Wednesday
Jun172015

Another Option

It was not my intention to create a trilogy about the Latino publishing scene, but that is what has happened. My previous two articles were about big publishing’s snub of Hispanic authors and the rise of small presses. And now I will complete the triumvirate by detailing the virtues and flaws of self-publishing e-books.

But for this analysis, I needed an insider’s perspective. So I sat down for coffee with Pedro Huerta, Amazon’s Director of Kindle Content for Latin America.

[Full disclosure #1: I have recently self-published a novel on Amazon.]

[Full disclosure #2: I don’t drink coffee. I actually had tea.]

Huerta is excited about Amazon’s second annual Indie Literary Prize for Spanish-language authors. The contest, which runs from July 1 to August 31, is open to any writers who upload their Spanish-language e-books to Amazon’s KDP platform. From the presumably hundreds of entries, five finalists will be named. The winner will be published in print by La Esfera de los Libros, and his/her book will be translated into English and published in digital, print, and audio formats by AmazonCrossing.

“Authors can submit a 10-page poem or a 500-page novel,” says Huerta. “We’re open to all genres, and it’s a great opportunity for new writers to get discovered.”

Of course, it’s fair to ask if winning the contest will really help Spanish-language authors further their careers. After all, self-publishing is a crowded, frenzied mob scene where high-quality books struggle to stand out from the waves of semi-illiterate, self-righteous and just plain insane manifestos that wannabe authors hurl at readers.

No, it’s not pretty.

Now add in the fact that we’re talking about Spanish-language e-books, which have an even smaller audience in America than English-language printed works do.

However, Huerta is undeterred. He says that self-publishing is the democratization of literature, where even the most outlandish writers can find an eager audience. And he says that if anything, this approach is more relevant for people who prefer to read in Spanish.

“Even in the best bookstores in America, the Spanish-language section is limited,” Huerta says. “What we’re doing is bringing the greatest bookstores in Mexico City, in Barcelona, to everyone in America.”

But will Americans be buying? Well, as we all know, the Hispanic population in America is increasing. And bilingualism, once an exotic and politically suspicious activity, is on the rise as well. Thus, it stands to reason that the audience for Spanish-language books is also getting larger.

Furthermore, Latinos are more likely to use mobile electronic devices than the general population. Because Hispanics are so plugged in, it’s pretty easy to imagine Latino readers devouring e-books on their Kindles, Nooks, and laptops.

Amazon is aware of these intersecting cultural trends, and the company doesn’t want to be left behind.

“Latinos love to read,” Huerta says. “And we want them to read. Whether it is a traditional book or on a Kindle, we want reading to be a daily part of everyone’s life.”

So will winning Amazon’s contest set a Spanish-language author on the path to becoming a household name, a sort of Latino version of Dan Brown or Stephen King? Huerta says that’s a possibility, but he adds that this is not really the point.

“There are Latino authors who want to be the next John Grisham, and that’s great,” Huerta says. “But the goal is increased visibility for all good writers. It’s not just about winning the contest. It’s about encouraging authors to get their work out there, and helping readers discover them.”

Huerta imagines a future where authors take wild, experimental chances because no one can prevent them from publishing online. He says that many writers will create books that are aimed at an audience of a few hundred, or even just at their immediate loved ones. And he points out that another advantage of e-books is that they never go out of print.

“What are the stories to be told?” Huerta asks. “Let’s capture all of them, online, and keep them forever.”

Wednesday
Jun102015

What's So Funny?

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

By now you’ve seen that infamous photo in a Florida high school’s yearbook. The shot pictured six students dressed in ponchos and sombreros and wearing fake mustaches, with one student wearing a shirt labeled, "border patrol."

It’s offensive and idiotic, of course. But that’s not really the point.

Kids do dumb things, and rather than lambast the students in the photo, it would be better to point out to them that such behavior has no redeeming value. If that doesn't convince them to be a little more aware of the culture in which they live, let them know that thanks to social media, such ill-conceived photos will haunt them for years to come.

No, the issue here is not the kids.

The problem is the adults. I’m taking about the parents who raised their kids to think it’s hilarious to embrace racial caricatures. And yes, I’m aware that some of the students in the photo are Latinos. If anything, that’s even worse.

And I’m talking about the yearbook advisors who saw nothing wrong with the photo. Hey, I was on my high school yearbook’s staff, and our advisor vetoed things left and right. I can't imagine the teacher who looked at this and said, “Eh, a pointless and mean-spirited jab at Hispanics. Whatever.”

More than anything, I’m talking about the defenders of the picture, who are out in force on the internet. So let’s look at some of the adult excuses we’re hearing over what should be a pretty clear case of foolish, needlessly hurtful adolescent behavior. Here are some of my favorites:

It was only a joke. If you’ve ever said this to justify an insult, you have either never been on the receiving end of a verbal assault, or you are too dense to realize when someone was attacking you under the guise of humor. In either case, you were probably able to shrug it off because you are in a position of social power (racially, economically, etc). It’s a tribute to your lack of empathy that you figure everybody shares your charmed life.

Lighten up, it was funny. This is an amped-up version of the previous excuse. To any adult who actually thought the photo was hilarious, here are a few pointers about humor, before you really kill ‘em at your next stand-up routine. Humor tends to work when it’s directed at those in authority (rather than at a demonized underclass). It also works when it reveals profound truths or upends convention (rather than wallow in hackneyed, false stereotypes). In brief, the picture was about as witty as frat boys lighting their farts.

I’m German, and people have called me a kraut. I’m continually stunned that people believe all ethnic terms have the same resonance. No one hurls “kraut” as an insult in 2015 America. Now if you were bombarded with this term in, say, 1944, it might be different. In any case, terms that call out your European heritage bounce off a shield of cultural power, based on sheer numbers and societal influence. You can easily laugh them off. But don’t worry. In the future, when Hispanics are more than a quarter of the U.S. population, maybe we’ll smirk in smug condescension at “wetback.”

People are too sensitive. Yes, how great it was to live in the good old days, when offensive comments were met with forced laughs and seething hatred. Well, I have news for you. Society isn’t any more sensitive than it ever was. But people who gritted their teeth and let it go in the past are sick of your bullshit. So now you’re going to hear about it. And I can say—with a bit or irony—that if you don’t like it, tough.

Those kids shouldn't apologize. It’s the illegal immigrants who should apologize. Hey, thanks for verifying that your issues with undocumented people have absolutely nothing to with race or ethnicity. Nope.

Soon we won’t be able to say anything out of fear of offending someone. If you mean that you can’t pull out tired racial stereotypes and rub them in people’s faces, well yes, I weep for your lost world.

Finally, there is the issue that the Latina student who called attention to the photograph, Jessica Morales, has been insulted, denigrated, and mocked for her decision to speak up about the picture. To the best of my knowledge, she didn't scream that her fellow students were racists or demand a cash payment for pain and suffering or get all histrionic.

Her critics, however, are content to sit behind their keyboards and attack her, mostly under a cloak of anonymity of course.

Yes, kids being unintentionally offensive is bad. But adults being loudmouthed bullies is a hell of a lot worse.

Wednesday
Jun032015

The Future's Uncertain

This article recently appeared on the Hispanic Fanatic.

I recently waxed ecstatic about California, the state I live in. I do indeed love living here, but I never claimed that it was perfect.

For example, a recent report shows that when it comes to Latinos, my state has some issues. And those issues are reciprocal, in that as Latinos go, so goes California.

You see, the study has found that among all racial and ethnic groups in California, Hispanics have the lowest well-being score. What, exactly, does that mean?

Well, rather than just look at a group’s median income or rate of cancer or percentage of sunny dispositions or collective weight or any of the other statistics that offer us interesting but isolated insights into a demographic’s existence, these researchers created an overall well-being score.

The number is based on a group’s overall health, educational level, earnings, and other factors, all put together. Think of it as a GPA rather than an individual grade.

Well, measured on a 10-point scale, Latinos had a well-being score of 4.09. That’s bad.

I mean, would you want to date someone who was barely a 4 out of 10? Now imagine an entire group struggling under that number.

For the sake of comparison, Asian Americans had the highest score at 7.39. Whites and blacks were in between but noticeably better than Hispanics.

Digging a little deeper, the researchers found that native-born Latinos fared better than immigrants did. But by any measure, California’s Hispanics are far from thriving.

That’s terrible news, of course. But it goes beyond dark days just for la raza.

Hispanics are poised to become the state’s largest ethnic group, and more than half of California's children are Latino. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see that the study’s results could be ominous for the state’s future. With such a large percentage of the population struggling, the whole state will be dragged down.

The study’s authors conclude that California needs to improve the well-being of Latinos if the state hopes to thrive.

Well… yeah.

But there is some good news. While Latinos have the lowest well-being score, they’ve made great strides since 2000, and they're moving up more quickly than any other group.

So at least we have forward momentum on our side. With hope, that will be enough to keep Cali golden.

Tuesday
May262015

What Was So Great About a Gen X Childhood?

This article recently appeared in the Huffington Post

I recently read one of those heavily forwarded articles about how coddled children are today. I’m the father of a two-year-old boy, so naturally, I don’t want my son to be one of those narcissistic, easily overwhelmed, helicopter-parented wimps who are apparently our nation’s youth. I thought that perhaps the article would impart crucial info on how my son can avoid such a distasteful future.

But that didn’t happen.

Because the story was yet another screed about the glories of a Gen X childhood. You know — the lack of parental supervision, the absence of bike helmets, the get-tough-or-die mentality.

Now, my credentials as a member of Gen X are impeccable. I played Atari as a kid, watched John Hughes movies as a teenager, and blared Nevermind in my college dorm. I’m right at ground zero for my generation.

And I’m here to tell you that growing up the way we did was not a long-term favor or blessed accomplishment. Let me be clear that I don’t blame my parents. In fact, I believe that I had the world’s greatest mother (my father is another story for another time).

No, my disdain for nostalgia has more to do with cold, hard facts and unpleasant anecdotes than personal issues.

You see, many of my fellow Gen Xers are rhapsodic about their childhoods, dismissing our obvious cultural detriments as character-building or somehow endearing.

But if growing up Gen X was really so magnificent, truly so jam-packed with valuable life lessons and coping skills, we would, quite frankly, be doing a hell of a lot better.

Instead, we are the first American generation to do worse financially than our parents. We are more likely to have divorced parents, a trait that adversely affects our interpersonal relationships. We are culturally insignificant compared to the Boomers and the Millennials. We are closing in on retirement but have nothing saved for it. We are, according to some polls, the most cynical generation in history.

All that doesn’t sound so great.

Some of this is the fault of the Boomers, of course (and don't get me started on them). But the truth is that for all of Gen X’s bad-ass upbringing and its supposed ruggedness, we are more scarred than we are triumphant. And now, instead of saying, “Well, that sucked. The next generation will hopefully have it better,” we rationalize and justify like abused spouses.

We say that disengaged parents were lovable, even admirable. We say our ignorance of other cultures was quaint. And more than anything, we are united in our stand that bike helmets would have turned us all into overly cautious crybabies.

By the way, you can always spot an article that glamorizes a Gen X childhood because every one of them uses the image of the bike helmet as the de facto metaphor for the weakness of Millennials. Sorry to tell you, but serious injuries involving young bicyclists are a fraction of what they were in the good old days of Gen X. In fact, deaths among bicyclists younger than 20 have declined an absurd 86 percent since 1975.

While we’re on this subject, let me mention that one of my good friends in middle school spent weeks in the hospital after he wiped out on his ten-speed. At no point in our subsequent relationship have I ever said, “Hey, remember when you almost died because our generation was too tough to wear bike helmets? Yeah, bet we all learned valuable life lessons from your skull getting cracked.”

And of course, we hear endlessly that Gen X never got awards just for participation, and that competition made us stronger.

Where did this myth ever get started? When I was a Boy Scout, everybody in the troop got some kind of award eventually. In Little League, every kid started at least one game. And at my high school graduation, a dozen teens got a round of applause for perfect attendance, which is, by its very definition, praise just for showing up.

In contrast, today’s kids are constantly being poked and prodded to excel. For example, the National Spelling Bee wasn’t televised nationally when I was a kid. Today’s competitors have bright lights in their faces and announcers critiquing them as they tackle spelling, “autochthonous” on the first try. Gen X didn't have anything like that.

More important, the competition to get into a good university, if anything, has gotten fiercer. For Gen X, if you got stellar grades and a solid SAT, you were a cinch for a top college. Today, a 4.0 GPA might get you waitlisted.

Of course, there are some things about Millennials that annoy me. For example, could they stop with the obsessive-compulsive group selfies under any and all conditions?

And there were some great things about growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them gone forever. But for the most part, it’s better to be a kid today.

Today’s kids are safer (the safest, in fact, in American history). They are more knowledgeable about the world, and they are kicking myriad noxious cultural biases to the curb (although they can thank us for being the first generation to say homophobia wasn’t cool).

Now, every generation glamorizes its childhood while slamming the current crop of kids as spoiled and oblivious. And every generation is correct, to some extent. But all this nostalgic pining for a Reagan-era childhood is a sad thing to witness.

My son will no doubt catch me reminiscing about my adolescence, and my college years, and the period of time when it was just his mom and me. But he will rarely hear me go on and on about my childhood.

Because it really wasn’t that great.

He will have a better one.

Wednesday
May202015

Are Small Presses the Best Choice for Latino Writers?

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Recently, I wrote about the dismal publishing scene for Latino authors. Well, I was remiss in at least one aspect. I implied that Hispanic writers are limited only to pitching the big New York publishing houses or jumping into the self-publishing quagmire. There is another option.

Namely, it is the world of small presses. Now, in the past, the phrase “small press” invoked images of ink-stained loners cranking out bizarre manifestos. Well, you’ll be glad to know those guys have moved on to troll internet comment pages across the web.

The small presses that exist today are often professionally run, highly principled organizations that focus on marginalized or experimental writers. And when it comes to Latino authors, we may be entering a golden age.

I’m talking about presses like Arte Publico, Floricanto, and Editorial Trance, all of which have been doing great work for years. And there is also Aignos Publishing, co-founded by Jonathan Marcantoni and Zachary Oliver.

Marcantoni says that Aignos, and other small presses that have a similar focus, look for writers who push boundaries and challenge readers to question their worldviews. Authors who embrace their distinct cultures — something Latino writers are well-known for doing — may find a home at Aignos or a similar small press.

“A small press gives authors the legitimacy of being affiliated with a company, one that is taken seriously by media and festivals and awards, in a way writers never get as self-published authors,” Marcantoni says. “Well-established small presses have marketing plans and publicists, plus the distribution channels are on par with what large presses use.”

Indeed, I can speak to this issue, as my own self-published novel, Barrio Imbroglio, is selling somewhere between hot cakes and lukewarm waffles.

It would certainly help to have an established marketing team behind me (my current marketing team consists of me and my cats).

Marcantoni says that when it comes to small presses, “the Latino author gets the best of both worlds: world-class distribution, a company backing their efforts, and creative freedom.”

That combo often leads to great books. For example, Aignos recently published Nuno, by Carlos Aleman. The novel is a lyrical love story set in pre-Castro Cuba and the aftermath of the revolution. Marcantoni says that Nuno doesn’t fit into mainstream expectations of Latino literature. As such, it lines up with Aignos’ mission of pushing writers to develop their views and skills instead of pressuring them to make the bestseller lists.

“No one should be a writer to be famous,” Marcantoni says. “It should come from a desire to express yourself and touch the lives of others.

So will we see more Hispanic authors telling their unique stories via small presses, touching the lives of more and more readers? Well, there’s ample reason to be optimistic about such a future.

“The Latino community can stand out as one of artists seeking to raise the bar of what storytelling can be,” Marcantoni says. “And there are publishers out there who will support you.”