A Conversation with Lee Byrd, Co-owner of Cinco Puntos Press
Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features Lee Byrd, co-owner of Cinco Puntos Press.
Twice a year, our distributor holds sales conferences, giving their publishers and sales & marketing teams a chance to interact directly with each other. Sales Conference is a weekend of meetings, presentations, seminars . . . and a cocktail party.
When Akashic joined Consortium in 2000, Johnny Temple and I began attending these weekends; we started out shyly, especially at the cocktail parties—instead of “networking” at the party, instead of making “invaluable connections,” we tended to huddle in a corner talking to each other, with Johnny occasionally forcing himself to mingle. (We have gotten much better about this!)
The first Byrd I met—Bobby Byrd—was at one of these early parties. I remember the meeting vividly because I was embarrassingly awkward when Johnny introduced me to Bobby—a fumbling half-handshake, half–lean in for the polite kiss on the cheek (there should just be a rule here that is universally accepted so one never has to wonder—firm handshake? One barely-touch-the-cheek kiss? Two? Three—is that a Dutch thing? Sigh . . .). Thankfully, Bobby laughed off my nervousness, and his gentle, Southern-tinged drawl immediately put me at ease. From that moment on, the Byrds of Cinco Puntos—Lee, Bobby, and Johnny—have always made me feel incredibly comfortable when I’m around them.
Cinco Puntos is a phenomenal press based in El Paso, Texas, that publishes beautiful books for adults and children—some of which are bilingual. They are committed to their books, to their authors, and to each other. I have always admired the ease with which they seem to work so well together. I love my family and am very close to them, but I’m not sure if we could ever run a business together—but if we tried, my model of how it should be done would be the Byrds of Cinco Puntos.
So, for me, it is fitting to feature Lee Byrd for this second post of “Akashic in Good Company.” Cinco Puntos has been a constant smiling face in the crowd, whether at the Jacob Javitz Center, the sprawling campuses of UCLA or USC (where the LA Times Festival of Books is held), or the Desmond Tutu Center, which hosts many of our Sales Conference meetings.
Lee Byrd was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, and from there went on to college: “I went to Beaver College, which is outside of Philly, in Glenside, and they recently—not recently—they renamed it Arcadia University for all the obvious reasons. But when I was going there, none of us understood anything about that. It was a girls’ school, then they started getting guys and renamed it . . . I was not an academic, I wasn’t a scholar, but that was a good school for me; it’s been a good school for me.
“When I got out of college, I was trained to be a high school teacher, but I was only 20 myself and so I was terrified of high school kids so I never did end up teaching. We—I—waited on tables. We moved around. We were a maid and butler for a Texas millionaire. We were both tech writers at different times. We did all sorts of things . . . Bobby [Lee & Bobby married right after she graduated from college] taught for a year in Memphis [Bobby’s hometown], then we moved to Colorado.”
After a series of jobs and a horrible accident that left two of their sons severely burned, which lead to more relocating and months in hospitals, Lee tells of her and Bobby’s entrance into the world of indie publishing.
“In 1985, we went to California and hooked up with North Atlantic Books. Richard Grossinger [cofounder of North Atlantic] had published Bobby’s book, Get Some Fuses for the House. He and his wife Lindy Hough told us that they were making $25,000 a year as publishers, and we thought, ‘Wow! We’re just gonna do that!’ So without knowing anything else and with having this one friend Dagoberto Gilb who had this one manuscript that had won a prize but no one was biting at it, we said we’ll just publish a book. We published his book Winners on the Pass Line in December of 1985. And we didn’t even have a phone number in the phone book, and Alan Cheuse reviewed it on NPR and nobody knew how to get it because we didn’t know how to distribute books. I mean we really started out just dumb. So dumb.”
It sounds incredibly familiar to me, this stumbling into publishing with intelligence, good intentions, and a love of literature, but with some huge gaps of knowledge about what are now considered very basic things. It’s interesting that such a fundamental part of the industry—distribution—is often a mystery to new publishers.
“I don’t think we really understood what we were doing until we came on with Consortium,” Lee says. “Ten years we were on our own, and we didn’t understand distribution, you know; we just didn’t get that part of it. We understood the making of a book. We had a friend who was a designer. We understood editing and all that stuff. But we didn’t have any sense of how to get the book out into the world until we got on with Consortium.
“We got into publishing because we really were so unhappy with being tech writers . . . We had also wanted to be publishers so that we would have more time to write. That was kind of a mistake in our understanding as well.”
I should note here, that in addition to being a publisher, Lee (as are Bobby & Johnny) is a published author whose YA novel, Riley’s Fire (based on the real life experience the family went through) was published to great critical praise and was selected by People magazine as one of the “Top 10 Books of 2006”!
I ask Lee the question that has driven a lot of the interview in the back of my mind: What is it really like working with your husband and son? Again, to me, an outsider who sees the Byrds a handful of times a year (often not all together at one event), they seem to work so well together—smoothly. Lovingly. The way a family should work in all aspects of life. Maybe it’s not as easy as they make it look?
“We do work well together. You probably should write Mary [Fountaine; the only non-Byrd in the office] and get her take on what it’s like to work with three Byrds. And, I don’t know what to say. It’s really comfortable . . . it’s really a joy to have Johnny [Bobby and Lee’s son] working with us. He knows so much about the business and he’s taught us a lot. We do get along.
“We’re not very good at meetings. I’m kind of one of these, like, ‘Let’s plow right ahead and just do it.’ And John Byrd is a, ‘Let’s take a deep breath.’ And Bobby is a, he thinks about it a long time and then comes up with his own plan. Sitting in meetings is hard because we all approach things kind of differently. I move really fast and a lot of times it has to be rethought.
“I did work in a corporation for many years and there’s always a kind of politics there but working with your family is easier, at least with my family, because you’re able to talk more easily with each other.”
So, it turns out, the Byrds are not Daniel Day-Lewis-caliber actors. They really do like each other, and that comes through in the books they publish and in the company they run—a company dedicated to good books and writing, shaped by an admirable commitment to their community on the Texas-Mexico border. Even the “About” section of their website gives you a sense of their honest, down-to-earth, decidedly unpretentious approach to publishing: “We are so deeply involved with the books we publish, they are BOOKS to us, not products, not items. They’re more like children, and when people love them, we are very proud and very pleased. And even when people don’t love them, we still have that sense that they are very good and they give us a great deal of satisfaction.”
Lee further explains their commitment to publishing: “Every book seems to take us in a new direction and teaches us something new about what we’re doing. That has always invigorated us. And, of course, once you start publishing, you almost can’t quit.”
In closing, I ask Lee to select a few forthcoming books they are excited about, knowing this is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child.
“We did this book called Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel, a bilingual middle grade book that was selected as a Pura Belpré Honor book by the ALA [American Library Association]. And so now we’re doing the sequel, which is Maximilian and the Bingo Rematch. One of the threads that has been a constant for us is we keep seeing how Latino kids don’t see themselves in books. So, whenever we see something that we know will be a treasure for that kind of kid or will really open up a door, we get excited about it.
“We’re also excited about another book called Conquistidor of the Useless by Joshua Isard [director of the low-residency creative writing program at Lee’s alma mater] . . . It’s kind of a grunge novel. We think of Joe Meno and all those guys. So we’re excited about it.”
I thank Lee for taking the time, knowing that at least one shining light to look forward to at Book Expo America this year is, as usual, that Akashic will share a booth with Cinco Puntos and I will have that too-rare opportunity to spend some quality time with the Byrd family.
Posted: Feb 14, 2013
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