A New Imprint for Latinx Authors

by
Jennifer De Leon
From the July/August 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Hispanics don’t read or care about books.” This was a message Michelle Herrera Mulligan often heard among colleagues when she began working in publishing more than twenty years ago. The assumption startled Mulligan because it contradicted what she had grown up witnessing in her Mexican neighborhood outside Chicago, where Latinx businesses flourished and many people were well-read. Another comment Mulligan regularly heard in the New York publishing scene: “That market is too niche to appeal to our audiences.” In response she spent years building a successful career centering Latinx readers. The founding editor in chief of Cosmo for Latinas and a founding editor of Latina magazine, Mulligan joined Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, in 2018 and went on to publish titles there by Reyna Grande, Gabrielle Lyon, Vanessa Marin, Chiquis Rivera, and other acclaimed authors.

Michelle Herrera Mulligan. (Credit: Courtesy of Atria Books)

This laid the groundwork for her latest role leading Primero Sueño Press, a new imprint of Atria, where Mulligan is now a vice president and associate publisher. Named after the poem “Primero Sueño,” or “First Dream,” by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century feminist poet and scholar from Mexico, the imprint will publish adult works of fiction and nonfiction by Latinx authors from the United States and across the globe in both English and Spanish. A dream, indeed: Only 4.6 percent of the staff of major book review journals, publishing houses, and literary agencies self-identify as Hispanic/Latino/Mexican, according to the 2023 Lee & Low Baseline Diversity Survey. That compares with the 17 percent of the U.S. adult population that is Latinx—a significant disparity.

Representation of Latinx authors isn’t much better. “Such a small percentage of books published today represent their stories,” says Mulligan. “This isn’t just an injustice; it’s a lost opportunity for sales.” Indeed, courting a Latinx readership is part of Simon & Schuster’s long-term expansion strategy under owner KKR, the private equity firm that purchased the publisher last year, after the federal government blocked Penguin Random House’s planned acquisition of it in late 2022. Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp called Mulligan directly last summer to offer her the chance to lead a new Latinx imprint, which resulted in this year’s launch of Primero Sueño, where Mulligan will have the support of two editors and a marketing strategist whose bilingual, bicultural, and out-of-the-box approach to publicity will help Mulligan make her vision a reality. Mulligan’s goals include publishing sixteen to twenty English-language titles annually as well as up to twenty backlist Spanish-language titles per year.

For Uruguayan American novelist Caro De Robertis, Spanish-language readers in the U.S. have always been an essential community. “I’ve often heard from readers who’ve read one of my books in English, then gifted a Spanish-language copy to their mother, aunt, or other relative,” says De Robertis, author of The Palace of Eros, forthcoming in August from Atria, and The President and the Frog (Vintage, 2022), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. “I’ve also heard from readers whose dominant language is English but who reached for one of my books in Spanish to deepen their relationship with their heritage language. Spanish is a living, breathing language in this country and deserves its space on and off the page.”

In Mulligan’s view the biggest challenge to publishing for a Latinx readership is “the gap between the perception people have about Latinx folks in the United States and how they consume media and the reality of how and what they’re reading.” She cites data from BookScan, a company that provides sales data for the publishing industry: U.S. bookstore sales of Spanish-language print books for adults totaled $75 million between May 2023 and May 2024. “It’s time for publishing to catch up” with the demand among Latinx readers, says Mulligan.

Francisco Aragón, director of Letras Latinas, the literary initiative of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, welcomes the new press, but he hopes its editors will not rely too much on famous names to sell books and give more opportunities to emerging authors. “In this regard I was encouraged when I saw that Norma Perez-Hernandez is an acquiring editor in this effort,” Aragón says. He notes that Hernandez had an excellent track record building a diverse list in her last editorial role at Kensington Books. Yezanira Venecia, formerly with Melville House and Soho Press, will also serve as an editor at Primero Sueño.

While the press is certainly leaning on name recognition in its inaugural list, it is publishing at least one debut novel: The Witches of El Paso by Luis Jaramillo, to be released this fall; Jaramillo’s story collection, The Doctor’s Wife, was published by Dzanc Books in 2013. Its other titles are penned by authors who have already sold a lot of books: Writing Home, a memoir in essays by Reyna Grande, to be published next year; a new edition of the best-seller The Shadow Work Journal: A Guide to Integrate and Transcend Your Shadows by Keila Shaheen, published in English this past spring and forthcoming in a Spanish edition this fall; and Mexican author Daniel Habif’s Roar: How to Stand Up for Your Life’s True Purpose, an English translation of his wildly popular self-help book, Ruge: O espera a ser devorado, to be published this fall.

The bottom line, Mulligan says, is that we need books written for Latinx readers in English and Spanish now more than ever. “Our legacy depends on it.”

 

Jennifer De Leon is the author of the YA novels Borderless (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2024) and Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Simon & Schuster, 2020) and the essay collection White Space: Essays on Culture, Race & Writing (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021).