Aisha: For others who wish to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you offer to readers who may want to work in the publishing world as an editor?
Zareen: Internships or graduate publishing programs are the most direct way to get a foot in the door. Though that wasn’t my path. (The story of how I got into publishing is here.) Other than that, I would recommend informational interviews, and staying on top of job listings and industry news via GalleyCat, PW Children’s Bookshelf, or Publisher’s Lunch. Reaching out to anyone you know who is in the publishing industry or who knows someone in the publishing industry helps, too.
I would also suggest that anyone interested in editing consider the agenting side of things. Literary agents do a fair amount of editorial work before a manuscript is ever submitted (this goes back to the insane amount of competition submissions face once they hit an editor’s desk—an agent wants to make sure the project they represent is polished enough to stand out).
And consider different departments within the publishing house. It’s not all editors! Looking for an entry-level position in marketing, publicity, school and library, subrights, production can really widen the net and either lead you to the discovery that you love those roles, or give you an inside track on editorial assistant positions as they open up. I would caution, though, that during the interview process for those positions you don’t mention your ultimate desire to be an editor. It would be hard for someone to hire you if they felt like you’d be leaving the first chance you got! Better, and still honest, to say you’re interested in publishing and excited to learn about all different parts of the business.
Aisha: What advice do you have for aspiring writers of Muslim or non-majority narratives?
Zareen: The advice I’d give to aspiring writers of Muslim or non-majority narratives is the same advice I’d give to any aspiring writer:
Keep writing! Write that first novel. Revise it. Revise it again. Query agents. If no one bites, or if you get an agent, but don’t sell your work, start another project. Acknowledge that there is a personal value to your writing, and that continual practice feeds your creative aspirations. Most published writers have one (or two or three or four) novels in a drawer that they were unable to get published. Keep at it!
Listen to your critics. Art is subjective so there isn’t a right or wrong way to tell a story, BUT (all caps BUT) sometimes what authors are trying to convey is not clear. Listen to people who give you notes, especially if different people give you the same note. You don’t have to revise your manuscript into something that addresses everyone’s concerns. If you’re getting similar feedback, though, it is probably pointing to an underlying flaw that you need to address.
Do your homework. If you want to get published by one of the Big Five publishers (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette), knowledge of the marketplace is essential. This doesn’t mean you have to chase trends, just be aware of what is out there in the category you’d like to publish into. (And by category I mean story-specific, i.e. gothic middle grade standalone, teen thriller, epic fantasy, etc.) This gives you a sense of the current standard for accessible writing, and a better understanding of what your audience is reading and enjoying. There is something to be learned from this research that you can bring with you as you revise. In speaking about children’s literature, maybe it’s a deeper grasp of an authentic “teen” voice, for example. As a side note, when a writer says they are working on a manuscript that is like “nothing else out there” it’s a big red flag for me. More often than not, what that communicates to someone whose career has been selling books is that you haven’t done your research. Your story might be unique, it still has to appeal to an existing readership, otherwise why bother trying to get published by a traditional publishing house? If your work is avant-garde, then by definition it should go to a more experimental publisher whose financial expectations (and advances) are in line with the limited potential audience.
Don’t become a writer to make money. Seriously. It is the opposite of a get rich quick scheme. It is a ton of work, and an enormous gamble to expect a financial return beyond the advance a publisher pays you, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to sell your book in the first place. Writing may feed your creative spirit, but it’s not going to feed you literally. My friend Emily wrote a great essay about her finances during her time as a full-time author, which is up on Medium. Few authors are able to survive financially on the money they make from writing alone. Do it for the love of storytelling, and keep your day job.
Form a community of writers. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and it’s helpful to surround yourself with people who have the same goals and face the same challenges. It’s also nice to have critique partners whose opinion you respect. Seek out people who are equally passionate about telling stories.
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.