In these times when readers are responding to our books “more than ever,” when our authors—such as Cornel West, Anita Hill, and Christopher Emdin—are appearing in the media, their ideas going viral on social media, their voices being heard on so many platforms, we thought it might be good to take a break to focus on some of the staff who work hard to find, shape, edit, produce, and promote those works. Our blog series “Beacon Behind the Books” introduces to you a member of our staff and gives you a behind-the-scenes look, department by department, at what goes on at our office.
For the month of December, meet our editorial assistant Ayla Zuraw-Friedland!
What drew you to publishing, Ayla? How did you find your way to Beacon?
It’s a really corny thing to say, but I think I wanted to work in publishing before I even knew it was a thing. When I was about eight, my parents gave me a book for Hanukkah called Conversations with J. K. Rowling. In the front flap they wrote, “Maybe someday there’ll be a book called Conversations with Ayla Zuraw-Friedland!” And I (probably) said, “Yep, that’s it.” That book doesn’t exist, because I have not yet written a book, let alone a dozen-ish bestsellers, but I sure do like helping bring other peoples’ books into the world.
I found my way to Beacon specifically with the help of a wonderful professor and activist at my alma mater. I was just wrapping up my senior year, and along with it, my tenure as Editor in Chief of my college newspaper. I so enjoyed getting to write about social justice issues on campus, and felt a little at a loss as to whether I could ever find a job that combined my love of editing with my love of talking about the evils of racism and capitalism at length with really smart people. Luckily, this professor noted and honed these compulsions, and helpfully forwarded along a job listing that turned out to be just the right fit.
What’s a typical day in the life of an editorial assistant?
It varies by the day. Sometimes you know exactly what needs to get done when you sit down for the day, and others it’s a total surprise. Maybe you’ll spend days reading proposals for potential book projects the editorial team is hoping to sign, and preparing to discuss making an offer at our weekly editorial meetings. Or maybe drafting flap copy to be used on the inside cover of a book or marketing copy to be sent to the representatives at Penguin Random House. Or maybe doing research for an editor you assist to determine whether the germ of a book idea they’ve been thinking about finding someone to write is viable based on what is already being written about that particular topic. Or maybe just bothering famous people until they agree to blurb a project you’re really excited about. Or maybe making sure your authors get their advance checks. Or maybe checking in over Zoom or phone with our editor, Rakia Clark, in the New York office, to see what needs doing in the Boston office. Or, if you’re really lucky, getting to edit a manuscript alongside an editor. A typical day can be any number of things—tasks ranging from purely administrative to intensely editorial. And it’s all good and necessary and important. But, regardless of the day, you are learning all the time.
How much of what you learned in college and/or graduate school have you found vital to your work?
Being an English major was helpful, of course. Learning how to read for both detail and overall structure is a must. Being steeped in language and literature really does develop a sense of how successful arguments are wrought, how to make them interesting. But, perhaps to my surprise, my background in Creative Writing has been just as important. Even though we don’t publish fiction at Beacon, the experience of being in a workshop, of learning how to offer helpful and constructive critiques, is invaluable when working with authors who really just want to make their books as good as they can possibly be. And beyond that, knowing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those well-intentioned bits of wisdom and (sometimes devastating) tidbits of constructive criticism really can help make you a more generous editor.
What current/upcoming projects are you excited about?
I’m really looking forward to the publication of Ben Mattlin’s new book In Sickness and In Health. He writes about romantic, interabled relationships in such an honest and compelling way, and he’s really been a joy to work with. A little further down the road, I’m also thrilled to be working on An Xiao Mina’s forthcoming book Memes to Movements. I’ve loved memes since before Pepe the Frog had to get all white supremacist on us, and Mina weaves together the elements of politics and the “all in good fun” of memes, showing how even the goofiest of images or online trends hold the potential to exert a lot of social influence in oppressive regimes.
More broadly, Beacon is starting to look at ways to slowly expand our Young Adult crossover list, which I’m glad to be working on. It’s exciting to think about putting these kinds of bottom-up histories into the hands of younger and middle-grade readers.
What’s your advice to someone interested in entering the publishing field?
Getting into publishing required me to demonstrate more than a love of reading and writing, which is a commonality among everyone who works in the industry, it seems. Working around books in some other capacity is a huge plus, I learned. If you can, I recommend working in bookstores. It’s like the parallel zone to working in publishing, and even shelving or inventorying books gives you a great sense of what’s out on the market and how it’s being used. I’m completely biased, but working for my college’s newspaper was also an excellent primer for understanding the rhythm of production schedules and even a micro-publishing environment. If you’re lucky enough to be an editor for a college paper, you learn how to hone other people’s writing. As I’m learning more and more, editing is an art in and of itself and requires as much practice as writing, if not more.
Beyond that, be prepared to get rejected! I didn’t get the first job I applied to at Beacon. Or the second or tenth job or internship I applied to at other publishing houses. It can take a long time to break into publishing, especially if you don’t live in or near a city like Boston or New York. It can be frustrating; there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But, there is hope. Promise.
What are you reading right now?
I’m juggling about four different books: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey; A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez; The Agitator’s Daughter by Sheryll Cashin (a Beacon author, no less!); and War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón. I read a lot of fiction outside of work.
In an alternate universe, what career would you have?
Though I am loath to admit this to all the people who asked if I planned to use my English degree to become a high school English teacher, I’m almost positive that is what I would be doing if I didn’t work in publishing. Either that or a journalist. These universes I have in mind are curiously closely aligned to this one.
Favorite book ever?
Oof! Probably either Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Or something totally different if you ask me on a different day.
Name three non-office items on your desk and their significance to you.
Pictures of friends and family—particularly my dear friend Anique, who passed away a few years ago. He was my first education in social justice movements, and I owe everything I’ve been able to learn since to him.
I Love Lucy license plate—I would not describe myself as peppy.
Typewriter poster and Banned Books mug—because, yeah. What else would an English major have at their desk?
About Ayla Zuraw-Friedland
Ayla Zuraw-Friedland joined Beacon in 2015 as assistant to senior editors Joanna Green, Jill Petty, and Rakia Clark. Originally from Mansfield Center, CT, she is a graduate of Connecticut College where she studied Literatures in English and Creative Writing and served as Editor of the college newspaper.