Every year at the end of November, Guadalajara hosts the largest and most significant book fair for Spanish speakers: the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL). There, attendees can find both obvious and not-so-obvious clues to understanding the Latin American book market. In the aisles, on the tables, and, most importantly, outside the official agenda, different cultures revolving around the Spanish language and the culture of books come together to celebrate, identify, and close deals.
Out of the 500 million people who speak Spanish in the world, 60 million live in the U.S., and they are growing in number and influence year by year. That growth is reflected in the growing demand for Spanish-language books. But it’s challenging to assess how the sale of English-language books is influenced by the availability, or absence of, Spanish-language books.
FIL holds the answers, but also raises some questions.
Bertrand Russell once said that the U.K. and U.S. are two nations divided by a common language. The same thing can be said of the Spanish-speaking world, and it’s an observation made by a wide variety of Spanish-language authors, from Argentina’s Julio Cortázar to Chile’s Jorge Edwards. It is a diagnosis and condemnation that highlights and encapsulates the complications many face in communicating and, consequently, publishing and selling books across the totality of Mexico, Central and South America, and Spain.
Argentine intellectual Alejandro Dujovene has reframed this, noting, “It’s the geography that separates us”—and how could it not when, despite Latin America sharing a landmass, it’s divided by slow, corrupt, and inefficient customs processes. Additionally, the different local book cultures, lacking shared vision—not to mention back-office systems—make it complicated for books to circulate.
This is why books published in Ecuador are not easy to find on bookstore shelves in Bolivia, and likewise, Bolivian publishers’ books are scarce in Colombia. Of course, what is published in Colombia faces challenges circulating in Ecuador and Bolivia, despite these three countries sharing borders. According to Nielsen, last September, only one title was among the top fiction bestsellers in the three main markets: Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico: El Viento Conoce mi Nombre, by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende, a global superstar.
Each market has its own peculiarities; in Argentina, it’s not surprising that Mariana Enríquez’s horror novels, dark and vibrant, are bestsellers, as they emanate from and reflect their native culture—something that also appeals to wide international readership. This is like how in Mexico, it’s normal for Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian writer who lived for much of his later years in Mexico City, or Pedro Páramo, by legendary Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, to appear on the bestseller lists. But beyond these internationally recognized authors and books, few Latin American books sell beyond their own national borders.
In Guadalajara, the largest spaces are reserved for foreign publishers and national stands. Editors from smaller publishers circulate on their own, looking for undiscovered gems. A description of what happens, which includes a touch of magical realism to make it sound musical, would be that, despite the challenges, FIL somehow facilitates a form of business alchemy, fostering cross-border collaboration in a broader market that otherwise all too often feels sclerotic.
It’s a great opportunity for anyone to realize that the best way to come to an understanding of Latin America is through the differences among countries and cultures, not through the shared Spanish language. These differences are more obvious when meeting with publishers in the fair’s communal dining areas than on the exhibition floor. And anyone who has been to FIL before knows that the real business happens at the many parties hosted at FIL, many of which last until dawn.
Large in-person book fairs have mostly disappeared from the United States, and in Madrid, the main book fair is more of an outdoor carnival for the public. In both settings, the book market is healthy and functions smoothly.
Not so in Latin America. Here, book fairs matter much more, as they are sales channels and showroom windows, and they’re important for professional development and networking. It’s our opportunity to showcase our intellectual lives to one another and to the world at large. Shelves upon shelves of books, hundreds of thousands of them on display at FIL, is not the typical image one has of Latin America or Mexico—the clichés of beaches, tacos, and margaritas. FIL exists to remind people that there is more to Mexico and Latin America than an opportunity for tourism. There is an opportunity to do business.
The U.S. is coming
Today is a good time to plan for the future—a future when it is very likely the richest Spanish-language book market in the world won’t be in Spain or South America, but in the U.S. Curating catalogs understanding the trend toward micro-niches and audience segmentation is the responsibility of the many U.S. librarians and booksellers who attend FIL. The broad label of “Books in Spanish” is no longer enough; we must consider the segmentation, what kind of books, by whom or for whom, written in which country, and under what context.
Librarians in Queens, N.Y., should understand that the largest number of Ecuadorians living in the U.S. are in their borough—and they need books. Booksellers in Los Angeles should be aware that their city is the top destination for Oaxaqueños traveling over the border, a phenomenon we call Oaxacalifornia. This knowledge will help librarians and booksellers make better decisions about what books to stock for their patrons and customers.
The key to unlocking the best of FIL is to stay curious. Attendees must stay up late and show the willingness to share; the business relationships may take time to develop and pay off, but patience and persistence will prevail. They must take the time to get to know the editors, the authors, and the trends, which are different from those in the U.S., Europe, and, as noted, are different in each country within Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina.
Spanish-language books are not valuable to Spanish speakers just because they’re in Spanish; they’re valuable when the books cater to readers’ specific needs or desires, be they test prep books, escapist novels, or cookbooks.
The best way to explore FIL is to wander at will. Get to know people. It takes time, but it has its rewards. Look beyond the mega-stands of the largest transnational publishers and seek out smaller publishers as well, many of whom offer books with their own unique cultural and regional perspectives. Behind the alarmist headlines and bad press the region gets, there are stories and people working every day to change it for the better. Their tool: books, of course! And a healthy dose of camaraderie and curiosity.
This is what visitors need to unlock FIL and discover its rewards.
Fernando Pascual is a publishing consultant in Mexico City and a former executive with Librerías El Sotáno.