Barcelona’s strong literary tradition is struggling to adapt to the modern market. Every day we see independent shops close their doors because they can’t afford the old town rent anymore (the historic Canuda, Negra y Criminal, La Formiga d’Or and Catalonia, among others). The picture looks grim, yet at the same time, new books are being published by local companies and more agencies are opening their doors. Small bookstores and secondhand bookshops can still be found in many neighbourhoods, in spite of the massification of the publishing industry and the rise of e-books, self-publishing and the internet. And of course, every April the entire city transforms itself into a massive book (and rose) fair on La Diada de Sant Jordi.
So which is it? Are the people working with literature in Barcelona just scraping by, or is the book business thriving? And more specifically, how is the English-language book sector faring?
Jessica Craig is an American independent literary agent based in Barcelona. Her work in the publishing industry started right out of college and took her from New York to Edinburgh to London, and then to Barcelona in 2014. Having specialised in foreign and international translation rights for mostly British authors, she was uniquely qualified to start representing international authors from diverse backgrounds. Craig was hired by Barcelona-based agency Pontas to expand their base of authors who write mainly in English, and in October of last year launched her own agency, Craig Literary. Her clients include Chinese-American Jack Cheng and Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma, whose debut novel The Fishermen was a Man Booker Prize Finalist in 2015.
Craig notes that the Spanish market contracted after the economic crisis of 2008, but it has improved more here than in some other parts of Europe. In her experience the publishing scene in Barcelona is solid: “One of the best features of the publishing world in Barcelona is the number of thriving independent publishers. My focus is on fiction, but every genre of book is published in Barcelona, creating a healthy environment in which to be an agent.
It's not enough to sell books these days. You have to find a way to offer cultural experiences to your clients
There are editors here whose interests encompass as wide a range of books as are published in London or New York. And, in the past five years, they have seen books from non-Anglo countries enjoying increased success,” said Craig. Many of the Spanish and some of the Catalan publishers in Barcelona actively acquire and translate English-language works.
Craig says that because Barcelona is smaller than the well-known centres of the publishing world (New York, London, Paris, Munich), book publishing is more personal and accessible here. “Editors and agents know each other and there is usually a feeling of congeniality, of being part of the same ecosystem. Offices are mostly in the Eixample and Gràcia, and it is easy to move around the city to have meetings and attend events. At the same time, Barcelona is more internationally and culturally vibrant than other cities of a similar size. Most Spanish publishers have their headquarters in the Catalan capital, many Spanish, Catalan and even some Latin American writers live in Barcelona, and interesting Anglo writers come here for lectures or readings.”
One of the first stores in the city to sell books in English and other languages was Herder, founded by German immigrants. Though the shop later changed its name to Alibri, the business remained in the family. The founder’s son hired computer engineer and consultant Alejandro Lopez initially to help run the technological and e-commerce side of the business and modernise the store’s software, but Lopez was eventually asked to run everything in 2003, after instituting changes that significantly helped expand the business.
Lopez says their customers for English-language books are pretty evenly split between foreign residents and native Barceloneses, and that in spite of changes in the local economic climate and the global trend of spending more time and money online, their client base continues to grow.
“It’s not enough to sell books these days,” he says. “You have to find a way to offer a cultural experience to your clients. This is why we go to international book fairs and work with a lot of different currencies. We feel that we should know not only the new Spanish/Catalan books in the market, but also which books are being published around the world.” Alibri also requires its employees to be multilingual in order to better serve any and all readers.
Both Craig and Lopez say the idea that e-books are killing the print industry is a myth, that advancements in technology have brought more benefits than difficulties to traditional publishers. Craig continued: “Due to social media and other new technologies, there are more ways for publishers, agents, authors and the public to connect and communicate now. These changes are exciting and have created opportunities for publishers to implement different marketing initiatives for new releases.”
Lopez says that the challenge comes more in the form of how to attract consumers’ attention in an ever diversifying world of entertainment. “We have to work hard to find and maintain our space in people’s lives, to survive the fragmentation of their free time between video games, YouTube, Netflix, etc.” In addition, many historic stores with 99-year leases have suddenly found themselves unable to pay increased rent prices when their contract renews, as was the case of legendary local bookstore Canuda in 2013. One way to combat rising expenses as well as attract potential buyers is to be more than just a bookstore, such as opening a cafe, a cultural space, a wine bar or a small gallery to add value to the space.
Another way to create a foothold in an ever-changing literary business is to specialise in a particular niche, as does the independent publisher 66 rpm. May Gonzalez and Alfred Crespo started the company five years ago to give a voice to unheard aspiring authors, mostly those with ties to the music world. Their focus on this niche market has made them the go-to publisher for poets, journalists, biographers and fiction writers who have potential outside the realm of mainstream culture.
Having come from the world of rock music, Gonzalez and Crespo are experts in the aforementioned strategy of combining various cultural offerings, and often mix a book presentation with a concert, poetry reading or photography exhibition. “There’s a deep connection between the cultural disciplines of literature, music and poetry in Barcelona. Because these worlds overlap all the time, it’s no surprise that many writers also put out an album, or that musicians write books,” said Gonzalez.
Crespo admits that it’s difficult to compete with the resources of big editorial groups, but that small companies like theirs have certain advantages as well. “We can’t invest as much in a big advertising campaign, but we can make decisions quickly, adapt rapidly to take advantage of opportunities or overcome problems, and our public appreciates that we are always publishing risky projects,” he said. “The general market feeds off of occasional buyers of bestsellers, but if you can speak the language of a specific group of loyal readers, that’s how independent publishers survive and grow.”
Gonzalez is proud that their publishing company has seen success in backing female authors (Alicia Rodríguez, Sonia Barba, Núria Torreblanca) and books related to women in music and culture (Mujeres y Música by Toni Castarnado, for example). This, as well as publishing books by previously unknown writers and musicians, is what Gonzalez calls “following your heart and your head”. By following their instincts with regards to what they themselves feel passionately about, 66 rpm is also giving their readership what they want. Good business all around.
Alejandro Lopez’s store, Alibri, carries books published by 66 rpm, as well as by some of the authors represented by Jessica Craig. Like May Gonzalez and Alfred Crespo, they have attended the same conferences, concerts and book presentations in the past year. The Barcelona book world is a small but mighty microcosm that relies on personal relationships in order to grow in the face of changing market interests. “Face-to-face contact and personal trust will always be essential,” said Craig. Fostering these relationships and thinking outside the bestseller box seems to be the keys that keep the city’s book business in good health.