Street Smarts

Nicolas Kanellos uses his radical training to get books to the people

In his mind, Nicolas Kanellos is still the same radical who did street theater to publicize the agenda of the civil-rights movement in the '60s and sold copies of his journal of Latino literature and art, Revista Chicana-Riquena, at street festivals in the '70s. Though he's received an award for Hispanic literature from Ronald Reagan, and is a Clinton appointee to the National Council for the Humanities, the head of the nation's largest publishing house for Latino literature is still required to think in subversive ways. Unlike a good Marxist revolutionary, Kanellos is not concerned with the means of production. Rather, his business hinges on infiltrating and reforming the means of distribution.

Kanellos stands in the offices of Arte Publico Press on the University of Houston central campus. Arte Publico, which started with a handful of employees in the early '80s, has grown to occupy two narrow floors of the Cullen Performance Hall and a basement warehouse in the M.D. Anderson library. On one floor, graduate students recover, index and edit lost Latino writings that date from the American colonial period, including Spanish-language newspapers that rarely found their way into United States library collections. On another floor, a freshly printed children's book -- in English and Spanish -- has just arrived. Readers sift through a slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, looking for the next Denise Chavez or Sandra Cisneros, two of many well-known authors first published by Arte Publico.

But at the moment, Kanellos and marketing coordinator Ave Maria Garza are not looking at books. They are proudly showing off their latest guerrilla-marketing brainstorm. It's not much to look at: a simple revolving book rack. But its potential as a much needed "delivery system" has Garza beaming with enthusiasm.

Though Arte Publico has a fast-growing audience in the United States' expanding Latino population, which will soon be the largest minority group in the country, its biggest challenge is reaching that audience.

Bookstores, particularly English-language bookstores, are not on the agenda of many Hispanic families. When Tony Diaz taught a class at the Chicano Family Center, for example, he found that none of his students had ever been to a bookstore.

Even if they had, they might not have seen any of the 30-odd titles that Arte Publico publishes each year. For years, Arte Publico depended on the literary, exploratory bent of independent bookstores, particularly after retail sales eclipsed college campuses as Arte Publico's largest market. Since 1990, the publishing company's budget has tripled, but sales have flattened as large, bottom-line chains have taken over smaller independents. Major chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders carry only a selection of Arte Pœblico titles, and the books rarely get the plum, up-front placement that publishers with larger marketing budgets are able to buy.

Getting chains and libraries to carry so-called mid-list books -- books not likely to be bestsellers -- is not easy. The New York Times Book Review, whose recommendations hold sway with book buyers and librarians, rarely covers Arte Publico's titles -- and when it does, Kanellos says, it doesn't review the most popular authors. Though in the early '90s, the surge in popularity of writers like Cisneros and Chavez (both picked up by major commercial publishers) was hailed as a hot publishing trend, Kanellos believes the trend won't have much effect in the long run. "There's not a critical mass," Kanellos says. "We're talking about a population of 30 million people, 30 million Hispanics in the United States, and basically there are no more than ten, if that, authors who are being published consistently in mainstream publishing houses. In Latino circles, this is a big buzz. But if you open Publisher's Weekly, you won't find a single Latino name in there. Or face."

Often, Kanellos says, the publishing stronghold of the Northeast misjudges books by or about Latinos. Arte Publico's first bestseller was 1991's Rain of Gold, the story of author Victor Villasenor's family. Villasenor pulled the book from a major publisher who wanted him to rewrite it and market it as western epic fiction. Instead, Arte Publico published the book as nonfiction, but distributors resisted carrying it because the cover art was "too ethnic." The David-vs.-Goliath story of Villasenor's plight appealed to audiences and the media, and the book quickly started to sell.

Two Badges, a 1997 Arte Publico book by gang-member-turned-cop Mona Ruiz with Geoff Boucher, was a bestseller in California and Arizona. NBC bought the rights to the story, and Ruiz has appeared on the Today Show. But, Kanellos points out, there's been no sign of interest from the Times Book Review.

Kanellos chuckles at the foibles major publishing companies commit as they try to reach a Latino audience. "To them, to publish something for a Hispanic audience is to translate one of their English books ... which doesn't meet the need," he says. "They don't know the market; they don't do the research." One publisher stopped printing a book by Nicholasa Mohr when it was still on the curriculum of the entire California university system; Arte Publico picked it up. "We get a lot of authors that are fallouts from commercial publishing."

Reviewers are the gatekeepers between books and the popular audience. But because reviewers often don't reflect the tastes and interests of the Latino reader, Kanellos has to find a way to circumvent the gate. And that is where the book racks come in. Since April, they have been filled with Pinata Books, Arte Pœblico's bilingual children's book imprint, and a few adult selections, and placed where their exposure to Hispanic families (as well as "non-Hispanics who are interested in multicultural food and expression") is guaranteed: Fiesta stores. The project has been promoted on TV public-service announcements featuring an animated version of Pepita, a spunky bilingual storybook character who has become the star of a series of books by Pinata.

"This caliber of material has never been so readily available to Hispanic people," Garza says. The lesson, so far, has been that Latinos don't stay away from bookstores because they aren't interested in books. According to Garza, the only problem with the Fiesta program has been keeping the racks well-stocked enough to satisfy demand.

This week, the project will expand to 15 other locations, when a company that distributes Mexican magazines and novelas to Latino mom-and-pop stores and carnicerias will begin stocking Arte Publico titles as well. Eventually, Arte Publico hopes to expand the project to cover the state and then the country -- but first the nonprofit publisher has to find the capital to print more inventory. (The Ford Foundation provided the initial funds.) And while books for children have been the fastest to leave the racks so far, Arte Publico plans to increase the selection of novels and memoirs printed in Spanish. And that could mean more shoppers will be filling their carts with books for themselves.

-- Shaila Dewan

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