Cuba. Our Spanish titles are typically bilingual, but for this book, we decided to do a Spanish-only edition.” The book has a print run of 4,000 copies for each edition and has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection.
Arletis, Abuelo y el mensaje en la botella will likely find a strong market in south Florida, where there is a large Cuban population. Traditionally, the largest concentrations of Spanish book sales have been along the coasts and borders of the U.S.; however, publishers note, that is changing as the migration of Spanish speakers increases.
“Our market concentration is in all the places you would expect it to be—California, Texas, Florida, New York,” says Ariana Stein of Lil’ Libros, a Los Angeles–based publisher of bilingual board books in Spanish and English for children ages four to eight. “But our fastest-growing markets are in the Midwest—states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri. Our books come out of the American Latino experience.”
Stein cofounded Lil’ Libros with her friend Patty Rodriguez after they could not find Spanish-English bilingual books for their kids. “There is a phrase in Spanish, Ni de aquí, ni de allá, meaning ‘not from here, nor there,’ which captures the feeling of being an American Latino,” says Rodriguez, who writes many of the books with Stein, including several of the press’s bestselling titles, such as Loteria: First Words/Primeras palabras and Counting with/Contando Con—Frida.
In all, Lil’ Libros has published nearly 40 books, which have sold more than two million copies combined, Stein says. The Life of/La vida de Selena by Rodriguez and Stein has sold more than 250,000 copies, much of it direct to nonprofits and other community organizations. Gross revenue started at $11,000 in 2014 and topped $1.7 million in 2020, an 18% jump over 2019.
Stein and Rodriguez have fostered strong ties with their community and say they have more than 300,000 social media followers that generate 1.2 million impressions each month. When the company wanted to raise capital to expand into publishing picture books, it turned directly to its readers, raising $2.4 million in equity funding through the crowdsourcing site Wefunder in a campaign that closed in May 2022. “We raised this from nearly 6,000 people, who invested in $250–$500 increments—with a few large investors, as well,” Stein says. Some 30% of Lil’ Libros sales are direct-to-consumer, and the company has begun holding in-person pop-up sales and events, primarily in Los Angeles and Tucson, but with plans to extend these to Texas and New York City.
Future plans include rapidly expanding the number of titles published per year. “We hope to eventually go from doing 11 books per season to as many as 60 per year,” Rodriguez says. New titles include the Luz Lucero, niña astronauta by Zaida Hernandez, illustrated by Karla Monterrosa, just published in March, and Wepa, written and illustrated by J. de LaVega, about an energetic child who’s labeled as having ADHD, coming in May. In October 2022, Lil’ Libros acquired an equity stake in Bitty Bao, a startup publisher of bilingual English-Chinese board books for children, marking its expansion into a new language.
Despite the popularity of their books, the publishers at both Star Bright and Lil’ Libros note that they continue to face one challenge in particular. “Bookstores keep shelving our books in the foreign books section,” Rodriguez says. Bookstores, while stocking more Spanish-language and bilingual books, continue to see them as something of a niche rather than a mainstream item. Barnes & Noble was without a dedicated Spanish-language book buyer until Ernesto Martinez, former buyer at Borders, was hired last year. The change has been significant: today, the majority of B&N’s renovated stores include designated bays for Spanish-language titles and Martinez writes a blog, Aroma a libros, covering Spanish-language books on B&N’s website.
The growth of interest in Spanish-language books has been good news for Lectorum, the oldest and largest distributor of Spanish-language books in the U.S., which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020. Working out of a 30,000-sq.-ft. distribution center in New Jersey, the company distributes some 25,000–30,000 Spanish-language titles that it imports from publishers across the Spanish-speaking world. “Sales have been very strong since the end of the pandemic,” says Lectorum CEO and president Alex Correa. “In 2021 and 2022, schools had bigger budgets to acquire books. While this year may not be quite as good, I’m still optimistic.”
Lectorum also publishes its own books and has a backlist of more than 200 titles, many of them Spanish translations of classic children’s books. This past year, the company acquired North American rights to the Spanish-language translations of all of Kate DeCamillo’s books, including The Beatryce Prophecy and Because of Winn-Dixie, which has become one of Lectorum’s bestselling titles. It also acquired the rights to Dan Goodman’s Weird School trilogy.
More than half of Lectorum’s business is with schools and libraries, many of which have taken an interest in the company’s e-books platform, MakeMake, which offers 1,800 titles for kindergarten through high school. “It comes from Colombia and offers primarily Latin American books,” Correa says. “It now has 30 public libraries licensing it for patrons.”
Correa notes that in the past year, more and more schools have expressed interest in book fairs, which Lectorum conducts online. Unfortunately, that specific business is also becoming more challenging, as politicians representing Florida and Texas promote book bans. The issue is all the more complicated when there are language differences between politicians, families, and educators.
Looking ahead, Correa notes that one outcome from the pandemic is that many students have fallen behind in reading proficiency. As a consequence, librarians and teachers are asking for material that has content suitable for older readers but is also easier to read. “While they might be able to read a picture book, an older student would consider that childish,” Correa explains. “We actively looking for books to fill that need.”