Breaking new ground in Spanish market Print
Written by By DeWayne Hamby and Eric Tiansay   
Monday, 20 April 2009 12:22 PM America/New_York

Puerto Rican distributor sees growth as others note slowdown 

As Christian publishers continue to feel the pinch of consumers reeling in spending due to the global economic crunch, the Latin evangelical market is experiencing growth in some areas.

One leading distributor of Spanish Christian books in Puerto Rico is reporting booming business—despite a recession in the last four years in the U.S. territory located in the northeastern Caribbean.

altRicky Feliciano told of his success with Pura Vida Books—offering encouragement to the U.S. Christian products industry as it faces its own economic challenges—during a buying trip to see American accounts in March.

Meanwhile, with the Spanish publishing industry gathering later this month for Expolit—the largest trade fair in the U.S. for the Spanish-language Christian literature and music world—publishers are also reporting some bright spots in a year of economic uncertainty, while music sales have struggled.

Pura Vida Books—which distributes titles for Grupo Nelson (Thomas Nelson), Editorial Vida (Zondervan), Editorial Unilit, B&H Español (B&H Publishing Group), Tyndale Español (Tyndale House Publishers) and Casa Creación (Strang Grupo Hispano)—the Spanish imprint of Christian Retailing’s parent company, Strang Communications—“has been growing constantly during those four years of a recession—30% growth annually,” he told Christian Retailing.

“This year, we’ve hit it out of the ballpark. We have grown 140% in the first three months because of new open markets,” Feliciano said.

Pura Vida started distributing books to 16 Wal-Mart stores and four Costco locations in January. Pura Vida also distributes to nine Sam’s Club locations, three Borders and 120 pharmacies and hospitals.

“We are the biggest Christian distributor in Puerto Rico,” said Feliciano, who started Pura Vida in 2002, although the company nearly went bankrupt in 2004. Though there are two other Christian distributors in Puerto Rico, “I don’t consider them as my competition. I consider the secular distributors as my competition,” he said. “We found out that non-Christians buy Christian books. The secular market is hungry for Christian books.”

Strang Grupo Hispano Director Lydia Morales said Casa Creación’s sales in Puerto Rico have grown 364% since 2005, including 47% during 2007-2008. Casa Creación’s top sellers through Pura Vida include ,i>¡Cielo es tan real! (Heaven Is So Real!, Charisma House) by Choo Thomas and 23 minutos en el infierno (23 Minutes in Hell, Charisma House) by Bill Wiese.

“We are amazed of the growth that Pura Vida has shown in the last four years with our products,” she said. “Ricky has been able to penetrate the secular market in Puerto Rico and almost quadruple our sales.”

Feliciano noted that Christian books appeal to the mass market in Puerto Rico because of three reasons: their message touches the heart and mind, the good quality of book covers and good price point. “This is how we have competed against secular books,” he said. “We have taken the shelf spaces of secular books in secular stores and filled them with Christian books.”

Feliciano, who has 15 employees—up from a staff of 12 in 2008—expects Pura Vida’s growth to continue. “The reason is there is a hunger in Puerto Rico for spirituality,” said Feliciano, who also owns a Christian bookstore in Mayuaex, Puerto Rico. “A buyer from Sam’s Club asked me, ‘I don’t understand how your Christian books sell.’ I tell him that people are in need. They are looking for comfort and encouragement.”

Larry Downs, executive vice president and publisher for Grupo Nelson, said even in what has been “a difficult year for all involved,” the Thomas Nelson division had seen increases in three areas—business, electronic and fiction titles.

“Fiction is the largest growth area for us,” said Downs, adding that the company is invested in it “heavily” by launching a search for new original Spanish fiction writers. New titles include Donají by Keila Ochoa Harris, Loruhama by César Vidal and olumnas de Humo by Álvaro Pandaiani.

Exchange rates, raising costs of exports to some areas by 50% and heavy returns in the U.S. were some of the challenges faced by the company during an already tumultuous economic year.

“I believe we will see this trend for at least another 12 to 18 months,” Downs said. “We still have six to nine tough months ahead before we see any breaks.”

David Ecklebarger, executive director of the Spanish Evangelical Products Association and president of Editorial Unilit, said the Spanish market outside of the U.S. had not seen a downturn to the extent experienced by the English market.

“The economy in Latin American countries has been up on an average of 5% in the past several years and it was projected to continue,” he said. “I think it’s a wait-and-see on how seriously the economic impact is going to impact Latin America. It could be that it’s minimal.”

One of the areas hit hardest by the downturn was Spanish music, Ecklebarger said, noting a number of companies had shut down or merged—resulting in a decline in registrations by independent artists attending Expolit, scheduled for May 14-19 in Miami. “Spanish music and the recording industry has really been hurt,” he said.

Integrity Music Latin’s Elias Yepez, director of sales/marketing and operations, acknowledged that music sales in general have struggled. But there was still room for growth, especially in the Spanish market.

“The music industry in whole has declined, but that doesn’t mean so have the opportunities,” Yepez said. “Innovation, new presentations, more features, added value and decreasing costs are other aspects to consider in order to avoid riding the wave of the plummeting music industry.”

He said stores could weather the storm by researching top music titles and managing inventory. Yepez was also optimistic that Hispanics were still loyal to physical products.

“A large percentage of the Hispanic market does not buy digital music yet, so retail outlet sales still have the potential compared to Anglo sales at least for the next two years,” he said.

The Spanish retail industry is not “frontlist-driven nearly as much,” Ecklebarger said. “We’ve seen most of our growth in the backlist sales rather than the front end,” he said. “In a lot of ways, that’s good. We’ve got a lot of good, steady books that have been there for years and continue to do very well. Our market is not driven by having one big winner.”

Downs agreed, suggesting bookstores stick to core inventory and introduce new releases “slowly” with good exposure, including endcap placement.