A New Vision in the World of Latino Publications: Interview with Mario Picayo


How was the idea of Editorial Campana born?
 

With LART (Latino Artist Round Table), a non-profit organization of which I was co-founder and where I also serve as Executive Director, we’d organized a series of readings where we invited writers to read their poetry, stories or essays. The series became very popular and we discovered, first of all, that lots and lots of these quality writers had not managed to get published, even after sending their manuscripts to different publishers. Secondly, there was an interested audience, keen to listen to different, fresh narratives. The majority of the authors presented were Latino women and men living in New York, so the texts reflected a reality with which the audience could identify. When we finished the readings, a lot of people wanted to buy their books, but sadly either the books were non-existent or they were expensive because of being self-published. Also, the authors had common complaints about the terms and conditions under which they worked with the publishing companies; their lack of commitment in paying royalties, problems with distribution and publicity, as well as difficulties for authors to get copies of their own works. The complaints were the same after every event; so the idea of creating a publishing venture became more and more urgent. 
With the founding team, and the board of directors of LART, mostly made up of writers, we started to give shape to the project. Within this group, I was the one with business experience; I started to coordinate and share ideas so that Campana would function as a business, since publishing books is one thing and becoming a publishing house is another very different venture. 


 
What are Campana’s principles as a publisher?
 

Several decisions were made from the very beginning. Based on the experience of LART, we decided to publish books that people would buy and read even if they dealt with themes that go against what’s normally considered sellable. We wanted attractive, well-made books with similar prices or cheaper than others with similar physical characteristics. We decided our editorial line would be focused on high quality literary texts that, for the reason I already mentioned, had not been published by other houses; and that the majority of the authors would be Latinos living in the US, although this doesn’t exclude writers living in other countries.
We established certain rules with the authors: to offer them more favorable terms on royalties, better prices to buy their own books and those of other authors published by Campana; and more flexibility with contracts in terms of their rights. We created a hybrid model between a corporation and a cooperative, where the publishing house covers the costs of production and distribution, pays an advance on signing the contract, respects royalties, but at the same time includes the authors in promotion and sales, not only of their own works, but also of the other authors. This way of working creates a synergy between the authors and the editorial team that’s unlike any other publisher I know of. We’re on top of the progress of each book, the corrections, the galleys, and we all make suggestions and work as a team. If one book gets delayed in the editing or production process, sometimes they all do, and this keeps the authors very interested in the other writers’ work. Its not a question of re-inventing the wheel, just changing the design a bit and giving it our own particular style and color. Another very unconventional decision for a business model was to print books in the US, even though it costs a bit more. A lot of publishing houses are printing in Asia and Latin America because labor costs are cheaper. Our reading public and authors are mostly immigrants who came looking for better living conditions and they know what working conditions are like here in comparison. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to think that by printing books here, we’re helping national printing businesses to stay here, where the laws and regulations require them to pay better wages and where their workers have more favorable, safer working conditions. I’m conscious of the fact that it’s only a grain of sand, but a lot of grains of sand end up making a beach! As in all businesses, I had to take into consideration the creative physical and economic needs of the new enterprise. For this reason we have not just one, but two publishing houses: Editorial Campana, and Campanita Books, a specialized division for children’s literature.
 
At a moment in which the publishing industry in the US and especially those producing books in Spanish are going through a kind of “lull” in their production, what made you decide to publish seven titles at once?

 
I think the “lull” in the Spanish book-publishing industry isn’t a consequence of the market or of the public not buying books, but of an industry that hasn’t learned to sell books to Spanish language readers here. The future will prove me right or wrong, but I believe that their efforts to sell books to the Latino community is pretty poor and based on formulas that work for the Anglophone market and possibly Latin America and even Spain, but not for the Latinos that populate our big cities. I’m saying this after eight years of experience doing cultural and literary promotion with LART. We’ve taken events into almost every cultural corner of New York. In the 2003 LART conference, we sold more than $12,000 in books in three days; 90% of the books were by “unknown” authors, the majority self-published or from small publishing houses. It wasn’t held in a space with a capacity for thousands of people. It was at the King Juan Carlos the First of Spain Center (New York University), where the auditorium has room for about a hundred people. The figures surprised us all.
We’ve been planning to launch both publishing projects—Editorial Campana and Campanita Books—for the last three years. These eight books are very different and they define the philosophy, themes and tone of Campana and Campanita. They’re directed at different markets. Just like a lot of other people, I get enthusiastic with the demographic figures that are in our favor. More than 40 million Latinos in the US, are spending more than 700 billion dollars a year and the numbers are growing; I can see a very broad market with a lot of possibilities. The desire to read exists.
 
What’s this with doing books in Spanish and English; what’s the difference between this and bilingual literature?
 

I don’t know if you are referring to Spanglish when you ask about bilingual literature. We will publish books in Spanglish if we have the chance and it fits with the first rule of Editorial Campana: that it’s good quality writing. What we’re publishing isn’t bilingual literature but English and Spanish versions of the books. We have quite a complicated situation here in the United States with this language issue. For example, we find couples who are bilingual, or who only speak Spanish, or couples in which only one person speaks Spanish. Where there are children, the parents perhaps speak and read Spanish, but the children read English. The universities offer Latin American Studies courses in English and introductory courses to Latin American or Spanish literature also in English. The situations where the two languages cross paths are many. The idea of Spanish-only editions of our books doesn’t make sense, or, I should clarify, doesn’t make sense for us, for the books we’re publishing, and for the market we are trying to reach. In Editorial Campana the five authors that we’re publishing write in Spanish. At the beginning we thought about publishing their books in their original versions and then translating them and publishing the English versions. This is the conventional model, but it’s not a very practical model here. The solution was to translate the books and then launch the original edition in Spanish at the same time as the version in English, or very close to it, under one month between releases. Both editions have the same price and size, but the cover is completely different. We want to reach out not to that “Hispanic market” invented by advertising agencies and statistics, but the real market of people living in our cities. The only barrier that can prevent someone from reading a book is the language, so we are trying to bring that barrier down, at least for Spanish and English readers.


 
And with Campanita, the division for children’s literature?
 
The main thing, as I’ve said, is to publish high quality books written and illustrated by Latinos. The market needs more books for kids created by Latinos. The sections for Spanish language children’s books in the bookstores here are full of translations of (Anglophone) US and English authors. We want Campanita, just like Editorial Campana, to present a different proposal. Our first two books are called Mi cerebro no va a salir flotando / My brain won’t float away in a bilingual edition and A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and discover what happened to the Z) which is just in English. In the first book, we see the world of an eight-year old girl when she discovers she suffers from hydrocephalus. The book promotes tolerance and shows what individuals can do when they have a disease that affects their motor functions, but have the support of their family, doctors, teachers and friends. It’s a story full of humor, told in a candid way by Annette Pérez, who based it on her own experiences growing up with hydrocephalus. The illustrations by the Cuban American artist Yolanda Fundora are extraordinary and complement the text perfectly. A Caribbean Journey… is another book that seems to me to be very appropriate for Campanita. With magnificent illustrations by the west coast Native American artist, Earleen Griswold, it’s an ABC book like none other on the market. A lot of attention has been paid to every single word and illustration so that they reflect Caribbean reality and at the same time break from, instead of reinforcing, class, gender and racial stereotypes. We’re very enthusiastic about this book which, even if though not bilingual, is very Caribbean.


 
What titles have you selected and what is the singularity of each of them?

 
We had the good luck to inaugurate Editorial Campana with Stories of Little Women and Grown-Up Girls (Historias de mujeres grandes y chiquitas), Sonia Rivera-Valdés’ second book that won the Casa de las Americas award in 1997. The book got all the way up to fifth place in sales of Spanish language books with Barnes & Noble Booksellers. The four other leaders were Hillary Clinton, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Mario Vargas Llosa. It was the only book on the list published by an independent publisher. It also gave us a lot of satisfaction to publish Escenas para turistas (Scenes for Tourists) by the Cuban writer Jacqueline Herranz-Brooks. It’s an original book that presents a vision of Cuba through the journey of the protagonist who, as she goes from place to place, obsessively analyzes herself and the world around her. Her intellectual reflections are those of an educated woman, who at the same time is incapable of expressing her pain, and even less so, her love. In 2007, we wanted to launch books by writers who have belonged to LART since its inception and one literary talent that makes us feel proud is Margarita Drago, with her book, Memory Tracks: Fragments from Prison 1975-1980 (Fragmentos de la memoria: recuerdos de una experiencia carcelaria 1975-1980). In her book Margarita narrates her five-year experience as a political prisoner in Argentina. She worked as a teacher in Rosario and one day was detained at her home, accused of political crimes. It is a powerful book. The Asturian writer Paquita Suarez-Coalla has given us So I Won’t Forget (Para que no se me olvide). It’s a collection of stories and vignettes, narrated by three generations of women, whose anecdotes allow us to recognize a whole century of Spanish history. The stories, written in the first person, consciously conserve the oral tone of the stories, to give priority to the voice and point of view of these women, who have had no public space for self-expression.

The original version of the book Historias de mujeres grandes y chiquitas will be published in English under the title Stories of Little Women and Grown-Up Girls. It’s long-awaited by those who read Sonia’s first book, The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda. Lastly, we have a photography book dedicated to the work of one of the undoubted masters of this art, the Colombian Nereo Lopez Meza, universally known as Nereo. Nereo: Images from half a century (Nereo: imágenes de medio siglo), is a very special project for me, as it’s the first time a book dedicated to Nereo has been published outside of Colombia. Its going to be a revelation for photography lovers, and the best thing is that Nereo, at 87, continues to give talks and take his camera—now a small digital one—with him everywhere he goes. The introduction to the book was written by the great poet, Santiago Mutis.For 2008, there are lots of projects: a book of testimonies written by Latina women about being immigrants living in New York, two photography books, two illustrated children’s books, a novel, and two books of short stories, one of them by Mexican writer Adela Fernandez. We also hope to publish an anthology of graphic stories in the autumn of 2008.

 
 

Read Mario Picayo’s interview (in Spanish), published in Hora Hispana on October 11th, 2007:”PARA QUE ME LEAS MEJOR”
 

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