The Big Latino Book That Wasn’t

A Latino “Roots.” That’s what Chicano author Victor Villasenor calls “Rain of Gold,” a story of the Mexican-American experience that took him 10 years to write.

Eighteen months ago the book was slated as a lead title from Putnam, which paid $75,000 for the U.S. hardcover rights. It was already placed as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate. And it looked, in every sense, “big,” running to 560 pages in bound galleys.

Then things went wrong. Villasenor bought the rights back, and this June “Rain of Gold” will come out from Arte Publico, the first hardcover ever from that small Latino press. The advance: $1500. First printing: 3500 copies.

What happened?

“It was simply a case of a writer and a publisher realizing they had different visions for a book,” says Phyllis Grann, CEO and publisher at Putnam. “We parted amicably.”

“It’s a nonfiction book, and they wanted to publish it as a novel,” says Villasenor, author of the novel “Macho,’ from Bantam (1973), and `Jury,’ an account of the Juan Corona murder trial, published by Little, Brown (1976). “They wanted me to cut it by 150 pages, and they wanted to change the title to “Rio Grande,” which sounds like an old John Wayne movie.”

Moreover, the changes were requested when Grann, who had “high, high hopes” for the book, according to Villasenor, could not find a paperback sale.

“She was the champion of the book,” says Villasenor, “the only publisher who had the guts to put up big bucks for the Latino writer. At the last minute, she lost faith in the book. She said paperback houses were telling her, `We don’t know if this audience reads.'”

It didn’t happen that way, says Grann. “The subject matter had nothing to do with it. We saw the book from the start as a sweeping novel of Mexicans and the settling of California. He saw it as a memoir. For a while, we thought we could both be happy. As we moved through editing, differences emerged.”

Villasenor says Grann was disappointed when the book “advanced only 17,500 orders. She said we’d have 25,000 by publication and had expected more.” With the prospect of lower-than-expected sales and no major paperback offer, he says, Grann asked him to cut the book’s length and eliminated major ad/promo plans.

Says Grann: “I was hoping to advance 25,000. We didn’t have any orders yet.”

Calling the experience “still painful,” Villasenor says, “The book includes my parents, who were the greatest heroes of my life. I wanted to build heroes for Latinos. When I was a kid there was no hero outside I could look up to. I told Phyllis Grann, `You’re calling these people fiction – you’re killing us.’ I told her, `Give me respect. Give me the dignity of Roots.'”

In the end, says Villasenor, he could not allow the book to be published as a novel, and Grann agreed to let him buy it back.

Villasenor stresses his dismay is not with Grann, but with the industry. “Five other publishers showed interest immediately after I bought the rights back. They liked the book. But one said, `You know, it’s about poor people. I don’t think poor people sell right now.’ Another said, `We don’t know the Chicano market. Another said they would do it on their B-list.

“No one’s going to talk about it for publication, but the market for Latino books is seen as unproven,” continues Villasenor. “We’ve got to come up with a bunch of books and keep going.”

Villasenor says his earlier novel, “Macho,” was recently optioned for $10,000 by a small production company, and PBS plans a series based on “Rain of Gold.” But he is “broke,” having borrowed $150,000 to cover his expenses researching “Rain of Gold.” He plans to spend a year promoting the book when it comes out from Arte Publico. “The proof of the pudding will come five years down the line,” he says. “The book’s going to get great reviews and word-of-mouth – and sell.”

-J.B.