Thursday, February 13, 2020

Chicanonautica: American Dirty Secrets About Publishing

I started writing this as the American Dirt pendejada raged , giving impeachment and the coronavirus some serious competition. What’s with these death threats? What do we expect, attacks by vatos locos with obsidian blades and blowguns?

Since then,  #DignidadLiteraria  (Myriam Gruba, David Bowles, and Roberto Lovato) met with Flatiron Books/Macmillan. The publisher promised to “try to be less white.” Also, it was confirmed that Jeanine Cummins DID NOT RECEIVE DEATH THREATS . . .

Now my problem is to come up with stuff that hasn't done to death by the time this goes live. Luckily, being a long-time Chicano writer who worked for ten years for the corporate bookstore chain, Borders (awk! Am I going to have to explain what it was?), I've got some inside information that may help define this mess.

They won’t admit it, and cry if you accuse them of racism, but the Nueva York-based publishing industry thinks that books are a white people thing. Even in the futuristic year of 2020, when they see a writer or story that isn’t of the demographic of this planet’s English-speaking, Caucasian minority, they panic in fear of losing money. They are so sure that “the audience” won’t buy such things.

So if they want to sell the plight of folks who need to cross the border to the Oprah Book Club audience (which are almost exclusively middle class white ladies), they have to get an unthreatening, sorta Latina gal to do some research and come up with something that they can pimp the hell out of, while they keep on ignoring all of us Latinx (-oid, whatever) writers who have been writing lots of material about this subject for years. I could walk around my house and assemble an impressive pile of such books.

Yeah, I know, they aren’t “bestsellers”--that genre unto itself that are designed to be easy to read, and never quite take “the audience” out if its safe zone. But now and then they need to feel smart, they go for Oprah-type offerings that titillate but never go too far.

Also, the whole “bestseller” business is a fraud. It’s rare that a book comes out of nowhere, makes the lists and sells big. Usually, it’s decided which books are going to be “bestsellers” in advance. There’s advance media hype, a book tour is planned. The publishers pay the bookstores to display the books as “bestsellers.”

No matter how many times I’ve tried to tell this, book lovers don’t want to believe it, but I’ve unpacked the books, and put up the displays myself.

What’s really interesting is what usually happens afterwards. Most of these expensive hardcovers with discount stickers on them, don’t sell. After sitting there for a few weeks, the stickers get torn off, and the books are moved back to shelves, where they mostly sit until they are sent back for credit. Bookstores generate a lot of income through returns. And eventually, the books end up in the dumpster and the landfill.

A helluvalota money is wasted.

When I sold my first novel, Cortez on Jupiter, because of my name, the publisher assumed that I was an Anglo who did research on Chicanos. I was asked if I was willing to use a “slightly Hispanic” pseudonym. When I told them I was a Chicano, they started to act weird.

They sabotaged my  second book. The only ad had a blank space instead of text. No review copies were sent out even though my first book had a lot of good reviews. When I tried to get copies for a book signing, I was told that they had no copies left; when my agent asked if they were going to do a second printing, they said they didn’t sell, they were just, er . . . gone! For years I got royalty statements that claimed that practically no copies sold, but huge caches were being unearthed and returned for credit.
And somehow, High Aztech has acquired a reputation as a classic, and is discussed and taught at universities, nearly thirty years after its first publication.

I can understand these big-time publishers wanting to make money. I want to make money, too. It would be great if we could do it together.

And I can’t help but wonder how much money we would have made if they hadn’t treated me like the most talented leper they ever met.

Ernest Hogan, the Father of Chicano Science Fiction, is alive and well in the literary underground, where he keeps one foot, so that when the shit hits the fan, he’ll have a place to stand.

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