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Riverhead Editorial Director Rebecca Saletan on the Art of Publishing

Riverhead Editorial Director Rebecca Saletan on the Art of Publishing

Author: Frederick McKindra

July 27, 2015

“For me, I’m less interested in things that reflect the world and the familiar literature that I already know. I want things to take me into new zones. I think that’s a big part of why people read.”

Riverhead Books, the imprint of Penguin Random House responsible for many of the publisher’s literary fiction titles, has demonstrated a remarkable acumen for exposing readers to diverse perspectives and original voices: Junot Díaz, Marlon James, Sarah Waters, David Treuer, etc…. But cultivating such a multifaceted list of authors doesn’t imply the complicated calculus of quotas and sales projections that the lack of diversity on shelves may have you believing, according to Rebecca Saletan, the editorial director of Riverhead. The imprint’s ability to unearth or foster burgeoning talent from various racial groups or sexual orientations may owe more to an age-old apparatus than we think—that of the grapevine, of writers spreading word about up and coming new talent. All the while, Riverhead maintains its reputation as a place that pursues all kinds, the kind of place authors would be proud to call home.

Could you detail your list, how it looks right now, and how it could be seen as a reflection of the editorial direction at Riverhead?

We’re really proud of what we’ve built here, but we’re always thinking forward—about where the next list is coming from. It has to be fed all the time. But because of the current list, it actually gets easier over time because once the list starts to look like what you want it to look like, more people want to be a part of Riverhead. It’s become a place that a lot of people want to come to because it’s diverse and it reflects the context in which they want to be published.

Where would you say that started? 

It is interesting how many of the core Riverhead authors have been here from the beginning. That they’ve stayed says something about the list, too. I think that helps set the pace, although over time, the list has also changed some. There was some more “Self Help” stuff on the list. We don’t really do that anymore. And as the world changes, the list’s diversity has branched out. More from Asia now, some from Africa. We publish a huge number of women, and I’m really proud of that, as well. I actually did a count, after I’d been here for awhile, of my own personal list, and discovered that the proportion of women was much higher that it had been. People always want to know if we have a formula for this, and we don’t. We really don’t have quotas; it’s not paint by numbers. It’s more that it comes out of the genuine passion and interest of everybody here, and not just on the editorial side.

If it didn’t happen automatically or by following what we were interested in, I guess we’d have to ask ourselves some tougher questions about how we can achieve that, but the truth is: it really comes out of what we are interested in. Having had some success in those zones, we have real confidence. The list isn’t divided between the mainstream, which we know there’s an audience for, and the “do-gooder,” which we’re going to publish because it’s socially conscious, etc. We’ve had great success with the authors that make us diverse, and that’s hugely reinforcing, too. The list is not bifurcated in any way.

What did it take to step beyond pursuing “do-gooder” authors, to try putting out diverse books and to see if the market would respond?

We’re really small. We put a huge emphasis on marketing. We have great publicity and marketing departments, and they work like crazy on our books. For better or worse, from early on, none of our books are cookie-cutter. There’s almost nothing that we publish that can be published like a prior book, because it’s not genre. Because of that, there’s this intense kind of focus on and awareness of each book. That’s our approach to everything; nothing is just waived on by. Then, when we have success, it’s easier to believe that we can do it for the next one. But they all have to be imagined from the ground up. So it’s not like we’re making the special case for one unique book; we do unique books all the time. Obviously within certain broad zones; we do literary fiction.

We also only take on—really try to take on—only writers that we expect to continue with. It doesn’t necessarily always work out that way, but that’s the intention. So we almost never take on anything that we think is going to be a one-shot, like a great commercial project from this person who probably doesn’t have another book in him/her. Almost everybody we take on is someone who we expect to spend some time with. We may take them on after they’ve tried a few books elsewhere. We’ve actually had some terrific experience turning around writers who had been published elsewhere and not sold particularly well, but we expect we’re gonna be in it for the long haul with them, so we grow this person for the next time out. Let’s say, the author is on their the third book, and this is the one that really has the commercial potential. Meg Wolitzer is a famous example of that, of somebody who several books into her career wrote The Interestings, which we felt we could really run with. Look at Sarah Waters, too, growing with each book all the way up to [The Paying Guests], which bore fruit in a really huge way.

What channels would a manuscript take to make it to you?

The majority of what we do comes to us through agents. I’ve signed up a few people without agents, and I think we all have done that. But even if they don’t come to us through agents, most people have signed with an agent by the time they do a contract with us. They may also be coming because we’ve been at a reading where they are, because they know our authors, because our authors have been their teachers, because we’re reading—just like the agents and journals—and sending out feelers all the time, and that’s something I really try to stay active with. I need to remind myself to not always be in the passive position of waiting for things to come in and go after people.

Our writers have become tremendous proselytizers for Riverhead. They’ll come to our parties, they’ll come to our events, they’ll be online with us, and so on. At the least, almost all of our writers are engaged with us as a publisher and feel as if they’re part of a team, so they’re constantly creating awareness and pulling in people who they know want to be referred back to us. So, again, when you look at it, the majority of them may come in with an agent, and we may be in competition with other publishers for them at that stage, but I often feel like we have an edge because of what they already know about us and the relationships to us that they already have. Our publicity people are wonderful; they are out there all the time going to readings, being involved in the literary universe. They’ve kind of dragged some of us introverted editors kicking and screaming into a more social environment—and into social media for some of us oldsters—but they’re great at referring people to us And I always look, when they make referrals, to see who it is and whether we should pursue him/her.

A craft question—specifically, about the use of vernacular. It seems important for a publisher pursuing diversity to have a facility with authors that make use of vernacular—ways for the writer to access the idiosyncratic sound of their particular community. You’ve had particular success with this, and I wondered how you’ve developed your editorial philosophy toward deciding what works and what doesn’t.

Well, the nice thing about books, as opposed to magazines, is that they don’t have one voice. So when authors want to do things in an idiosyncratic way, there’s no rule from above; there’s no hard and fast house style about almost anything, so there’s not an automatic response. Then, you’re really looking at the book as it is. And it comes up in all kinds of ways. With Junot [Díaz], we talked about if the reader could get it in context. There’s also the recognition of a statement being made there. This is a country with a huge Spanish-speaking population, and we should not be pretending that English is the only language spoken here. From an editor’s standpoint, it’s the balance between what interesting thing is achieved here and what social good is achieved here, versus wanting to make sure that the book is accessible, that we’re not eliminating readers, and so on. Clearly, in Junot’s case, he’s not eliminating readers; people are willing to go along with him.

In other cases, I do a fair amount of nonfiction that has to do with current events. It’s tricky, and some of it may be creating an apparatus for the reader—a cast of characters, almost like a Playbill, in some cases working really hard to make sure that there are explanations of context, that there aren’t more names than there needs to be. Sometimes, that means leaving out someone’s name because you don’t want the reader to be overwhelmed. Because of the nature of what we do, we need to walk the reader into new zones and make sure (s)he has what (s)he needs to stay oriented. It’s not a rule, but a guiding principle. And that’s the editor’s job: to stand out in the audience and say: I’m getting this, I’m following this, I’m having difficulty with that, and this is how we can address that. It’s a back-and-forth conversation with the authors.

It also seems that Riverhead has a willingness to publish short story collections from first-time writers. I wondered if that impulse emerged from the same spirit of pursuing diverse voices, and if that impulse might serve the task of finding more diverse writers.

I don’t think it’s a totally new thing. Maybe it grew with the growth of MFA programs—the trend of first books often being short story collections, but the short story is a very different form from the novel, and most people naturally gravitate to either-or. I actually think the MFA programs can be tricky places for novels, because often, they are not well built for that—but often, people start writing shorter pieces, whether that ultimately proves to be their form or not. So a lot of times, what they have in the door at first is a short story collection. It’s not always the wisest reason to do it, because sometimes it’s worth waiting for the novel. But that said, as with publishing a more diverse list, by being fearless about it, we’ve had some surprising success with short story collections.

Technically, This is How You Lose Her [by Díaz] is a short story collection. We never said it. We didn’t hide it, but we didn’t trumpet it, either. They may be a little too across the board, though. Look at Junot doing footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

One thing I’d like to add, though: when it comes to short stories, if they are really stories, do not pretend that it’s a novel. Do not try to create linkage where it doesn’t exist. If that’s really your strong suit, and they’re really good, then just let them be seen for that.

Should writers that would pursue publication with an imprint like Riverhead fear producing material that is too niche—or, maybe more specifically, too gay—to attract an audience, and would that dissuade Riverhead from pursuing said writer?

Well, first of all, the universe is opening up a lot, and publishers are to some extent catching up with that. That should not be a barrier. For me, I’m less interested in things that reflect the world and the familiar literature that I already know. I want things to take me into new zones. I think that’s a big part of why people read. If it’s well told, if there are characters that you care about, and if it’s this exciting new voice, just go for it. That should not be perceived as a barrier.

There was a moment in publishing where it seemed that gay narratives had been subsumed into novels with larger ensemble casts. Now, it seems that publishers are much more willing to pursue singular voices, operating in singular worlds. Are you interested in more of a singular voice as opposed to larger novels that fold gay stories into larger frameworks?

We very much lean toward the singular, but that can translate into a lot of different things. In general, we’re very oriented toward the individual voice. We’re very interested in writers who have a strong voice and artist who clearly distinguish themselves. But it might mean that David Treuer—who wrote this novel Prudence and is an Ojibwe Indian from Northern Michigan—writes a book with a gay love affair, with gay and straight characters, not because he’s trying to be Mr. Inclusive, but because this is the story he wanted to tell, and it has a lot to do with identities and stereotyping and how people are bound into the identities imposed upon them. And then, you look at Sarah Waters, where there are issues of class, gender and sexuality, and historical stuff. But almost always, it’s a specific perspective. And one of the things I also like is when writers write out of their specific cultures, like Tiffany Yanique, but we also have writers who are not necessarily confining themselves to writing from their background and perspective.

The writers’ own interpersonal networks are important, too, I guess. It sounds like getting access to some published writer through some channel, such as VONA [Voices of our Nations Arts Foundation] for Junot or some MFA program, and finding access to those allies are really important.

Yes, I think that’s true. It’s very helpful, and it helps in all kinds of ways. The practical means of it could be access to agents, publishers, and editors. It could be someone who’s going to give you a blurb, which unfortunately is still really important. It could be that Junot’s got a role at the Boston Review, where he’s really interested in giving a leg up to a lot of young writers. And sometimes, it’s just for the sense of belonging to the world of writers before you’re actually publishing anything book-length. It’s hard for writers to feel like there’s a universe out there that they’re a part of; it can feel very isolating, and we’re aware of that. And we can’t totally solve that. I would not at all feel limited by worrying that what you’re writing about is a universe that no one is ever going to want to know about if there’s sufficient plot momentum and so on.

A lot of times, writers are in a nascent stage when they’re writing. They might be writing good short things, and they might be publishing online, but they’re not really ready to do a book yet, and there’s only so much we can do from this end to create those expectations. The work has to be in a pretty ready state for book-length work when it comes to us. Hence, most of the time, as gatekeepers and editors, we’re saying no. Occasionally, we say yes, but we rarely say more than yes or no except when I really know I can say something useful and concise. Then, I will try to say it. But really, the editorial energies are saved for the books that we have under contract because they need a huge amount of work. They’re great, but everybody needs editing, and that’s where we have to put that energy.


Photo credit: Louie Saletan
Frederick McKindra photo

About: Frederick McKindra

Frederick McKindra was born and raised in Little Rock, AR. He graduated with a M.F.A. in Fiction from the New School in NYC.

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