AN INTERVIEW WITH MARIO PICAYO,
EDITOR IN CHIEF OF EDITORIA CAMPANA
AND CAMPANITA BOOKS
LATINOPIA: Mario, You are the Editor in Chief of Editorial Campana. How did the Editorial Campana come about? What year, what motivated you to start the press?
MARIO PICAYO: Editorial Campana was sort of an off-shoot of LART (Latino Artist Round Table), the non-profit organization which I was co-founded in 1999 and where I 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 of Editorial Campana in 2002. 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. By the following year, 2003 we had two books published, it then took me until 2007 to publish another book!
LATINOPIA: Why so long?
MARIO PICAYO: Because as I mentioned before, it is different to publish books than to be a publisher. I learn the hard way the importance of a business plan, advertising, and specially of distribution. After those two books, I decided that I liked publishing, and I wanted to do it right. So beside selling our two titles, I also went to book expos, spoke to people in the business, and hired a couple of consultants to teach me the ropes. In 2006, and with a better idea in mind of what I was doing, plus the help of a great little team, we worked on 6 manuscripts. I wanted Editorial Campana to be re-launched with a bang.
On October 2007 we had a launching and book presentation at NYU’s (New York University) King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center and released four adult titles, two hardcover, fully illustrated children titles, and a calendar. We got the attention of the press, and the literary community. We also had enough books (8) to be taken seriously by the distributors.
LATINOPIA: Did it take you another 4 years to release new titles?
MARIO PICAYO: No, no. By then I had a team, and an idea of what I was doing. We have released new titles every year, even if on a small scale.
LATINOPIA: How many and what authors have you published so far?
MARIO PICAYO: We have a total of 15 books published, a Study Guide and the one calendar. We hope to close 2010 with another two children’s books and two new adult titles.
About the authors, your readers should go to www.editorialcampana.com for more information on the authors since there are a few of them. We have interviews and reviews both in English and Spanish.
We had the good fortune to inaugurate Editorial Campana with Stories of Little Women and Grown-Up Girls (Historias de mujeres grandes y chiquitas), Sonia Rivera-Valdés’ second book. She won the Casa de las Americas award in 1997 with her first book. Historias de mujeres grandes y chiquitas 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 belonged to LART since its inception and one literary talent that makes us very proud is Margarita Drago, and 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.
Our first children book is called Mi cerebro no va a salir flotando / My brain won’t float away in a bilingual edition where we see the world of an eight-year old girl when she discovers that 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. The book was selected by the government of Puerto Rico as a Three Kings day present for the children of the island. It was a good sale. Unexpected, and appreciated.
In 2009 we published our first photography book called Nereo: Imagenes de Medio Siglo (Nereo: Images from Half a Century) by Colombia’s most famous photographer, Nereo Lopez Mesa. A true artist, and totally unknown in the US.
Our latest releases are: Cuentos de Adela Fernandez, an extraordinary collection of short stories by one of the best writers that Mexico, and Latin America have. She is truly amazing. She is also the daughter of legendary film director and actor Emilio “Indio” Fernandez.
In the children’s imprint we just published a book titled Efa and the Mosquito by Antiguan writer Alscess Lewis-Brown. It is the story of a little girl and her encounter with a grant-wishing mosquito. the book has done extremely well in the Caribbean.
I have two imprints for children’s books, Campanita Books, for Spanish and bilingual titles, and Little Bell Caribbean for English titles focused on the English speaking Caribbean.
MARIO PICAYO: 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.
LATINOPIA: What criteria do you use to determine which writers you will publish?
MARIO PICAYO: We receive dozens of manuscripts a week. Since we are small, and have a limited budget, we are very selective.
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.
LATINOPIA: How would you characterize the condition of Latino literature in America today? Is there more writing being done by US based Latino writers than ever before?
MARIO PICAYO: 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.
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.
In terms of number of writers. There are a lot of Latinos writing, but very few publishers are interested in manuscripts in Spanish. For Latinos in the US, the easier way (if there is such a thing) to get publish is writing in English. We have published simultaneous editions of some of our books in both languages, and two of our children books are bilingual.
LATINOPIA: Let’s move on to your own work as a writer. You recently published a couple of children’s books. Tell me about these books and the success you have had with them.
MARIO PICAYO: Let me switch hats then (laughs). We published a children’s book that I had written a century ago when I lived in the US Virgin Islands and my children were in grade school (they are now 28 and 26!). The illustrations are by Native American illustrator Earleen Griswold, and the title is A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z). At the time we tried getting it published and received several very polite and corteous letters of rejection from New York publishers. Interestingly enough, people, specially Caribbean people, that read the manuscript liked it a lot.
Finally and with Editorial Campana’s editorial staff supporting the effort, we decided to publish it. The book is our biggest hit. It has sold over 20,000 copies in the Caribbean, and was given to Michelle Obama for her daughters by the First Lady of the US Virgin Islands. I got a picture of Michelle Obama holding the book – courtesy of the White House- and she also sent me a thank you note. The book has also received very good reviews.
My other book is a very simple tale called A Very Smart Cat, and it is a story loosely based on the behavior of a rescued cat that lives at my daughter’s house. It is all very exagerated, and with several touches that are specially humorus for cat aficionados of any age. That book is a steady seller. We launched it at a big event in Catskill NY, and later it was also presented in the “goody bag” at Best Friends (largest animal sanctuary in the country) annual Lint Roller Party at the Hollywood Palladium. Over 800 copies went to their guests. I saw Chloris Leachman looking at it.
I do a lot of readings and signings of A Very Smart Cat at animal shelters, and give the institution half of the proceeds from the sales.
That book is bilingual. It has been purchased by many public libraries.
MARIO PICAYO: We get and accept submissions. Writers can send their manuscripts as WORD or PDF files to us at email@example.com. A brief synopsis is alwyas helpful. sometimes we get it before the manuscript, sometimes with it. Short biographies of the writers are helpful too. We try to respond within one month (it’s a small group of readers).