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.
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.
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.