Controversy and notoriety were not the reasons that Bobby Byrd and Lee Merrill Byrd began their own publishing house, Cinco Puntos Press. They believed in giving voice to ideas, issues, and writers whose voices needed to be heard. In 1999, Cinco Puntos published the book The Story of Colors / La Historia de los colores written by Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico. The National Endowment for the Arts at first applauded the publication but later withdrew its praise and monetary grant. The Lannan Foundation provided Cinco Puntos Press with twice the amount of the lost funding and in 2005 recognized the courageous and important work of Cinco Puntos with the Cultural Freedom Fellowship for Excellence in Publishing. During a time of heated controversy when many issues were added to the mix, publisher Bobby Byrd stated:
“It was a strange media frenzy, a true boon to Cinco Puntos. But real ideas and issues got lost in that frenzy, the most important of which is the indigenous struggle for autonomy and land in Chiapas.”
Cinco Puntos Press continues to publish books that have a fresh voice, spoken with honesty, without hesitation.
Thus it is no surprise that Cinco Puntos has won several awards and their books—fiction and nonfiction, adult, YA, juvenile, and picture books—continue to rise to the top of best book lists as important books to read. Their awards include The Lannon Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship for excellence in publishing, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and the Southwest Book Award for excellence in publishing from the Border Region Library Association.
I asked Lee Merrill Byrd how and why she and her husband, Bobby Byrd, began an award-winning press. Some of her responses will surprise you.
What is the most rewarding aspect about being a publisher?
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. Watching readers who love the books we’ve published. Seeing writers we’ve published prosper. It’s all good.
What was the passion that gave you the courage to form Cinco Puntos Press?
This is a great question: I don’t think we had either passion or courage when we started Cinco Puntos Press in 1985. We were two writers—I’m a fiction writer and Bobby is a poet—with three kids—and we were 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 visited 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) who later became famous and probably forgot all about us. 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!
All this is to say that I think the very best thing that we have had going for us is that we didn’t know anything at all about publishing when we started. And the fact that we live here on the U.S. / Mexico border, far from the so-called center of publishing in NYC. 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.
As an author, what can I do to give my work the best chance to be published by your press?
This is a toughie with no guarantees, but I think the best thing a writer can do to get published by Cinco Puntos—or by any press—is to write. If you want to be a writer, make writing a daily habit and write from your own heart and write for your own understanding. Don’t write to get published, but write to get at what you want to say.
In my submission guidelines on our website, I ask aspiring authors to call me on the phone and tell me what they would like us to consider. I generally don’t hear people who are writers. I hear people who want to get published more than they want to write. That should not be the driving force.
What recent publications are you especially excited about?
I’ll mention a few.
Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico by David Bowles.
Our first-ever Spanish edition of The Smell of Old Lady Perfume by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez. This book in English is a classic, just as good as The House on Mango Street, in a Spanish edition.
When a Woman Rises, by Christine Eber, the story of two young women growing up in Chiapas during the beginnings of the Zapatista revolution, going very different ways.
Iron River by Daniel Acosta, a YA set in the late 1950s in L.A.
From Nancy: One book—a picture book—I will add to your recent list of award-winning books is All Around Us, a debut picture book written by Xelena Gonzalez and illustrated by Adriana Garcia. All Around Us was selected as an American Indian Library Association outstanding picture book honor, received national recognition with the Pura Belpré 2018 Illustrator Honor Book, won the Tomas Rivera Best Picture Book Award, and was named as the best picture book by The Texas Institute of Letters.
Thank you, Lee, for being “brave and foolish” and continuing to publish books that matter.
Cinco Puntos Press continues to be a small press that takes risks, publishes new voices, celebrates a diversity of stories, and offers the best in good books, well-written. If you are not yet familiar with their books, I encourage you to seek them out.