House sales have plunged, automobiles have tanked, and credit is throttled, but Spain is experiencing an unprecedented boom in books. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, Spaniards have become voracious readers, devouring more books than ever before.
Spain's book trade has not only escaped the downturn afflicting the rest of the economy, but is spectacularly bucking the trend. Publishing houses say business last year broke all records, and they predict even better results for 2008. The sector was said to be euphoric ahead of Madrid's annual book fair which opened yesterday. Open-air book fairs have become media spectacles, but also massively popular events where fans queue to meet their favourite author, and clasp books as a comfort in uncertain times.
Book reading was a minority pursuit for a long time in a country where education was confined to a tiny elite. Print runs were minuscule, bookshops the fusty haunts of the well-to-do, and literary reviews were back-scratching operations among chums.
Even with the leap in literacy of recent years, Spaniards were slow to adopt the reading habit. Not so long ago, more than 50 per cent said they had never read a book, nor had one at home. Now 57 per cent claim to read regularly. This year has seen some huge bestsellers: Carlos Ruiz Zafon's latest novel, El juego del Angel, soon to appear in English as The Angel's Game, was published in April with an astronomical print run of a million, now almost exhausted.
Ken Follet's blockbuster World Without End, which is partly set in the Basque capital, Vitoria, has sold more than a million copies since it first appeared in Spain as El Mundo sin Fin last December.
Big publishers have made huge profits, but small ones benefited too. "2007 was the best year in our history," says Jorge Herralde, editor of the independent publisher Anagrama. "We sold €14m (£11m) of books and expect to grow another 5 per cent this year," he added.