Barcelona: Specialising in forgotten literary gems and little-known writers, small independent publishers are flourishing in Spain while the big houses are forced to merge to survive.
In one of the paradoxes of Spain’s recent economic crisis and the digital revolution, small ‘guerrilla’ publishers are sprouting in the gaps as the big guns manoeuvre. Among the new players is Jan Marti, a 33-year-old philosophy graduate who founded Blackie Books in late 2009 in Barcelona, the hub of Spanish publishing.
That was just when the crisis was at its height and the rise of e-books was shaking up the traditional publishing industry. “At first people said we were crazy or suicidal,” he said with a smile. “They would invite me to book fairs so they could see the weirdo who still believed in the future of print.”
From a roomy attic overlooking the Bohemian Gracia district, he has so far published 70 books, from US counterculture novels to children’s stories to self-help guides. Marti was working for another publisher when he fell in love with a manuscript. He secured the rights to publish it himself and his publishing venture was born.
That first title was ‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’, a memoir by Mark Oliver Everett, the lead singer of US rock group Eels. It sold 30,000 copies — not bad for a small, first-time publisher. Martin took on four more staff.
They now publish about 30 books a year, marked out by their hard covers, fine paper and eye-catching cover art. The designs go down well with traditional booksellers keen to lure back buyers with elegantly produced editions that digital publishers cannot offer.
With revenues from book sales down to 20-year lows, Blackie Books is one of numerous upstarts thriving in Spain. Others include Periferica, Libros del Asteroide, Errata Naturae, Nordica and Alpha Decay.
“Very small companies are using guerrilla business tactics to establish themselves in the publishing sector,” said Javier Aparicio, head of the publishing master’s course at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. “They do not compete directly but seek out small foreign authors, big writers’ lesser-known works or particular genres such as fantasy.”
Spanish-language publishers have hundreds of millions of potential readers in various countries, but face a challenge from online giants such as Google and Amazon. The rise of electronic formats of books as well as the economic crisis that hit Spain from 2008 forced big publishers to branch out.
The world’s biggest Spanish-language publisher Planeta bought Catalan firm Grup 62 and French group Editis. The international group Penguin Random House now owns more than 30 Spanish-language publishing companies, having acquired the multinational Santilla Ediciones in June.
“Since they are so big, those groups left holes in the market that others know how to fill in order to subsist,” said Antonio Maria Avila, head of the Spanish Publishers’ Federation.
Among the forerunners of the movement was Valeria Bergalli, who founded her publishing house Minuscula in 1999. “That was a time when the big groups were expanding,” she said. “I sensed that bookshops were all becoming rather the same, when what I wanted was to buy something a bit different.”
Bergalli and her single colleague at Minuscula have since published 150 titles. “It is inexplicable that so many publishers are emerging now with such a heavy crisis,” she said. “But it confirms our vision. The most demanding readers were not being catered for.”
More than 1,900 new publishing companies have registered in Spain since 2008, the year a construction crash triggered the crisis. Most of them have been small companies — no major publisher has been founded in Spain since 2000.
Although not all survive, the success rate is surprising, Avila said. “The story is not that these publishers are being set up — that has always been happening. It is that so many of them are doing well.”
Ramon Girbau did not have high hopes when he set up Dias Contados (Numbered Days), specialising in translations of foreign works. A lawyer by day, he has spent his weekends along with his wife for the past five years seeking out manuscripts, translating them, then designing and printing.
With modest print-runs of about 500 copies, they manage to make the business viable. “We are Sunday publishers. We bring out about five books a year because we have hardly any resources,” Girbau said.
“But we are happy this way. We will go on like this until the business dies.”