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Publishers Catch On to Spanish-Language Titles

July 08, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday

Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate" has been such an extraordinary success that the novel's year on the bestseller lists and 850,000 copies in print have overshadowed the comparatively modest response to the original Spanish-language edition. However, when a publisher starts out with 11,500 copies of any title, and then has to increase the total sixfold, the book industry notices.

Doubleday reports that the Spanish hardcover "Como Agua Para Chocolate" grew to 72,000 copies in print and has been followed by a new, mass-market paperback edition from Anchor Books.

Furthermore, the beguiling story of food and love in Mexico is commonly cited in publishing circles as the trailblazer that has led a few other major houses to bring out mainstream titles in Spanish editions.

* Delacorte Press this month will release 1.1 million copies of Danielle Steel's new novel, "The Gift," while Dell, a sister company, publishes 30,000 copies of the same book in a $9.95 Spanish-language trade paperback edition. Publication of "El Regalo," a small-town tale of the 1950s, will be supported by advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers. Until now, Steel's Spanish-reading fans have had to wait for import copies of her novels.

"I'm not sure what my expectations are, and a lot of our key accounts don't know what their expectations are either," says Carole Baron, president and publisher of Dell / Delacorte. "But there should be a way for us to reach Spanish readers, and I'm willing to experiment and spend some money."

* In an unusual development, Penguin USA has announced it will introduce the next novel of Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez to an American audience in Spanish. An $8.95 trade paperback edition of "Del Amor y Otros Demonios," a love story set in 18th-Century Colombia, is scheduled for release in August--months before Alfred A. Knopf will publish "Of Lovers and Other Demons" in an English-language hardcover.

* In October, Vintage Books, the distinguished trade-paperback division of the Random House Inc. empire, plans simultaneous English and Spanish reissues of Esmeralda Santiago's "When I Was a Puerto Rican" ("Cuando Era Puertorriquena"), a coming-of-age memoir that goes from the island countryside to New York streets to the halls of Harvard.

* Also in October, Vintage will publish Sandra Cisneros' "La Casa en Mango Street," previously published as "The House on Mango Street," and Manuel Puig's "El Beso de la Mujer Arana" ("The Kiss of the Spider Woman").

"Clearly, something is happening here," says Jonathan Wells, who runs Circulo de Lectores (Circle of Readers), a Spanish-language book club in Manhattan. "There's a trend on the part of big publishers to do something to address the huge Spanish market. 'Like Water for Chocolate' gave publishers a kick in the pants."

An increase in the number of chain stores willing to stock Spanish titles has been another incentive.

At the same time, Wells, who says his mail-order club serves about 20,000 members in the United States and Puerto Rico, questions why most of the Spanish editions being published domestically are produced not in hardback, but in the larger-size, trade-paperback format that routinely sells for less than $10. "It represents a peculiar point of view, I think, that the market is poor and the prices should be kept as cheap as possible," he says. He argues that, "except in the case of pulp romances, the readers want a nice hardcover, or a trade paperback with French flaps on the cover, for which they're willing to pay $13 or so."

Wells says he has yet to turn a profit in five years of operation--partly because of the high cost of importing Spanish translations from Argentina, Spain and other countries.

Although the publication of more Spanish books out of New York should help reduce his expenses, the relative infancy of the Spanish-language program at the major publishing houses can be seen in one marketing glitch.

Wells learned not from Penguin, but from this reporter that the publisher was about to release the new Garcia Marquez novel in Spanish. "They are?" he said. "Gee, I'd take 5,000 copies."

An order that big suggests that the Spanish-reading audience might be larger than New York publishers realize.

Afterwords: In what is both a publishing curiosity and certain grist for Rush Limbaugh, a collection of poems written by former President Jimmy Carter will be published in January by Times Books. "Always a Reckoning" will be Carter's ninth book and will follow in the dormant tradition of presidential verse from Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams. . . .

The autobiography of Elisabeth Maxwell, widow of publishing mogul Robert Maxwell, will be published in November by his rival, Rupert Murdoch, via the latter's HarperCollins.

"A Mind of My Own" may not be pretty. Elisabeth Maxwell "speaks of the ever-increasing oppression she suffered at her husband's hands," the publishing house says. In a mysterious incident three years ago, Maxwell was found dead in waters off the Canary Islands, where he had been yachting.

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