Q&A: Zareen Jaffery, Simon & Schuster, Part I

We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Simon & Schuster Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery to story and chai! Zareen was kind enough to respond to Aisha’s questions about diversity in publishing and to offer advice for aspiring editors and writers. We’ll  be posting parts of the interview all week, so stay tuned!

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 Zareen Jaffery: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts on diversity in children’s literature—a subject I care about deeply. My answers below reflect my personal opinion based on my role as an editor in children’s publishing. I acknowledge the industry has a long way to go to correct the current imbalance, and that my views on this are shaped by what I contend with as an editor who has only worked inside large commercial publishing houses. There are many things I may be wrong or misguided about, particularly when it comes to specific difficulties writers from diverse backgrounds may have in breaking into traditional publishing, and I hope that blog readers will enlighten me as to their own experiences via the comments on this blog. I am here to listen and I would love to learn more so I can be more helpful!

While I am answering these questions from a business perspective, it would be remiss and naive of me not to state the obvious: racism is real. As is Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia–the list goes on. While these prejudices exist in our society, there is no way to quantify the role they play in book sales. And even if we could quantify this, I’m not sure how we would ameliorate it. The best I can do, and encourage everyone else to do, whether you are a writer, editor, agent, or consumer, is to reflect on the role you play in the book publishing process, and think on ways you can help create a more just and inclusive world.

Aisha: There are lots of traditionally published books about Muslims, but not as many by Muslim authors. Are you hopeful that we’ll see a time when that starts to even out?

Zareen: Short answer: Absolutely.

Longer answer: The path to this evening out starts long before the publisher. I have many thoughts on this! (And these thoughts stem from my personal experience, so consider them anecdotal.) I will attempt to organize them via bullet-points:

  • I would love to get more novels by authors from all kinds of diverse backgrounds—including, but not limited to, religiously, racially, culturally, and economically diverse. Ditto for stories about characters from diverse backgrounds.
  • Of the hundreds of submissions I receive, I only take on about ten new books each year, predominantly novels, and that number includes multiple works by the same writer or books by previously published writers. I signed two debut authors last year. (I edit about 20 original books a year.) What I’m getting at is that the competition to get published is fierce. As an editor whose role is acquiring books that appeal to a wide audience, I need to make sure the story and writing style is accessible from a trade publishing standpoint. And not only that, it has to be a book I feel excited about and one where the author and I share a vision for how it should be revised.
  • When few of the submissions editors and agents receive are about characters from diverse backgrounds, it gets tougher to find a book from among them that works for my list. That’s not to imply they are judged by different standards—they aren’t, at least not by me or my colleagues at S&S and those in the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee, and I’d like to believe the same is true across the industry. As mentioned above, the competition is fierce and very few submissions get accepted overall. I don’t know why there are fewer submissions, I can only speculate. How can we encourage more diversity? I’d love to hear thoughts on this in the comments.
  • One of the issues I’ve had with the few novels I’ve gotten that feature Muslim characters is that they don’t read so much like stories as they do a framework for explaining the “Muslim American experience” so that non-Muslims can understand it. I put “Muslim American” in quotes because I don’t believe there is a universal experience among Muslim Americans. And it is impossible to market a book that is basically the equivalent of a multi-vitamin (“read this book because it is good for you!” i.e. it will make you more open-minded…). Irresistible stories and memorable characters make books beloved. And, in my opinion, the best stories and characters serve to convey emotion, not simply information. If you’re busy trying to explain yourself to a reader, they are going to get bored. Of course, if a Muslim author is writing inspired by their own experience, how do they bridge that gap of knowledge for the non-Muslim reader? This really depends on the character in the novel. What do they think of (and how do they feel about) the rituals they perform in the name of religion? What is the larger story? What do they want and what is standing in their way? Only by digging deeper, acknowledging our individuality and unique motivations, can we create truly memorable characters. I worry that some of the uniformity of the Muslim fiction I’ve received comes down to the understandable concern about Muslims having been so misrepresented in popular culture, and that Muslim writers want to correct that imbalance by only writing about the good parts of their culture and religion. Unfortunately, this can come across as being disingenuous and does not really make for a compelling novel.
  • On the other hand, I worry about publishing stories that offer “confirmation bias” to Islamophobes. That came up for me recently, when I edited HIDDEN GIRL, which is Shyima Hall’s memoir of being sold into domestic slavery by her parents while she was just 8 years old and living in Egypt. Her biological family was Muslim, and the family who bought her and smuggled her into the US was Muslim. As I was editing the book, I made sure to query the statements Shyima made about Muslims that were generalizations based on her personal experience. I didn’t want to erase her experience, I just wanted to make sure it was conveyed that while these people were “religious” from their personal perspective, their behavior wasn’t in keeping with Islamic values. I felt we needed to be clear that these practices were specific to this family, perhaps indicative of the society they came from, but did not have a basis in Islamic religious texts (which I was familiar with as part of my upbringing, but Shyima had never read. She had never been to school until child services pulled her from the California home she’d been working in. She was already 12 by that time, and went into the US public school system). There are good and bad among people in any group and I think it’s dangerous to create an environment where people who are suffering feel that they can’t share their stories for fear of how it will reflect on the community. This silences the most vulnerable. Better for us to have an open dialogue, acknowledge problems, and help each other. I support Shyima’s efforts to try to eradicate modern-day slavery, and her story is one that is worth telling, especially as it comes directly from her.
  • I am keenly aware that marginalized communities should be the ones to tell their own stories. I’d love to be able to provide a platform for these voices, and it’s one of the reasons I am drawn to teen memoir. Teen non-fiction is a small part of the children’s literature world, and I’d love to do more. Of course, this truth-telling from lived experience can also lend itself to wonderful fiction, and I’d love to see more of that, too.
  • All that said, I don’t want to put any kind of burden on writers who come from diverse backgrounds to feel like they have to write about those issues. I don’t think we benefit from giving artists parameters about what kinds of stories to tell. Let me be clear: diversity is not adversity. Of course there is room to tell stories of struggle to fit in to the “norm” (whatever that is perceived to be), but I also want to read stories that feature diverse characters in love or on an adventure or solving a mystery—where their differences are not a burden, perhaps they are an advantage. (Octavia Spencer’s wonderful middle grade series is an example of this done successfully.)
zareenoctaviajill2014

Editor Zareen, author Octavia, and book publicist Jill

  • I am heartened by the number of Muslims I see who attend panels about the Muslim American narrative, and the success of events like Columbia University’s Muslim Protagonist conference, the newly formed Muslims Writers Collective, and the release of Marvel’s new comic featuring a Muslim superhero. And these are just the initiatives I’m aware of in the New York area! Muslim American artists are getting out there, sharing their work, and forming a community—be it online or in real life–and I hope that it leads to a lot of great art in the years to come.

One final note about submissions: Many publishers don’t allow unsolicited submissions. Unsolicited means manuscripts that are sent directly from the author to the publisher instead of via a literary agent. I am in such a position—unsolicited submissions that are sent to me are instantly deleted. I can understand how that might come across as snobbery and as a further filter between publishers and authors. The truth is, editors rely on agents to be a filter simply because there are too many writers of varying quality out there, and an editor’s job requires so much more than just reading and editing. We simply don’t have the time to sort through to find the gems. If we didn’t have that extra filter of a literary agent, we would have more work than is humanly possible to do. Some more details on what my job entails beyond editing is in an interview I did here. I wish I had more time to read!

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So much wonderful information! Please click here for Part 2 and here for part 3 and here for part 4 of our interview with Zareen, and leave your comments by clicking the speech bubble on the bottom left.

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zareenBio

 Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery has over a decade of experience in publishing, and joined Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in February 2011. Her focus remains acquiring commercial and literary young adult and middle grade fiction, as well as teen non-fiction. Zareen works with a number of New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed authors including Jenny Han, Siobhan Vivian, Kresley Cole, Sheila Bair, Claire Legrand, Hilary Duff, and Becca Fitzpatrick. Her recently published projects include a debut middle grade series by Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer and a memoir by Shyima Hall, a former child slave. Zareen began her children’s publishing career at HarperCollins Children’s Books editing bestselling novelists Lauren Conrad (L.A. Candy), Jodi Lynn Anderson (Tiger Lily), LJ Smith (The Vampire Diaries), and Claudia Gray (Evernight). Prior to working in children’s publishing, she was an editor of fiction and non-fiction at Hyperion, the book publishing arm of The Walt Disney Company, where she worked with notable authors Amy Goodman (Standing Up to the Madness), Marshall Goldsmith (What Got You Here Won’t Get You There), Jon Kabat-Zinn (Arriving at Your Own Door) and Paulina Porizkova (A Model Summer). Zareen is a graduate of New York University.

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Latest Comments

  1. The Salafi Feminist says:

    Really liked this insight into the world of ‘the industry’, especially as I’m assisting a friend and client in getting her “Muslim American” novel seeking an agent and publisher who will take her on.
    Not to mention, of course, my own hopes for my novel-in-the-making!
    Looking forward to part 2 of this interview :)

  2. Brandon Moses says:

    Hello Zareen,

    I loved your insight as an editor of diverse literature and look forward to hearing more from your perspective in part 2 of the interview. With it being so challenging as it is to have a successful novel published, do you think writers are discouraged to write about culturally/religiously diverse subject matter because they fear it narrows their prospects of being published even further? Do you consider this a rational concern?

    1. Zareen Jaffery says:

      Hi Brandon,

      Thank you for the kind words! And for your thoughtful question.

      I don’t mean this to sound discouraging, but the reality is having a successful novel is challenging regardless of the subject matter. There is no “sure thing” when it comes to debuts in book publishing, just expensive gambles. So you should write from the heart! What happens next is impossible to predict beforehand anyway.

      When writing a first draft, I don’t think it helps to be worried about the market. I imagine it would have a paralyzing effect on any creative efforts. When you’re revising, and if you’re intending to submit it to traditional publishing house, then that is the place for thoughts about commercial viability to come in. With regards to books that feature culturally/religiously diverse subject matter, my personal experience is that the commercial viability of those projects does not come down to the fact that they feature diversity, but the way in which that diversity is presented. For religious narratives, is the novel a thinly veiled framework for proselytizing or edification? It will be difficult to get that past an acquisitions board at a commercial publisher, unless it’s for an imprint that has a focus on faith-based fiction (there are many Christian imprints, for example). And I say thinly veiled because certainly there are books out there that are in fact deeply inspired by religious beliefs—The Chronicles of Narnia and The Little Prince come to mind immediately. Those work because the story comes first. For cultural narratives, again, it really comes down to the writing. There are a lot of books (for children and for adults) that are from the point of view of someone who feels different from the societal norm, which they have often internalized as a middle-class white upbringing. Because they have centered themselves this way, the stories start to feel familiar and predictable. Better to dig deeper and focus on character, where culture is one part of their humanity.

      And forgive me for speaking very broadly, since each novel is different and must be judged accordingly even if they feature some common element of a “diverse” narrative.

      1. Brandon Moses says:

        You’re a wealth of knowledge, thank you so much.

        I’m beginning to think that part of the partnership between the editor and the author involves finding that balance between being commercially successful and maintaining creative integrity. Also while still accurately portraying their misrepresented/underrepresented community. All of this being post-first draft? I’m not sure. Your response truly illuminates how complex (and beautiful) the publishing process is, so thank you.

  3. Fatima says:

    This was wonderful. Very much looking forward to part 2, especially hopeful for insight/advice on career paths in digital media/publishing and how to break into this space.

  4. Jennifer Zobair says:

    This post is actually so near and dear to my heart. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get more voices heard, especially those of Muslim women. I think in some underrepresented communities, writing isn’t valued as much as say, being a doctor or a lawyer, and without a lot of role models to look to in terms of “famous novelists” from one’s background, it might just not be on the radar of young people. (And I say this as a Muslim and a lawyer and a novelist!) You can be two things. You can care for patients and tell the story you were born to tell. I think efforts like Muslim Protag at Columbia, which I was honored to be a part of, are exactly what we need. Let’s encourage. Let’s promote the idea. Let’s plant the seed wherever we can.

  5. Richard Levangie says:

    Day one, and I’m already loving this series! So I wanted to express my gratitude to Zareen for being so generous with her time.

    I’m working on my MFA in creative nonfiction, but I have also written a multicultural young adult novel. I hope my career allows me to plant one foot firmly in both worlds.

  6. Aisha says:

    Thank you again for taking the time to do this interview! It’s so very informative! I had one question as a follow up to your response to Brandon, you mentioned that it’s a challenge to be a successfully published novel, with all the books that come out each year I can definitely see how that can be the case. Do different standards apply to different books to deem them ‘successful’? As in, are all books judged successful if they meet a certain financial margin [NYT best seller list] or do other factors play a role? Thanks!

    1. Zareen Jaffery says:

      Happy to share what I’ve learned in my career so far!

      “Successful” means different things to different people, and the same is true for books.

      Financially, the success of a book is determined in part against how much a publisher paid for the book versus how many copies the book sold. This is why sometimes you’ll hear editors (or at least me!) talk about a book being “saddled” with a big advance. That book now has to sell that many more copies in order to make the money back for the publisher.

      Just FYI, here is Publisher’s Weekly’s list of bestselling children’s books in 2013. The sales numbers were submitted by the publishers.
      http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/61447-for-children-s-books-in-2013-divergent-led-the-pack-facts-figures-2013.html

      As you can see, there are a handful of authors (or brands, in some cases) who sell the brunt of the books. It’s similar to any other media industry, where there are “blockbusters” that make most of the money. Which is not to say only the blockbusters are important. The blockbusters are not only financially valuable, but they are usually highly entertaining, fun to chat about with friends bc everyone has read them, and also afford us (editors and publishers) the ability to take risks in what we acquire.

      The New York Times bestseller list is created using a proprietary algorithm that no one save the NYT is privy to. The NYT has certain stores throughout the country that they get sales figures from–that goes for print and ebook sales. It’s hard to determine what will “hit the list” for this reason.

      Being a New York Times bestseller is of course an enormous honor, and it’s a great marketing tool. (What US based author doesn’t dream of being a New York Times bestseller?) It doesn’t always mean that your book has sold the most that week.

  7. The Salafi Feminist says:

    One question I have is – I’ve heard from aspiring authors that their work has been turned down by mainstream publishers because “a book about Muslims being good and not terrorists just doesn’t sell.”

    A friend of mine wrote a book where the Muslim father is a figure of wisdom and kindness/patience, the brother is more antagonistic but still not a stereotypical violent/ angry Muslim. She was told by an agent that publishers wouldn’t be impressed unless the brother tried to honour kill the sister (!!!) and the father was “more fundamentalist.”

    How would you address this kind of feedback?

    1. Zareen Jaffery says:

      !!! is right!

      That is straight-up racist. I can’t explain that in any other way.

      People in publishing are people too, and subject to the same misguided beliefs as anyone else in the world. SIGH.

      Finding the right agent is a job in itself. There are SO MANY amazing kidlit agents out there, in fact most are really wonderful allies to authors. So sorry your friend had to hear that from anyone who considers themselves a professional in the industry.

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