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

Welcome to  the second part of our four-part Q&A series on diversity in publishing with Simon & Schuster Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery. For Part 1, please click here. For part 3, please click here. For part 4, please click here.

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Aisha: When it comes to widespread commercial success, I’ve read that culturally diverse books face a tougher challenge than other books do. From your experience, why does this seem to be the case? Is this an issue specific to YA or also is something prevalent in the adult fiction market?

Zareen: I’ve read the same! And the truth is, it’s impossible to know. We don’t have a way to collect information telling us why a book is bought, or even who is doing the buying.

Book publishing is a business that makes the brunt of its money through a small number of bestselling books. There is no way to determine what will make a bestseller—if there was, we’d do it for all our books! Some books hit the zeitgeist and take off, while most sell modestly.

Let me back up a bit and explain how sales works. A publisher has sales reps who present our new titles to bookseller accounts. We’ll have reps devoted to B&N, Amazon, independent booksellers, big box retailers (the Targets and Walmarts), and some to the wholesale and library market. Because of the sheer number of books that are published, there is no way for reps to read all the books they are presenting. For that reason, it’s easier to use what we call “comp titles”. “Comp” can stand for comparative or competitive, depending on whom you’re asking. We need to provide reps with titles of books that have already been published that have appealed to the same readership we’re going after so they can let their accounts know, and their accounts place orders accordingly. This is why we often have a trend develop around a book that becomes a phenomenon—it’s easier to sell a book that is “perfect for readers of THE HUNGER GAMES.” Though comping to a phenomenon must be done judiciously because booksellers have to be able to trust that you believe a book has that potential—especially since every publisher will be doing this. And then the accounts determine which among these books they want to promote in their stores.

It’s hard to categorize what sales issues books that feature diverse narratives face that are different from the sales issue any book faces. One, because I don’t think “cultural diversity” is a sales hook for the average consumer. Do people go into a bookstore looking solely for a book that features a diverse character? And, if they do, are they looking for mirrors of their own experience? Or insights into other backgrounds?  I don’t have the answers to those questions either. I just know that for a trade publisher the book needs to be able to appeal to broad audience. An added concern when talking about children’s book sales is who is buying them. For books aimed at readers under 8, it’s definitely the parents. For 8-18, it’s more likely the kids asking their parents to buy them a specific book, or the kids buying the book for themselves. Kids are definitely not looking to be enlightened about something, they just want to be entertained!

And let me also give an alternative explanation to rejections where an editor says something like “While this project has merit, we already have a book about [insert minority community] on our list, so I’m not able to take this on.” I can understand why a letter like that would rankle, and really should never be written. That said, it’s more likely that the editor just didn’t fall in love with a book and is looking for an easy way to reject it. This is a kind of laziness, yes, and a function of how busy we all are, but again, I don’t think it should ever be written that way. We use that reason for rejection with books fairly frequently when it comes to certain genres, i.e. “I’m afraid we have a number of books set in dystopias, and we aren’t looking to acquire more.” It gets trickier when it’s a novel about a minority community, and a shorthand reject is to use the same framework as any other rejection. It’s much better to say “this writer has talent, but I didn’t fall enough in love to think I’m the right editor for it.” Rejections don’t just come down to whether a book is good or not. It has to be right for the editor. An editor knows a book is right for them not only based on their list, but on whether, when they read it, they know what suggestions they would make to the author to make the book better.

So, for me, it goes back to story. Is it a teen romance that happens to feature characters of different races? Or a middle grade adventure with a multi-cultural protagonist? (That’s not to say that the specific issues those diverse communities face shouldn’t be reflected in the story. It’s not about erasing those experiences.) As a reader, I buy novels based on what kind of story I’m in the mood for, not based on how much I’ll learn. And if I’m in the market to learn something, I’d much rather go for the book that tells the story in an entertaining and engrossing way. Memoirs and non-fiction are a bit different, though the former has to provide a good story as well.

If newspapers and magazines are to be believed, book publishing is constantly on the verge of dying (a quick Google search turns up several articles from over the years bemoaning the fate of publishers). While things aren’t quite so dire, we are an industry in flux, and one that is not immune to layoffs and mergers. Profitability matters and bringing in books that sell is our job.  The best way to get a publisher to acquire more books with diverse characters or written by writers of color is to buy the books that are already out there. (My colleague Donna Bray relates this more eloquently than I can in her interview for the CBC Diversity blog here). Children’s publishing specifically carries the responsibility of not just being a business, but shaping young minds, and I would love to provide a more diverse worldview. We need to be able to do that and still be profitable so we can continue to support authors and publish books!

Aisha: How do publishers balance the desire to publish from diverse perspectives and voices with the need to meet certain financial goals?

Zareen: As an acquisitions editor, the bigger issue is not getting enough submissions from diverse voices or about diverse perspectives. All of the writer’s conferences I’ve ever been to have been attended by predominantly white writers—and white editors and agents for that matter. I’d love to attract more diversity in all of these roles. That’s not to say that white agents and editors can’t publish books by writers from diverse background or books that feature minority characters. The range of wonderful books that are already being published by and about people of color and minority communities shows this. I think we need more, absolutely. We need more authors, editors, agents, publishers, illustrators from diverse backgrounds.

At the submission stage, it’s nearly impossible to judge whether an author is from a diverse background. We only get a name and a short bio with a proposal or manuscript, and we acquire books because we are drawn to the writing and story.

Given the role that I’m in, commercial viability is a concern for me when considering a manuscript. Having diverse narratives and being commercially viable are not mutually exclusive. I can point to the books I included in response to the first question as examples of this. [Note: This will be posted on Thursday.]  And those are just the books published by S&S. Malindo Lo and Cindy Pon, two fantastic authors, have a Diversity in YA Tumblr that is definitely worth checking out.

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You can find Part 1 of our interview with Zareen here, part 3 here and part 4 here. You can leave 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:

    Another question, bit of a follow-up to the one I left in the previous post :)

    How would you explain the ‘push’ and popularity of titles that serve a specifically Islamophobic or deliberately skewed bias against Muslims? (Think Jean Sasson’s “Sultana” series, Hirsi Ali’s book, any number of novels featuring depressed looking veiled female eyes and about ‘a plucky young woman who must escape the oppressive clutches of her Muslim/ brown fanatical male relatives…).

    To many Muslim readers (and writers), it seems as though publishers are eager to snap up and put forth titles that serve that type of ‘agenda’ rather than books which tell a different narrative.

    Can it really just be put down to an agent ‘not falling in love’ with a book in the latter category, and not the former?

    1. Zareen Jaffery says:

      This is a great question. I can only speculate on what was behind those acquisitions as I wasn’t involved, but here is my take on it.

      As with any business, what we take on is guided by what we think we can sell. With non-fiction, especially in the adult market, an author is often required to have a “platform.” A platform is basically a built-in audience, and that can be determined in part by the amount of press a story receives. Ayan Hirsi Ali did not become famous because of her book. She was famous before that. The book told her story in her words, and people who were already curious about her then bought the book. Were these people looking for confirmation bias for their niggling or established Islamophobia? I don’t know. And none of us have any way of knowing.

      Both Hirsi Ali and Jean Sasson’s books (the latter of which I’d somehow never heard of!) seem to have sold pretty well. The market and book buyers have reinforced interest in these stories, which reinforces a publisher’s interest in acquiring more, i.e. “perfect for fans of INFIDEL”. And those not familiar with Islam might consider these memoirs as ways to promote female “empowerment”. I haven’t read either, to be honest.

      I don’t think we benefit from squelching anyone’s personal story. Though I acknowledge that misogyny and oppression of women is a real concern all over the world, not just in Muslim majority countries. As a Muslim I hope to stand up to instances where I see this in my own community, whether it is Muslims or non-Muslims who are suffering from it.

      Silencing people is never an answer. Better to be focused on creating a more nuanced marketplace, and writing, promoting, and buying books that you feel offer a different, perhaps more fair, perspective.

      (sorry if any of this is confusing, trying to type this quickly before my lunch meeting!)

  2. Mezba says:

    Hi Zareen,
    Thank you so much for your insight and taking the trouble to answer questions from comments. It is very appreciated!

    What advice would you give to a writer who has self published, and has achieved moderate success (given that it was self published) in number of sales and reach, and is trying to “break” into mainstream publishing with a book?

    1. Zareen Jaffery says:

      Hi Mezba,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Self-publishing has become an industry onto itself, and I’m not well-versed in all that it entails.

      That said, I have certainly considered books that were originally self-published, and have sat in meetings where we discussed the viability of taking on books that had been self-published, so I can shed some light on the thinking process from within mainstream publishing.

      As with any book, what we’re looking for something that will appeal to readers. There is no real way of knowing what’s going to have an impact–we rely on instincts and favorable reads from within the industry to drive buzz. There is an element of “magic” to most acquisitions that editors make. It’s the difference between someone reading your book and liking it, and someone reading your book and loving it.

      When a book has been self-published, it’s basically been market-tested. And if the sales have been modest, it conveys two things (right or wrong): there is not a sizeable market for this book and the author isn’t able to self-promote in a meaningful way. This puts a damper on that magic feeling.

      I edit highly commercial fiction and non-fiction. Even if a self-publishing book sold 100,000 copies in its first year, I wouldn’t be impressed. I would start asking questions: what was the price point? (Many authors put up self-published books for .99 cents for a limited time to drive sales, which skews the sales figures.) And what was the velocity of sales at each price? Is there a market for this beyond those who have already bought the book?

      Honestly, I would ask them same questions if a self-published book had a million downloads. There are a lot of factors at play, and success in self-publishing doesn’t always translate to success in traditional publishing.

      Hope that is helpful!

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