Last year, Chilean literary agent Adrían Puentes was in New York. Coincidentally, this was about the time that we found a story in our submission box by one of Puente’s clients, Juan Pablo Roncone, which was submitted by translator Megan McDowell. We loved Roncone’s story, “Geese”—recently published in issue two of Tweed’s—and so I invited Puentes over to our office to ask him about the difficult process of introducing a Latin American author to a North American audience, and to find out more about publishing in the Spanish-speaking literary world. If you’re a fan of Latin American literature, then you’ll enjoy hearing what Puentes had to say.
Tweed’s: What’s your perspective of the North American publishing houses that are known for work in translation?
Adrián Puentes: My perspective is that there are very few. So, if I could put one of my authors in any of those, it’d be great. My project started when I was studying here for my masters in publishing at NYU. And then I discovered how few publishers for translation there are in the U.S. I would say five, or something like that, for Latin Americans. There are incredibly few.
Open Letter is special because it’s part of a university. I think that’s an important thing. It’s a not-for-profit organization, and the publishing house is part of a whole project. They also have this website, Three Percent. They had this database, which is very important, of how many translations are here in the U.S. It’s a place for translators and writers to feel at home here in the U.S.
Of course New Directions has a very important long tradition of publishing translations, and also poets, from Latin America. For example, Neruda—Pablo Neruda—the first time he was published in English was by New Directions. Also Roberto Bolaño was published by New Directions, in 2003, just a few months before he died. It was a pity he couldn’t enjoy his success. As I said, there are so few publishers here who would be interested in Latin American writers, so for me, really, anywhere I can get my authors could be good. Of course there are different writers, different publishers, and different editors who have different tastes—literary tastes. So Juan Pablo Roncone could probably fit in a more traditional kind of publisher. It’s not Carlos Labbé.
Tweed’s: It’s not experimental.
Adrián Puentes: In this great tradition of short stories, you could fit Roncone somewhere in the tradition of American short story writers. But the other writer I represent, Matías Celedón, he’s much more experimental. He wouldn’t fit in New Directions or FSG. Yesterday I talked to Ross Ufberg, the publisher of New Vessel Press, about Roncone.
Tweed’s: What did he have to say? They are a very new house, but we are already fans.
Adrián Puentes: Very, very new. It’s an interesting project, very interesting. They are publishing authors from Italy, from Russia, and Pedro Mairal, from Argentina, is their first Latin American. They are publishing mostly in e-book and print on demand, which is something I think, for us, for the Spanish language industry, is very strange. Because even though Spanish is really a big language, we’re fragmented into several countries—very small or mid-sized or big countries, but a lot of countries. So the industry is also fragmented. It’s very different from the English, because the English language is mostly in two or three countries.
Tweed’s: And big countries.
Adrián Puentes: Very big countries. There are so many Spanish speaking countries and each of these countries has their own industry—very small. And, for example, Carlos Labbé could publish his first novel in Chile, but that doesn’t mean that someone from Argentina could buy his novel. That doesn’t happen—traditionally. But thanks to the e-books, this could happen. This is happening right now. So, for us in the Spanish language industry, e-books are very important, even more important—in these terms—than the English language industry. Thanks to e-books, the industry that was originally separated into different industries could join into one industry.
Tweed’s: It seems like a lot of Latin American authors have to go to Spain first, where they get picked up by a European agent. They get published in Spain, and finally they get published in the U.S. Not many people are published directly out of Latin America, and I’m always wondering why. It seems to be because of what you are saying, that the industries are very separate in Latin America.
Adrián Puentes: It’s a very long tradition. When the literary boom from Latin America—the movement in the sixties and seventies—started, the whole industry in Spain did a really good job acquiring and exporting the authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and Borges. After that, the main publishers of the Spanish language, the biggest companies—Planeta, Penguin Random House, and Alfaguara—settled in Spain and mainly in Barcelona. It’s funny because it’s a small city, but all the industry is there.
But the problem is that even when we have so many good writers from Latin America, the Spanish people haven’t been doing a good job of exporting and selling translation rights for us. Traditionally, the people in the Spanish industry have been calling us, the Latin American industry, the garbage of Spain. Right now is interesting. Because of the Spanish crisis, they are starting to consider us. They are starting to send more books to Latin America, and they are starting to see us as a valuable business. That was not the case before.
Tweed’s: Why would they see Latin America as the trash can of Spain?
Adrián Puentes: That’s the problem. There are so many different countries in different markets, so say ten years ago, they only sent the books that were very, very successful, the books that could sell everywhere—but they didn’t care about the small, interesting books. They didn’t send them to Latin America.
The traditional issue with first-time authors is that when they have their first novel, and they want it to be published by one of these big companies, usually they sign a contract giving the publisher the whole world rights in Spanish. But that doesn’t mean that this book would be published or circulated in Latin America, other than the writer’s country.
Tweed’s: Wait—say that again. If they get the world rights in Spanish, and say it’s a Chilean writer, but it’s a Spanish publishing company, you’re saying that people in Chile can’t buy it?
Adrián Puentes: Chile, yes. But not in Argentina, not in Uruguay. Only in Chile.
Tweed’s: Why wouldn’t they send a book throughout Latin America?
Adrián Puentes: Because it’s not profitable. It’s a problem of profitability.
My goal is to change how the Latin Americans have to pass through Spain before being translated. That process could take years, but my goal is to move my writers directly from Latin America to the English language industry.
Tweed’s: So Roncone is already well-known in Chile. Where else can you find his work? Can you find him in Argentina?
Adrián Puentes: Yes. Because as an agent, one of my strategies for this kind of writer—not for everyone, but for this kind of literary writer—is that I think it’s better to sell his rights, limiting the territory. So I sold that book, Hermano Ciervo, to an independent Argentinean publisher, to a Spanish independent publisher, and to an American independent publisher in Spanish. You can find that book in Chile, in Argentina, in Spain, and here in the U.S. in Spanish. If you put that writer into several independent publishers in different territories instead of Penguin Random House, those independent publishers will take care of him much better. They could promote him in the media, they could put him into the literary scene in each country. Independent publishers sometimes take care of their literary writers much better. In Chile, for example, the print run for Roncone’s book was only one thousand—for a big publisher, that doesn’t mean anything.
Tweed’s: What if I told you that we wanted to publish Roncone’s story, but that we didn’t have room in our print issue, and wanted to publish it on our website? Keeping in mind that perhaps more people could read his work online than in print.
Adrián Puentes: I’d be a little bit sad. I know you save your main work for the print. I mean, of course that would be good. But the people I want to reach are reading your print magazine. The editors are reading it. And the agents, and the writers. Of course I care about the readers, but at the beginning I care more about editors, because I want to get his book published.
Tweed’s: How do you know who reads Tweed’s? And how did you find out about our magazine at all?
Adrián Puentes: Because I do my homework.