JOHN GRISHAM'S novel ``The Firm,'' Stephen King's thrillers, Eric Carle's ``The Very Hungry Caterpillar,'' and Brian Weiss's ``Many Lives, Many Masters'' are all popular books in English - and now brisk sellers in Spanish.
At least three large United States bookstore chains - New York-based Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks Inc., based in Stamford, Conn., and Landover, Md.-based Crown Books - are increasingly stocking shelves in selected stores with Spanish-language titles. These chains have discovered new profits in a previously ignored market of more than 17 million US Spanish speakers. ``We have had double-digit increases in both sales and profits over the last two years,'' says Spencer Gale, senior buyer at Waldenbooks. ``It was an untapped market for us.'' The three chains declined to give sales figures.
In the past, readers looking for books in Spanish had to hunt for them in specialty or college bookstores and usually paid an extra $5 to $10 a book because of added import and translation costs. But Spanish-language books are selling so quickly, Mr. Gale says, that mainstream US publishers are moving into the market and that in turn should bring down prices.
In January, St. Martin's Press in New York published its second simultaneous English and Spanish hardcover printing of ``Wings of the Morning'' by Cuban pilot Orestes Lorenzo. In July, Danielle Steele's new book, ``The Gift,'' will be coming out in both Spanish and English. ``El Regalo'' will be printed in paperback.
``I see [Spanish language] as a significant new market for all ... publishers,'' says Michael Denneny, senior editor at St. Martin's Press. There are nearly as many Latino people as African Americans, and more Latinos than gays and lesbians. Yet the industry publishes far more books directed at those groups than at the Latino market, he notes.
The fervor over Spanish printings is partly thanks to Laura Esquivel, author of ``Como Agua Para Chocolate'' (Like Water for Chocolate), a book that demonstrated the profits to be reaped in the US from Spanish-language books.
It ``galvanized both bookstores and publishers to think this [market] is not a fluke,'' Gale says. The book has sold 65,000 Spanish-language hardcovers, says Martha Levin, publisher of Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday. Anchor plans to ship 65,000 Spanish-language paperbacks to bookstores in June.
The market may not be a fluke, but printing ``Como Agua Para Chocolate'' was, says Ms. Levin, the book's editor. Without Ms. Esquivel's request to print the book simultaneously in Spanish, Doubleday would never have considered it. The publisher only printed 5,000 hardcovers initially. ``We were nervous,'' Levin recalls. Essentially, ``the [Spanish language] market found us.''
The new Spanish-language books are being tested in bookstores in California, Texas, Florida, New Mexico, and other areas with large Spanish-speaking populations. About 50 Crown Books stores, 175 Waldenbooks, and 140 Barnes & Noble stores and subsidiary B. Dalton Booksellers include Spanish-language sections.
At Barnes & Noble and Crown Books, store and field managers like Bill Manchenton originated the idea of devoting sections to Spanish-language titles. Mr. Manchenton runs a B. Dalton store in the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall in Cambridge, Mass. He gets a wide cross-section of customers, from Central American immigrants to students to employees of nearby Lotus Development Corporation.
Manchenton suggested the section to the Barnes & Noble headquarters when he realized he was watching lost sales walk out or by his store. These Spanish-language titles sell ``quite well,'' he says.
The three chains say most of their stores carry from 150 to 300 Spanish-language titles. At Barnes & Noble, stores have learned to carry a wide variety of titles, says Patricia Bostelman, director of merchandising. ``Bookstores end up being mirrors of their communities and popular culture,'' she says.
The Downtown Book Center in Miami distributes Spanish titles wholesale to libraries and bookstores, including Barnes & Noble. Raquel Roque, one of the family owners, says the business grosses between $1 million and $2 million a year. Sales have grown 10 to 17 percent a year since 1983 and last year grew 28 percent.