Small companies are stepping in to answer the growing demand for Spanish-language books in the U.S.
NEW YORK — You might have heard of the three blind mice or the itsy-bitsy spider who went up the waterspout. But have you ever heard of the little cold and hungry chicks?
If you grew up speaking Spanish, the answer is probably yes. But Susie Jaramillo wants everyone to know “Los Pollitos,” a bedtime song about a hen taking care of her hatchlings that’s as familiar in the Spanish-speaking world as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is to English speakers.
The song is the heart of Canticos, a series of bilingual books, companion apps and singalong videos that the Venezuelan-American mother of two dreamed up after she couldn’t find enough Spanish-language books to read to her children. The brand, which debuted in 2016, had its biggest breakthrough this year when Nickelodeon adapted it to develop a series for toddlers on its digital platforms.
Canticos capitalized on a growing market for Spanish books in the United States, which the traditional publishing industry has addressed in fits and starts. Small companies are stepping in to fill the void, leveraging social media and strategic retail partnerships to target key customer bases, often ones they themselves belong to.
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“When I had my first child, I went online and thought: Where are all the board books of these songs that I grew up with,” said Jaramillo, a former co-founder of a Latino-focused New York advertising agency. “We’re always singing the American songs in Spanish, and our songs are great. Why aren’t people singing them in English?”
Jaramillo teamed up with fellow mother Nuria Santamaria Wolfe, a former head of multicultural strategy at Twitter, to launch Encantos Media Studios, an entertainment company that released Canticos as the first of its planned bilingual brands.
Two other mothers, Patty Rodriguez and Ariana Stein, founded their own publishing company in 2014 when Rodriguez couldn’t sell mainstream publishers on her concept of a bilingual board-book series featuring Latino icons and traditions. The company, Lil’ Libros, landed a partnership with Target just five months after publishing its first book, “Counting with Frida,” now the best-seller on Amazon among children’s counting books. The books are sold at 1,300 stores nationwide.
“We didn’t expect this reaction. We were doing it for love. If 100 kids picked up our books, we would have been happy,” said Rodriguez, a senior producer for the radio show “On Air With Ryan Seacrest.”
Friends Chiara Arroyo and Celene Navarette were on the book-fair committee of their children’s bilingual school in Los Angeles when they noticed the spotty Spanish-language selection. They persuaded Mexican publishers to send some titles, set up two tables and quickly sold out. They founded their business five years ago, selling books at school fairs and then online.
By 2015, they had opened La Libreria, a store in central Los Angeles and nationwide distributor of books from Latin America and Spain.
U.S. sales of children’s Spanish-language books rose 6 percent over the past year to 1.5 million units, according to NDP BookScan. Overall Spanish-language books jumped 15 percent. But that still represents less than 1 percent of the overall book market in a country with more than 41 million Spanish speakers.
Major publishers and distributors have pursued the Spanish-language market for years with mixed results. Some closed or downsized Spanish-language imprints after sales fell short of expectations during the Great Recession, and as the industry struggled to adjust to the Amazon era that squeezed traditional booksellers.
In an internet-driven age of fractured consumer markets, Jaramillo and Santamaria Wolf said strategic partnerships have been key, particularly with brands and retailers like Target, which considers Hispanic mothers a key customer base.
Pam Kaufman, president of global consumer products at Viacom/Nickelodeon, said the company had been looking for a baby brand when she was introduced to Canticos at an industry conference. When she showed the videos to her Hispanic colleagues, some teared up.
“I thought, OK, we have something here,” Kaufman said. “We are excited about it because it is authentic.”
Nickelodeon, which also added a Spanish-language hub to its video subscription service NOGGIN in the spring, is planning a line of Canticos toys, clothing and décor for next year.
With sales picking up, major players in the traditional book industry are expanding their Spanish-language business. HarperCollins launched a new Spanish-language division in 2015. Chicago-based distributor IPG, already a key distributor of Spanish-language books, added two publishers from Spain and one from Mexico to its list in November.
Arroyo and Navarette, owners of La Libreria, said the rise of dual-language programs in schools is driving interest in children’s books originally written in Spanish.
The trouble is keeping up with demand. Latin American and Spanish publishers tend to have printing cycles that are too slow and small for the U.S. consumer market. Often, by the time a school orders a title, the books will have sold out in the original country, Arroyo said.
In the United States, a growing number of Hispanic authors are pushing for Spanish translations of their books or weaving the language into stories with bilingual themes.
Juana Martinez-Leal wrote both the Spanish and English versions of her award-winning “Alma and How She Got Her Name” and insisted on a publisher that would release them simultaneously, said her agent, Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel.
Of the seven publishers who bid on the book, only two agreed. Candlewick Press released the two editions in April, and the English version is in its second printing. Von Borstel said sales of the Spanish edition have been a little slower, partly because bilingual and Spanish-language books face a tough battle for shelf space.
Rodriguez and Stein understand that problem well. Once, they were once stunned to find Lil’ Libros — an American series — upstairs in the “foreign section” of an Oregon bookstore.
Stein scooped them all up and marched them downstairs to the children’s section herself.