For 36 years, Bobby and his wife Lee Byrd, now in their late 70s, ran Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Tex. In June, they sold their publishing house, which they founded in 1985, to Lee & Low Books in New York City. “We are very pleased that our books will have a strong future,” Lee said. “We couldn’t think of a better home for them.” PW spoke with the Byrds by phone and asked them to look back on their career in publishing.
Plans call for Lee & Low to publish a number of forthcoming Cinco Puntos titles, while also maintaining Cinco Puntos as an imprint, with the possibility of acquiring new titles under the imprint. The company said it will also republish many Cinco Puntos titles that have gone out of print. Lee & Low is taking over distribution of all titles, which had formerly been distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. In all, Lee & Low has acquired more than 300 titles. One Cinco Puntos employee, Stephanie Frescas Macias, has been hired by Lee & Low as an editorial assistant, and will be moving to New York City next year.
The Byrds both said they found deep satisfaction in bringing the voices and stories of the U.S/Mexico border, often in a bilingual format, to a broader audience. Bobby Byrd cites the success of La Llorona/The Weeping Woman by Joe Hayes, the third book they published, as helping to establish the company. “It was a favorite story that every Mexican and Mexican American kid grew up hearing. Joe insisted that it be bilingual and that’s when we entered the world of children’s bilingual books. We hit the wave of a Mexican diaspora that spread from the border throughout the entire country.”
Lee said, “La Llorona is one of our most popular titles, with more than half a million sold in several formats. Librarians claim she leaves the library more than they do!”
Part of the pleasure of the work was collaborating with their son Johnny Byrd, with long-time employees Mary Fountaine, Jessica Powers, and Stephanie Frescas Macias, and with designers and illustrators who reflect the aesthetics of the border region in their art, book covers, and jackets. “Everyone had a hand in the work, it belonged to all of us. And we’ve done some really beautiful and important books,” Lee said.
Among these titles were The Story of Colors, by Chiapas revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos; Selavi, That Is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope, written and illustrated by Youme; Pitch Black: Don’t Be Skerd, also by Youme; Vatos, written by Luis Alberto Urrea with photographs by José Galvez; La Llorona and El Cucuy, by Joe Hayes and illustrated by Vicki Trego-Hill; Sammy & Juliana by Benjamin Alire Sáenz; The Smell of Old Lady Perfume by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez; and Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero.
“At first, national critics didn’t seem to understand the artwork we had in our books,” Bobby noted. “They said it was ‘folk art.’ They were used to having art in children’s books reflect a European sensibility.” Byrd added that there was also a great deal of initial reluctance to stocking many of their titles, some of it fueled by unconscious racism. “One distributor, who I will not name, said to me, ‘Who are we going to sell these books to? The people who work in the warehouse?’ ”
While the Byrds saw much of their work as contrary to the publishing emanating from New York City, they still found champions for their books in Manhattan, including the employees of Bank Street Bookstore, the librarians at Bank Street College, Linda Goodman of Bilingual Books, and Maria Russo, former children’s books editor at the New York Times Book Review, who once told them in conversation that Cinco Puntos books were “ahead of their time.”
Looking back, the Byrds take pride in the fact that several of the authors who debuted with them moved on to larger publishing houses, including Isabel Quintero, author of Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, who is now published by Penguin Young Readers, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz, whose CPP book of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and whose latest novels have come out from Simon & Schuster. Other Cinco Puntos Press authors who have also won acclaim are Dagoberto Gilb, Sonia Patel, and Luis Alberto Urrea, to name a handful.
Cinco Puntos has had success with both children’s books and adult titles. “Initially, we published 50/50, children’s and adult,” Bobby said. “Several of our authors of adult books eventually came to us with children’s books. We found that the adult books fed our children’s list, both in terms of imagination and understanding.” He points to the evolution of Sáenz’s 2005 novel Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, which was initially written for adults with an older adult narrator, but was reframed, at their suggestion, and then rewritten from the perspective of a 16-year-old. It became the company’s first YA novel and was named one of the Top Ten YA novels to come out in that year by the ALA’s YALSA division. He added that, generally speaking, several very popular YA and middle grade novels reflecting Latino and Hispanic culture, ones that are now considered canonical, were published “into a kind of vacuum.” It was a time when the market for Latino and Hispanic literature was only just being established. “Of course, now the big houses recognize what a wonderful market there is for Latinx writers,” Lee remarked.
Nonfiction, too, was important to the press, particularly books related to the border. “When kids were growing up here, one of the things that was never taught in the schools was the history of the Mexican Revolution, which happened right here on the border across from Ciudad Juárez, not two miles from our office in downtown El Paso,” Bobby said. “So, one of the books that we are very proud to have published is David Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution.” The book, which is subtitled An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893–1923, was featured on NPR and has sold 30,000 copies. “People still stop us and David to thank us for publishing that book,” Bobby said. “They say, ‘Thank you for giving us back our history.’ ”
The Byrds note that their bilingual titles have always incorporated a vernacular Mexican American and Mexican Spanish. This did not sit well with early establishment reviewers who favored the more formal Castilian-flavored Spanish. Early on Cinco Puntos also incorporated non-italicized Spanglish in their books, which is not a big deal today, but was something that was previously controversial, as it was viewed almost as a political statement. “But really, we always just wanted our books to use the language that people spoke, the language we hear on the streets, not ‘proper’ Spanish,” Lee said.
Bobby and Lee believe that the success of Cinco Puntos Press was driven by their desire to make a living doing something they loved. They are both writers themselves. And they had good friends—Dagoberto Gilb, Joe Hayes, Rudolfo Anaya, and the poet Joseph Somoza—who had work that needed to be published. So why not publish books? So, with very little money, Cinco Puntos Press was born. Why “Cinco Puntos”? Because they lived in (and still do) the Five Points neighborhood of central El Paso.
“When we started out, I read a how-to book about publishing,” Bobby said. “We didn’t know anything, so we just did what we wanted to and what we found really interesting. Today, when people ask us for advice about starting an independent publishing company, the first word out of my mouth is, ‘Don’t!’ But if you do, especially if you’re in an out-of-the-way place like El Paso, I tell them to learn all they can about the publishing industry first. Have good friends and have some money in the bank. Maybe a second income. Remember, it’s a turkey shoot. The fact is that publishing is already a strange and precarious industry, and it is only getting stranger and more precarious, especially for the smaller companies.”
Still,” Bobby said, “We would do it all over again. It was a miraculous journey filled with great friends and wonderful manuscripts that opened up our imagination and our hearts with a new understanding of this place—this planet—where we all live.”
Asked what he plans to do in retirement, Bobby replied, “Do you know that old Lee Dorsey song, ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)’? Well, everything I do gohn be…”