At this year’s Firecracker Awards, celebrating the best of Independently Published Literature, CLMP will award the second annual Lord Nose Award to Cinco Puntos Press.
The Lord Nose award was established by David Wilk and friends to honor and celebrate the memory of poet-editor-publisher extraordinaire, Jonathan Williams, who founded the now legendary literary press, Jargon Society in 1951.
“The 2018 Lord Nose award will be given to Cinco Puntos Press, operated by writers Lee and Bobby Byrd, along with their son, John. Based in El Paso, Texas, Cinco Puntos has been publishing fiction, poetry, and children’s books with brilliance, creativity, and a great deal of love, since 1985. This press is an exemplar of the commitment to excellence against all odds signified by writers becoming publishers, as championed by Jonathan Williams and Jargon Society. We are thrilled to recognize Bobby, Lee, John and all the writers published by Cinco Puntos for so many years.” —David Wilk
We spoke with Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos about their publishing journey, their mission, and what it’s like publishing along the border.
When you first started Cinco Puntos Press, what was your mission? What were some things you wanted to focus on? How has that changed over the years?
This is a great question, but truth to tell, I don’t think we had a mission when we started Cinco Puntos Press. Actually I don’t think we’ve ever had a mission. When we started in 1985, we were two writers—I’m a fiction writer and Bobby is a poet—with three kids, and we were sick and tired of working for other people and wishing we had more time to write. (Publishing is not the answer to having more time to write, by the way.)
We went to visit Richard Grossinger and his wife Lindy Hough who ran North Atlantic Press in Berkeley. They had published a book of Bobby’s poems, called Get Some Fuses for the House. They told us they were making about $25,000 a year as publishers. It was 1985, and that sounded really good! So, without knowing anything, we decided that we would become publishers.
Fortunately we had a friend down the street, Vicki Trego Hill, who knew how to design books and another friend two blocks over with a short story collection, Dagoberto Gilb, (Winners on the Pass Line). We didn’t have distribution. We probably didn’t know what distribution meant. We didn’t have a phone number in the phone book, so when Alan Cheuse reviewed Winners on the Pass Line on NPR, no one knew how to find it—or us! That’s how little we knew.
All this is to say that I think the very best thing that we have had going for us over the years is that we didn’t know anything at all about publishing when we started. And the fact that we live here in El Paso, on the U.S./Mexico border, far from the so-called center of publishing in New York City—that has allowed us to be unfettered by the kind of competition that prevails in New York and also to have our own particular vision of what makes a good story. And, of course, to be deeply interested in cultures that are not like the ones we grew up in.
While we might not have had a mission, we always had good stories we wanted to publish—good stories and good books, good writing. I think that has always been what gives us our focus. That hasn’t changed over the years, looking for great stories, but we have changed the audiences we’ve published for. We thought originally that we would publish poetry and fiction because that’s what we wrote and that’s what the writers we knew were writing, but soon we met the storyteller Joe Hayes and he directed our thoughts toward bilingual storybooks for kids, and that eventually came to include doing children’s books that opened up doors into other cultures. Then we saw that there wasn’t much diversity for young adults and began to talk to writers about that wonderfully enthusiastic audience, and all the time, we’ve continued with our adult fiction and nonfiction list. And even poetry, can you imagine? But now we try to do something for each of these audiences (kids, YA, and adult) every season.
There’s always another great book—or books or a particular writer—that comes along in mysterious almost magical ways, surprising us, and directing our thinking for a season, or a couple seasons, or with some luck and much grace, for a good long stretch of time.
How does the culture of El Paso influence what you publish? Being close to the U.S.-Mexican border, do you feel any pressure to get political? Often underrepresented writers feel invisible in the publishing industry at large and struggle to have their voices heard. Does your location give you a unique view on this issue?
I’m originally from New Jersey, grew up there, and Bobby is from Memphis. Forty years ago we arrived in El Paso and raised our three kids here. It’s a city we love. It’s not a multicultural city, it’s a Hispanic city. Eighty percent of the population is Mexican or Mexican-American. People just naturally speak back and forth in Spanish and English. As you drive north through New Mexico and into Colorado, you can feel the influence of the border dropping away: most everybody speaks English the further north you go; people don’t code-switch, there’s more assimilation. All of this has been incredibly interesting to us because Bobby and I have always found where we live, no matter where it was, something to be examined and thought about.
Being this close to another country and a different culture than our own has caused us as publishers to look for stories and voices that come up out of this border culture and to find them, over time, more interesting to us than stories from our own culture. Though I don’t know, you can’t really make a rule about it: you never know when you will find something terribly exciting that you had once thought was no longer interesting.
What excites you most about the process of publishing? What is your favorite part of the job? Your website mentions that the books you publish often feel like children—how does that change the way you publish?
What excites us more than anything is finding a good story, a strong voice. That’s for starters. Then there’s the collaborative nature of making a book: when the book finally arrives from the printer, it’s hard to remember right away who did what. Okay, yeah, the author wrote the book! If it’s illustrated, there’s a great illustrator, but there’s all of us with our opinions and our shaping of things, and it’s someone suggesting who the illustrator should be, or directing the illustration process, or editing, or figuring out who to send review copies to, to just the right people. Oh, and then if the book hits, if it gets attention! Why that’s the icing on the cake. Then we all get terribly excited.
Our favorite part of our job is all these things: friends, authors, illustrators, colleagues, working with our son, and working with each other; finding writing that is full of vitality, quirkiness, energy; finding writers who know how to write—even finding writers who don’t yet know how to write, but whose voices are real. Watching readers who love the books we’ve published. Seeing writers we’ve published prosper. It all makes us happy.
Yes, our books are like our children. We get a little nutty when people like them, defensive if anyone should say anything against them. You figure we’ve invested deeply in every book: time, energy, care, attention. Lots of money, of course. They are very dear to us and we know them intimately. If you love them, we’ll love you back. If you don’t love them, man, that’s like you’re talking about our kids!
What are some things you’ve learned over your many years of running Cinco Puntos Press?
Bobby always says that publishing is like writing: an act of self-discovery. You don’t always know what you’re going to say when you’re writing, and you don’t always know what a book you’re publishing is going to teach you or where it’s going to take you. So I think that what we’ve learned in these last 35 years has been from each one of these books we’ve done, taking us in new and different directions, teaching us as we go along things we hadn’t understood before.
I think of some of the books that have pulled us in new directions. That first bilingual kids’ book we did, La Llorona, The Weeping Woman by Joe Hayes about a ghost much beloved by kids and adults from the tip of South America up through Chicago. It’s been one of our best-selling books. From her we learned that kids want to see themselves in books, want their culture as a touchstone, and that led us to publish a long series of bilingual books rooted in the Mexican-American culture.
Then there were books like Selavi by Youme, Walking the Choctaw Road by Tim Tingle, Which Side Are You On by George Ella Lyon, Ringside Seat to the Revolution by David Romo. All these books pulled us on to new roads, off old paths, opened up worlds we hadn’t seen before. And we can’t forget either Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, or The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability, anthologies put together by Sheila Black, Michael Northen, Jennifer Bartlett, and Annabelle Hayse, that were like travel guides to another world.
What does the future of Cinco Puntos Press look like?
Soon to come is A Song for the River by Philip Connors, a memoir that is a passionate plea for keeping the Gila River a river, undammed. We’ve signed on two more books by Lisa Sandlin, sequels to her Dashiell Hammett winner The Do-Right. We just published Feathered Serpent / Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico by David Bowles, and later this year we’ll bring out a 25-year anniversary edition of the Native American classic The Death of Bernadette Lefthand by Ron Querry. Plus new picture books, one by Benjamin Alire Saenz, another from the San Antonio team who just published the lavish award-winner All Around Us. And some wonderful YA fiction: Daniel Acosta’s debut Iron River, award-winning Hawaiian writer Sonia Patel’s Bloody Seoul, and J.L. Powers novel Under Water, the sequel to This Thing Called the Future, about a young Zulu woman coming of age in AIDS-torn South Africa. My gosh! Truly, a litany of diverse voices, genres, and issues. The last 12 months have been a banner year for Cinco Puntos. Soon we hope to be adding staff and to be publishing more books per season. Our son, Johnny Byrd, is now the CEO. Among our colleagues at Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, he is recognized for his unique ideas and his overall understanding of the publishing industry. And he has big dreams for growing Cinco Puntos and establishing the company on the forefront of independent publishing. He has the energy, the intelligence and the creativity to make this happen. We’re cooking with Crisco!