“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”
“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”
A fateful phone call
This was about 5 years ago. I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.
“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”
“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”
Her sniff was audible.
The advice I couldn’t swallow
“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters. And your main character is a maid.” The well-known author was firm. “At least couldn’t you make her American? You know, a college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester.”
I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.
This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system.
But she was right
Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”
Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.
The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?
Take the case of the 14th Annual International Latino Book Awards, held 5 June 2012. No winners (first place, second place or honorable mention) in either the Best Popular Fiction-English or Best Novel-Adventure/Drama in English were published by a major US publishing house. The website of Publishers Weekly, generally considered the most authoritative source on the state of US publishing, did not carry the story of the Latino Book Awards at all that week. As of 11 June its Awards section listed recipients of the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Awards announced 4 June.
Related post: The Unsung Influence of Mystery Author Leighton Gage
Publishing trend runs counter to buying power
If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.
The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.
But it’s not just Hispanics who might be interested in Hispanic-themed popular fiction. Fiction of all sorts is on the rise as evidenced by USA Today’s January report that 78% of the titles in its weekly top 150 were fiction, up from 67% in 2007.
Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute. Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.
As an aside, one of the issues in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY is that of children being brought over the US-Mexican border by coyote guides. If this issue has escaped your attention, check out CNN’s report on the issue as discussed by President Obama and his Mexican counterpart.
So is there a takeaway? Already beset by its own inability to change its business model in order to compete with e-readers and the growing earning power of independent authors, can the traditional publishing industry afford to ignore the “genre” of Hispanic-themed popular fiction?
Related post: Bookstores of the Future: 5 Lessons About Survival of the Fittest
Since writing this post two years ago, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign has helped raise awareness of the need for mainstream books, notably for children, to reflect diversity. Through a massive Twitter campaign, in which I participated, as well as Facebook and Tumblr site, the word is getting out.
Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:
“It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”
“Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”
The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.
My sniff is audible.