29 May 2013

BEA 2013: How Mexican Publishing Will Take Over The World, Maybe

Live from BookExpo America, a major U.S. trade show for the publishing industry.

Since the last time I did BEA properly and actually went to some of the panels, a major programming addition selected a “spotlight” country every year and designed panels around publishing issues affecting that country. This year’s is Mexico, a country exporting relatively little of its literature in translation unless it bears the name of Bolaño, so it was with great eagerness to learn that I stopped in on a panel about “Mexico’s Cultural Ambitions” for expanding its northern markets. In conversation were Julio Trujillo, editorial director of the Mexican cultural agency Conaculta (Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, but you knew that), and David Unger of the Guadalajara International Book Fair (held every year in December).

Trujillo was charged with answering what “Mexico’s cultural ambitions” meant, and described it as the opportunity to take advantage of the 50 million people in the U.S. who speak Spanish and the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a well defined literature-in-Spanish market. He says Spanish in America has been left to the house and private spaces, so Spanish books here mostly come from Spain and Mexican publishers want to change that (in part because of the high proportion of Spanish speakers of Mexican descent here, compared to Spanish speakers of Spanish descent). Conaculta currently publishes books, but is trying to re-position itself as a resource for all publishers rather than a competitor. Government grants to translate Mexican books into other languages are one example of how Conaculta wants to help.  

Unger spoke next about the Guadalajara International Book Fair. One of the main issues in international publishing exchange, as he sees it, is the distribution of Spanish-language books in the U.S. and the lack of structure in it. In the 70s when Unger first visited New York, there were 7 Spanish-language bookstores there; now there are two. Los Angeles’ LéaLA book festival for Spanish-language literature is a start, but not an option for most Spanish speakers in this country to access. Guadalajara, the biggest Spanish-language book fair, is very close to Houston and Dallas and has been wooing American buyers and distributors to see the latest in South and Central American literature. Both he and Trujillo said American librarians are huge agents of change in this category because they are connected to patrons in the U.S. who actively seek out Spanish-language titles and thirst for contemporary works, not the same old classics.

Judith Curr, president and publisher of Atria Books (Simon & Schuster) brought up both the difficulty in distribution and the fragmentation of country literatures as challenges in finding titles for them to publish on their Spanish-language imprint. But taking chances can come with big payoffs: Atria Books Español launched with Laura Esquivel’s MALINCHE (briefly, “La Malinche” is the cultural idea of the first native Latin American woman to bear a conquistador’s child, thus ensuring the European and America bloodlines that would always be crossed) and now focuses on newer authors and discoveries (rather than re-publishing, say, Octavio Paz). They are committed to publishing simultaneous English and Spanish editions of their titles and look for books that will culturally resonate on both sides of the border. For one upcoming title, singer Jenni Rivera’s memoirs, the company is partnering with Walmart to publish an extended Spanish-language edition with photographs.

Moderator Rudiger Wischenbart of BEA signaled out as a key difference between our countries that Mexico has an agency like Conaculta to shelter and encourage Mexico’s reading culture, but there is no similar institution in the U.S. that really promotes translation and cross-cultural sharing. The cynic in me points out that we do have these government institutions, but that they are more often the sources of raging debates over what “American culture” means. Not to say Mexico isn’t its own kind of melting pot. But if Mexico can crack the mystery of why so few books on the American market are works in translation (3 percent is the oft-quoted fact, source apocryphal) that country’s industry will cash in hugely. I don’t think it’s a reader bias, but rather the preponderance of manuscripts available in this country in general, and the additional cost in ordering a translation which consumers never think about.

One thing I think we can agree on is that the burden of discovery for new Mexican authors (and more translated authors in general) shouldn’t be left to people who speak those languages anyway. The fourth member of this panel, David Burleigh, works with libraries to ensure e-book access for patrons – expanding the titles that language speakers can access. But he was grilled quite fiercely by Wischenbart on the subject of being a second-generation Spanish speaker who rarely reads in Spanish and described his language skills as “not the greatest.” We didn’t get a sample, so I didn’t ascertain for myself how good or bad those skills were – but why should it be up to him to be the standard bearer? Should another white person be judging that cultural mandate for him. Instead we all ought to be more curious about what Mexico and other countries are reading, beyond those few flashbulb breakout books that are here and gone. 

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