Latinos do not exist in our national literature. In the cacophony of U.S. culture, 55 million Latinos are struggling to hear their own voices and stories, but they can’t. In libraries and bookstores and classrooms, on television and film, the Latino stereotypes abound—but Latino voices are absent.
There is a structural reason for this: publishers suffer from the delusion that Latinos don’t read and—ipso facto, reductio ad absurdum—they neglect to publish Latino authors, which ends up proving their point.
Since publishing is a business, some facts may help their profits. At 55 million and growing, there are more Latinos in the U.S. than there are senior citizens, and their annual buying power is now over $1.5 trillion. This buying power has already impacted the theatrical box office: in both 2014 and 2015, the Theatrical Market Reports of the Motion Picture Association of America showed that Latinos are buying twice as many movie tickets as African-Americans.
Until its chain folded in 2011, Borders operated 642 bookstores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Of all these outlets, the Borders store in Puerto Rico sold the most books and was the most profitable by far, with annual sales of $17 million. All by itself, that Borders store in San Juan proved that Latinos read.
And how did the publishing industry respond? When the Borders chain closed due to poor sales in other outlets, the store in San Juan closed, as well—and no one thought to fill the vacuum. That’s $17 million in annual book sales, gone.
Selling the Wrong Product
Currently, the Big Five publishers believe they service the U.S. Latino market with mostly foreign literature in translation (Isabel Allende, Julio Cortázar, Javier Sierra, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, et al.). These imports with prepackaged P&L numbers produce an easier sale at weekly marketing meetings in publishing houses, and often lackluster sales in bookstores.
The lost opportunity is enormous. In both Puerto Rico and the U.S., Latinos are a hugely underserved market. They are hungry for stories, starving for role models. But the publishers carpet bomb them with foreign settings, themes, and characters—then they wonder why the Latino market is soft and conclude that Latinos don’t read.
Bias, Laziness, Ignorance, Fear—and New York Times Bestseller Lists
A confluence of factors sustains this marketing myopia. The Big Five, like the larger media culture, are not representative of the U.S. but of the limited tastes of the elite of Manhattan and certain areas of Brooklyn. These cultural gatekeepers—publishers, editors, agents—are simply unfamiliar with Latinos. A bias seeps into their decision making, based again on the unwarranted assumption that Latinos don’t read. In an industry teeming with layoffs and mergers (e.g., Penguin and Random House), many editors are one or two decisions away from a pink slip. They thus avoid decisions, while trying to appear decisive.
Only after Junot Díaz’s book Drown was serialized in the New Yorker in 1996 did Riverhead publish it. When Simon & Schuster launched Atria Books to identify and develop Latino voices and literature, it rapidly devolved into celebrity memoirs, foreign translations, and Latino cookbooks.
The publication of my own book, War Against All Puerto Ricans, uncovered another obstacle. It was the bestselling book in Puerto Rico in 2015–2016, outselling Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Girl on the Train. Based on the sales figures from Puerto Rico alone, the book would have been a New York Times bestseller—but the Times does not include sales figures from Puerto Rico in the computation of its bestseller lists!
The Apartheid Will End When the Profits Roll In
A tectonic shift—a tipping point—will inexorably occur. There are too many Puerto Ricans, too many U.S. Latinos, with our own heritage and experience and stories. Díaz is the merest tip of that iceberg. Sooner or later, one gatekeeper will realize this and make a fortune, and all the others will stampede to be second. There is an urgency to this process.
Our national fabric is dangerously thin—particularly with respect to our Latino community—in the brave new world of Donald Trump. If there was ever a time for our gatekeepers to step forward, include that community, and strengthen our national fabric, that time is now.
Nelson A. Denis was a New York State assemblyman and the editorial director of El Diario. He is the author of War Against All Puerto Ricans (Nation, 2015).