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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Many Hispanics, Scant Marketing
By MARTIN ARNOLD
March 21, 2002
Rene Alegria, editorial director of HarperCollins's Hispanic imprint.
(PHOTO: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)
Maybe the most important thing that ever happened in this country for Hispanics wanting to read relevant books was the 2000 census. It said, hey, publishers, there are 35.3 million Latinos out there. So book publishers started to awaken from the somnolence that often embraces them when it comes to the new and started to take notice. Awakened might be too strong a word, but things are slowly changing for Hispanic writers and their audience.
More books by and about Hispanics are being offered, but there is as yet neither enough structure nor the tradition nor the professional talent to tap into the large commercial potential for books in what in essence is the fifth-largest Hispanic country in the world. Nearly every major publishing house has tried its Latino imprint, and nearly all largely failed because not enough marketing money was spent.
The whopping census figure may have changed that parsimony. There are now several Latino imprints in major publishing houses, but what really feeds sales is missing. For instance, there are only two major book clubs one only four months old, Mosaico, which says it has 15,000 members. There are relatively few reading clubs, and only a small number of Latino bookstores, and it's often the independent bookstore that is the meeting place and sponsor for reading clubs. Chain bookstores carry few Hispanic titles. There are no important best-seller lists. These are the apparatus that power book sales. (There is Criticas, a quarterly in English about recent Spanish language titles.)
By contrast, there are five African-American imprints at major publishing houses, and there are a large number of reading clubs in black bookstores and churches and homes. Chain stores carry a goodly number of black titles, and there are black book clubs and reviews and best-seller lists, including a very influential one in Essence magazine.
Rene Alegria, editorial director of Rayo, HarperCollins's Latino imprint, said that "there are Latino voices out there dying to be heard, and there's a population demanding literature about their own experience in the United States, of being American but at times not being fully American." The imprint was started in September to focus on books written by American-born Hispanics to be published in two editions, the first in English, the second in Spanish. Rayo has published six titles, but is aiming to do 12 a year. Its first book was Victor Villaseñor's "Thirteen Senses: A Memoir," which had a first printing of 40,000 and has netted 22,000 so far.
The days of "one language, many cultures" are over when it comes to reading books, Mr. Alegria said. "There's a whole younger generation within the Latino community that is interested in what the Mexican- and Cuban- and Dominican-Americans are doing, and have a mutual respect for each other," he said, "but have been left off the map, off everybody's radar, when it comes to their contributions to the country, and this can make for lyrical literature."
He said: "If you go to buy a book, there's one shelf devoted to Spanish or Latino writing."
While most publishers do Latino books, the structure to produce them is scant. Random House Inc. has two Latino imprints, Vintage Español for adults, and Random House Para Niños for children. Simon & Schuster has its Libres in Español imprint. There are some smaller houses, like Bilingual Press, in Tempe, Ariz. There's Siete Cuentos Editorial, started two years ago as an imprint at Seven Stories Press, but it will strike out on its own next month.
Anne Messitte, publisher of Vintage Español, publishes about eight new titles a year, plus a backlist of about 50 titles. For Latino publishing, the backlist is all-important. Ms. Messitte said: "Interest in Hispanic writers and books has waxed and waned over the years, but we've got steadily more committed here."
She added: "Many have modest first printings, then have growth over 12- and 24-month periods. It's not unusual to ship fewer than 10,000 copies and then be up to 30,000 by the 12th month."
Juana Ponce de León, publisher of Siete Cuentos Editorial, said that the Spanish-language books she publishes needed an infrastructure that does not yet exist to reach their potential. For starters, she plans to start working with Hispanic newspapers, which deliver to small stores, to deliver her books to the same shops.
Which shows, really, how fragile this publishing venture is. At AOL Time Warner they are "testing the waters," said Karen Torres, vice president for sales and marketing at Little, Brown and Warner Books. "We know there's an audience and we hope bookstores will be open to them," she added. "What we have to determine is whether there's enough to equal an imprint and a staff."
It would seem, however, that numbers which so control book publishers will have their own dynamic, and their force is going to establish Latino book publishing. Ilan Stavans, a Mexican Jew who is a professor of Hispanic and Jewish studies at Amherst College, said that the census figure plus new regulations allowing "millions of more Mexicans into the country that will shortly mean close to 40 million people would make the New York City publishing world realize the potential. There are two full-fledged television stations and a score of Latino radio stations, and publishing always has these sudden wake-up moments."
Professor Stavans is a writer himself. His latest book is "On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language" (Viking, 2001).
Still, other writers, perhaps by nature of their fragile occupation, aren't sanguine. Stella Pope Duarte, author of "Let Their Spirits Dance" (Rayo), a story of a Latino family that lost a son in Vietnam, said: "Most of us are pigeonholed. Go to the Hispanic section, you're not yet considered mainstream. I want the end of racial slurs, end of closed doors.
"I'm a Latina, but I want so badly to see myself recognized as an American writer, just want to be recognized as a writer."