Castles in Spain: fantasy writers and publishers have high hopes
By Sue Burke
Big changes are on the horizon, and they’re going to be good. That’s what many Spanish fantasy authors and publishers believe. Fantasy is luring more and more readers, and soon, they hope, Spanish readers will believe that “made in Spain” novels and stories are as good as those by Anglo-Saxon (English-language) writers.
Raúl Gonzálvez sees “an upward spiral that just five or ten years ago would have been almost impossible.” His small publishing company, Grupo AJEC, focuses almost exclusively on Spanish writers, especially new ones, and has given some well-known authors their start.
“Spanish writers are starting to lose their complexes,” Gonzálvez says, “and even more importantly, to seek their own voice outside of Anglo-Saxon literature, which was the reference for readers for decades.” These days small publishers, and even some larger ones, are offering a full range of fantasy literature; he hopes this will overcome a long-standing barrier.
“Soon, frequent fantasy readers who usually read only Anglo-Saxon novels may give Spanish authors a chance – or at least treat them the same as a translated novel – and I think that sooner rather than later we can speak of a more normal situation in the production of national fantasy literature, compared to other European countries.”
This abnormal situation goes back four centuries – to Don Quixote. Cervantes’ book satirized the fantasy adventure novels of its day, and ever since then realism has reigned in the Kingdom of Spain, despite a rich oral tradition of tales of fantastic events and beings.
In the last half of the 20th century, popular genre works translated from English began to capture readers, but the few Spanish genre writers of those decades often had to use British- or American-sounding pseudonyms. Then in the ’80s and ’90s, a new generation of writers appeared, proud to use their own names, including Rafael Marín, César Mallorquí, Elia Barceló, Juan Miguel Aguilera, Javier Negrete, and Rodolfo Martínez. They wrote what in Spain is known as “fantastic literature,” which encompasses science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Their quality inspired more writers.
However, quality wasn’t enough. Luis G. Prado heads Alamut and Bibliópolis, small genre presses that publish mostly translations – but from many languages, not just English – along with some Spanish authors. For many years he edited an important fanzine, Artífex. In the 2002 book La Ciencia Ficción Española, he noted that some fine writers were leaving the genre. “It isn’t a field that welcomes authors with ambition, and its survival in Spain has been based more on the personal efforts of a handful of unyielding writers than on favorable conditions.”
The money wasn’t there ten years ago, and not much has changed. But a loyal fandom has always filled in somewhat for the lack of professional money and recognition. Fan groups have published anthologies and magazines, and sponsored conventions and awards. As in the US and Britain, writers and readers mix freely, and often fans became writers or publishers.
National conventions, called HispaCons, occurred intermittently before 1980, and in 1991 they were revived and are now held annually, sponsored by the Spanish Association for Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror (AEFCFT, in its Spanish initicials).
Two other groups especially strong now are TerBi, a Basque association for science fiction, fantasy, and horror; and the Spanish Epic Fantasy Association, a grouping of local clubs, whose website name, espadaybrujeria.com (“swordandsorcery.com”), explains its focus.
“Thanks to social networks, digital tools, Creative Commons licenses, etc., contact and mutual support among Spanish writers is increasing visibly,” says Nuria C. Botey. Her works include fantasy, science fiction, horror, and gay romance; she’s also won several prizes. She points to the Spanish Association of Horror Writers, Nocte, as another example of a community for writers.
“Almost all the authors know each other and maintain good relations,” says Sergio Mars, an award-winning writer and former officer in AEFCFT. He got his start with AJEC publishers. “The spirit of collaboration prevails over competition, with the general belief that we’re all rowing in the same boat and with the same goal. Anyone’s triumph means more opportunities for the rest, a belief helped by finding ourselves in a period of relative strength – and the inexistent material benefits don’t create envy.”
In addition to a network of fan and association websites and author blogs, web-based stores like Cyberdark, offer one-stop shopping for genre books and magazines, including some free e-books and e-zines – a great help for fans and writers.
But a look at the combined 2011 best-sellers of Cyberdark and Barcelona’s Gigamesh bookstore underscores Mars’ remark about nonexistent material benefits. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice books fill the top four places, eclipsing the rest in sales. A Spanish author finally appears in the tenth place: Javier Negrete, with a novel in a sword and sorcery series.
“Spanish publishers bet on sure things, that is, US fantasy writers,” says author and workshop leader Lola Robles. “Spanish publishers that try to publish native authors have a hard time, even harder now in times of economic crisis.” She knows from experience – her own and that of other writers – about how hard it is to get published. “Then, if, for example, only 10 writers get published, it’s harder to find an outstanding author than if 50 had been published.”
Mars says Spanish writers have the quality to compete equally, given the chance, but those chances rarely happen. “There’s no equivalent in the print run, distribution, or promotion,” he says, and bad sales create a downward spiral. “There’s a real split between publishers who print national writers and foreign writers, and the strongest publishers are fireproofed against including Spanish writers on their menu.”
“Still, in recent years,” he says, “apart from editorial phenomena and the titles backed up by big groups – usually foreign bestseller imports or series – the average print runs for both kinds of authors have been becoming more similar, unfortunately meeting in the middle rather than the high end. It’s possible that in the more or less near future the situation may reverse itself.”
This would mean, he says, that more new authors could get past the beginner stage and develop their true potential.
“Readers of fantasy in Spain have always been a small minority of total readers, due to cultural factors and deeply rooted educational prejudices,” says Mars. “But in recent years the figures for readership are taking off in the children’s and young adults’ sectors, the sectors that are showing the most growth, in fact. And even more importantly, as they mature, these new readers keep preferring fantasy and keep seeking more demanding works. This dynamic, united with a handful of highly successful publishing phenomena, little by little is inverting traditional tendencies.”
Imports like the Harry Potter and Twilight series became phenomena in Spain the same way as in the English-speaking world, but Spanish writers like Laura Gallego, Elia Barceló and Carlos Ruiz Zafón sell just as well. The young adult market is larger and more stable than the adult one, and these days, it outsells science fiction.
Lawrence Schimel, an American writer living in Madrid, has even seen YA readers turn into writers, like Javier Ruescas or Sofía Rhei, but he adds: “It’s very difficult for local writers to compete with imported competition, which is why many Spanish fantasy writers make their living by translating works from other languages, especially English.”
Other European countries face the same problem, says David Lally, of Ireland, president of the European Science Fiction Society. “The main problem here – and it applies also to other media – is that there are so many languages in use in Europe, with the usual difficulties of getting a big enough market for book or film sales.”
In Spain, relatively few people speak English, but in Denmark, for example, almost everyone does. “It is very expensive to have any story translated into Danish, since the English version is easily available,” Lally says, “but the vice-versa situation is difficult, getting Danish science fiction or fantasy translated into English.”
Despite the appeal of fantasy and the presence of a market – although too often nonpaying, he says – “the ever-encroaching use of English remains a big barrier.”
He adds that while fandom and conventions are somewhat split between science fiction and fantasy in Britain, “that level of separation hasn’t happened in Europe,” perhaps because the overall numbers are small. And he notes that fantasy’s presence in conventions is increasing.
Is the focus or content of Spanish fantasy authors the same as English-language ones?
“I don’t think it’s strictly different in either of those aspects,” says Botey. “You have to bear in mind that we live in a globalized society, where the viewpoint focuses on similar themes. Everyone everywhere is living through times of tumult and large social changes, and this inspires creators regardless of their nationality. However, there can be differences in the way to address these more or less common themes. The literary tradition of each culture, and its national references, are aspects that modify the form of confronting the themes.”
Mars says diversity is the norm in Spanish literature – works include contemporary urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical fantasy, and a few unclassifiable works – although the high fantasy may have a bit of Greco-Latin or Arab inspiration.
“You could say the foundation is the same, since there was no strong native tradition, and writers wound up seeking references mostly in the British and American grandmasters,” Mars says. “Still, the Spanish character can wind up flourishing in details like a certain instinct for darkness and ambiguity, and even a trace of cynicism, underlying even the most epic saga.”
Robles thinks the limited market considerations can give writers more freedom. She also points to the efforts of Rosa Montero to include realistic elements in her novels about life for women in the 12th century in Europe, or of Blanca Martínez to locate her works in a mythic Iberian geography, or of Ana María Matutue, who invented her own geography that leaves “a certain Hispanic aftertaste.”
Author Susana Vallejo agrees that some Spanish writers try to imitate English-language works and their mythologies and settings, but others draw on their own past and location, with its own peculiarities.
“In my case, in the four-book series Porta Coeli, I’ve preferred to resort to the authentic Spanish Middle Ages. For example, Black Harvest, the second part, is inspired by Toledo in the 14th century, a fascinating moment in which the Black Plague arrives at the city, and Jews, Muslims, and Christians live together, and the Inquisition is born. All the ingredients are there, and by adding a little fantasy, bang! you get the perfect recipe.”
But no matter how good and unique, the money’s not there. NGC ficción!, which focused on Spanish authors, closed at the end of January “due to the very few sales, despite getting mostly positive reviews in many, varied media.”
Speculative fiction has been the first to move into electronic publishing: websites and e-zines regularly post short and long fiction in various formats, free for the reader and, often, non-paying for the writer. Magazines with pay approaching professional – as well as paper-based magazines of any type – have all but disappeared in Spain, and there never have been many. Bookstores were suffering even before the economic crisis, which has left more than 20% of the population unemployed.
And yet, writers feel optimistic about the opportunities of electronic publishing.
Technology is facilitating collaboration, Botey says. “I think the popularization of the e-book in ever more compatible formats will ease the access of Spanish writers into other markets.” As an example, she has a story, along with stories by other Spanish writers, in a French anthology called Monstres!
But so far, the effect of digital publishing has been minimal, Vallejo says. “The Spanish editorial world moves very slowly and tries to keep its old paradigms when reality is moving forward with giant steps. As a further complication, legal issues in Spain are holding things back. We have a law that fixes prices for books – a single price – and different taxes for books in paper (4%) and electronic formats (18%), and contracts signed before the ‘digital era’ make it hard for authors, agents, and publishers to move.”
It took the arrival of Amazon to accelerate the changes. It opened Amazon.es in September, 2011, and began offering Kindles at €99 (US$130). An industry consultant, GFK, calculated that Christmas sales of e-book readers increased by 175% in 2011 compared to 2010. Big publishers rushed to get books in formats to read, and one major bookseller reported selling three times as many e-books in December as in previous months – but the biggest e-book seller, Libranda, which manages sales for 30 big publishers, expects that in spite of these increases, e-books will account for only 1% of total book sales in 2012.
“I think in a few years we’ll see the Big Change,” Vallejo says.
Mars points out, “The little publishers, which include most of the ones specialized in fantastic literature, have been getting ready for a long time to be in a good position at the starting line. They see the format as an opportunity to increase their competitiveness.”
According to Gonzálvez, e-books account for 5% of all sales for Grupo AJEC. “I’m completely convinced that the e-book will be very beneficial for authors and the Spanish fantasy epic genre,” he says.
“We’re in a country that has consumed Anglo-Saxon fantasy continuously for decades, and it still looks distrustfully at Spanish authors,” he says. “Now indecisive readers have the option to buy the ebook of a national fantasy author well below the price for paper. This way many readers will ‘take a risk’ and spend €3, €4, or €5 on a national fantasy book and give it its first opportunity, something that they certainly wouldn’t do for books that usually cost more than €20 in paper.”
But Luis G. Prado, in an interview with Bazina!, is a little less convinced. He thinks small publishers will have to wait until the market is established with a means of access and clear rules before they can compete effectively.
And when e-books become the norm, will paper books become a luxury object? “Without a doubt,” he says. “That’s because, in my opinion, with the press runs and prices that I deal with, they already are.”
Sue Burke has lived in Spain since December 1999. Her first novel, Transplants, will be released by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing this year. She’s also translating Amadis of Gaul a chapter at a time online. This Spanish medieval sword-and-sorcery novel became Europe’s first best-seller and inspired a century of sequels and spin-offs, including Don Quixote. Her professional website is http://www.sue.burke.name.