Michael Mullan - José Manuel Lara Hernández

 

 

(The Times, 19 May 2003)

José Manuel Lara Hernández, founder of the Spanish-speaking world’s foremost publishing group and of its richest literary prize, was a self-made magnate who transformed the industry he joined in the unpromising climate of the aftermath of the Civil War. He pioneered mass marketing, introduced Spanish readers to foreign bestsellers in translation and helped secure Barcelona’s status as the language’s global publishing capital.

The brand he created in 1949, Planeta, nowadays covers an empire of more than fifty firms spanning books and periodical publishing, distance learning, television and radio, internet design, credit management and the daily newspaper La Razón. With a worldwide staff of around 4,000, the group has a turnover around the €900m mark and leads the publishing sector in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, ranking eighth in the industry worldwide.

Yet Lara readily acknowledged he was not much of a reader, or any judge of literary merit. He trusted his wife, María Teresa Bosch, to assess manuscripts - and this proved a shrewd strategy. Spain’s first genuinely bestselling trilogy, Josep María Gironella’s family saga launched in 1953 with Los Cipreses Creen en Dios (‘The Cypresses Believe in God’), had been spurned by other houses but Bosch persuaded Lara to gamble on the 800-page blockbuster. It effectively founded the Lara fortune, selling six million in Spain alone.

Lara was born in El Pedroso near Seville, son of the village doctor. He left school prematurely and tried his hand at various trades - as a carpenter, painter, even a chorus-line dancer - without conspicuous success. When Franco revolted against the Republic in 1936, Lara joined the rebels and ended the fratricidal three-year war as a Captain in the Legion. He remained a lifelong right-winger (though he was eventually happy to publish sure-fire commercial hits like the memoirs of veteran Communist leader Santiago Carrillo).

Demobilised in Barcelona, where he first met his wife, Lara set up a training school for civil service jobseekers. In 1944, he bought a small publishing house, selling it in a deal which secured him the translation rights to Somerset Maugham and G.K. Chesterton. These he published under the Lara imprint, which he later sold to found Planeta.


Fiction was Planeta’s core business. Early successes included imports like Frank Yerby or Pearl S. Buck. Lara introduced many novelties to the hitherto dusty world of the Spanish book trade, such as mail-order sales, encyclopaedias sold on credit, book clubs and international co-editions.

The Planeta award was created in 1952, carrying the then prodigious prize of 40,000 pesetas. It is still hugely endowed - currently worth €600,000 - but for many authors, its appeal also lies in the prospect of joining the illustrious company of Camilo José Cela, Jorge Semprún, Mário Vargas Llosa, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and other past laureates. Lara tolerated the prize’s cost, for he appreciated the acres of free publicity it generated. If the list of winners is top-heavy with names signed to Planeta, it may be because any author will prefer a publishing house that invests heavily in promotion.


Fuelled by its fiction catalogue, the business grew rapidly in the changing Spain of the 1970s, with well-timed acquisitions and business alliances along the way. Famous book trade brands like Seix Barral, Espasa Calpe and Destino are all under the Planeta umbrella.

In 1994, the publisher was created Marqués del Pedroso de Lara. He is survived by the Marquesa, two daughters and a son, José Manuel Lara Bosch, who recently succeeded him as Planeta group chairman; another son predeceased him.

 

José Manuel Lara Hernández, publisher, was born on December 31, 1914. He died on May 11, 2003, aged 88.

 

Michael Mullan - Obituaries...

Spanish translation by Juan Manuel Grijalvo (pending)...