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A New Chapter in Publishing : Spanish-Language Book Market in the U.S. Has Soared


Rosa Castiel sighs wearily as she watches her staff file out of their Carson office after another 10-hour day.

"We're each doing the work of three people," says the director of operations for Fernandez Publishing, the second subsidiary of a major Mexican publishing house to open a U.S. office.

Not that Castiel is complaining, mind you. After all, things are much better than they were just 20 months ago, when her staff didn't even have an office to file out of.

"We worked for the first month and a half in my apartment," she says. "We started from scratch. We didn't even have a trash can."

Since that inauspicious start, Fernandez USA has done $1 million worth of business and opened a 5,300-square-foot office. Castiel expects the company to be turning a profit by the end of the year.

That's good news for the parent company, Fernandez Editores. Fernandez followed the lead of Fondo de Cultura Economica, the country's largest book company, which established a beachhead in San Diego six years ago.

Trade agreements such as NAFTA have made it easier for the two companies to do business across the border. But it's the phenomenal growth of the Spanish-language book market in the United States that is making the move profitable.

Only four other countries in the world buy more Spanish-language books than the United States, according to the trade journal Publisher's Weekly. And more than half the books Mexico exported last year wound up here.

"The possibilities here are very large," says Castiel. "The people here have the money."

Fernandez concentrates on producing the kind of educational materials that have made it one of the most respected publishing houses in Latin America, doing $50 million in sales last year.

Education is a specialty perfectly suited to Castiel, a native Cuban who taught elementary school in Florida, Spain and South America. It's that classroom experience that has helped her tailor many of the company's best-selling Mexican releases for the more eclectic Hispanic market in the United States.

She's demanded that drawings be altered to include black and Asian characters, for example, insisted that typewriters be dropped in place of computers in office scenes and asked for a more generic Spanish in place of Mexican slang, which confuses and angers many Central and South American immigrants.

"Don't forget, I don't use the books. The teachers use them. The parents use them," says Castiel. "There are several books that we have redone for the U.S. market."

Fernandez USA's first order came from a teacher in Racine, Wis., and the overwhelming majority of its sales still go to schools and public libraries, the same market Fondo de Cultura Economica's San Diego office has been tapping for six years.

Among Fernandez's major customers is the Los Angeles Unified School District. And though Fernandez has sold books to a number of independent sellers, it has yet to place a book with a major chain.

"We would like to enter that market," Castiel says. "I would give anything to get every one of our books in a major chain."

While Fernandez deals almost exclusively with children's books, Fondo's catalog is much broader, including literary classics and dense works on history, politics and the sciences.

Pushed by its new director general, Miguel de la Madrid, a former president of Mexico, Fondo opened its U.S. subsidiary in 1991. The peso crash and NAFTA were still years away, so the company's motivation had little to do with profit, says Benjamin A. Mireles, general manager of Fondo's U.S. operation.

"The idea is to promote Mexican culture, the reading of Mexican books in the United States," he says.

In fact, since Fondo was established in 1934 to publish books for Mexico's new National School of Economics, making culture had always been more important than making cash. Organized under a trust--believed to be the first in Mexican history--Fondo quickly outgrew its original mission, yet it has maintained a commitment to serious literature with little regard for the bottom line.


Through its nine foreign subsidiaries and 13 international offices, the company now offers more than 7,000 titles in Spanish, including works by writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Erich Fromm, Gabriela Mistral and Jose Marti. Fondo's foreign branches have seen sales increase by 150% since 1990, yet without generous government support the company would have gone bankrupt long ago, a fact that causes bitter jealousy among Fondo's private-sector rivals.

"We have a responsibility as a publisher owned by the government to promote and develop" Latin American culture, says Rodolfo Pataky, president of Fondo de Cultura Economica USA.

"The titles that we promote are the ones that won't make you rich," he added.

Pataky, 52, who has spent more than half his life working for the Mexican government, speaks in the careful, measured style of a diplomat. And though he was born in Mexico City, his heavily accented English betrays his family's Hungarian roots.

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