I had a roundabout path to where I am now. I went to a STEM magnet high school and worked at the Army Research Lab in the microphotonics department and figured I would be an engineer. I entered college as an engineering major and minored in art. The whole while, I wrote articles as a student reporter. In high school I was the news editor of our school paper and in college I was a staff reporter for the campus paper. The Asian American Student Union published a newspaper, and the editor-in-chief contacted me for help. I wrote a few pieces and became the editor-in-chief for the next two years. Halfway through my junior year, I switched majors and I graduated with a BA in journalism and a minor in art and worked in a newsroom of a paper and as a writer for a magazine—and found that I was good at layout and composition and went to grad school for design.
I was amazingly lucky. I’d been associate publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux when we were distributing Beacon, so I got to “help out” with some of their books, including best-selling books by Marian Wright Edelman and Cornel West. When my predecessor left, the search committee came knocking at my door. I just happened to know one of them, Roger Straus III, so maybe the fix was in. But it was the amazing Kay Montgomery, executive vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who really settled me in and supported me for the next seventeen years. I’ve never recovered from her abandonment (well, yes, she retired after more than twenty-five years at her job…).
Finishing my last year of undergrad, I had the intention of becoming a high school teacher of Spanish and French. The pedagogy courses I took, however, convinced me that I didn’t want to teach after all. On top of that, I had to pay my way through college on my own, and when you’re competing in the Student Debt Olympics, year after year, you reconsider taking on a job that would barely cover rent and the cost of that luxury called food. I had to think of something else.
I always thought I was going to be a Professor and had just finished my Masters in Cultural Anthropology from The New School for Social Research. My thesis was on the role of the Indian government in perpetuating the AIDS pandemic, and as passionate as I was about it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make the PhD commitment. Around this time, I happened to spend time in India with my uncle, Sonny Mehta, a longtime publisher who tossed out, “Why not try an internship in publishing and see what happens?” I did, and it changed my life.
It begins the same way all these stories do: I’ve loved books all my life. I started working in a bookstore in college (shout out to Left Bank Books in St. Louis!), and there I realized that as long as I could make some kind of living working with books, that’s what I wanted to do. I wound up working there for almost seven years in all before moving to Boston. Once here, I very fortuitously got a job at Harvard Book Store, but was ready to shift to the other side of the bookish curtain when a sales position opened up at Beacon. The skills and knowledge I’d picked up through years of bookselling lined up with what I needed to know here, and it’ll be five years this summer since I started, though I’ve hopped over to our production team since then.
My career in books started in the spring of 1976 when I was working at a Volkswagen dealership in Nashua, NH, doing state inspections, lube and oils, and washing the boss’s Porsche. I was not well suited to the work, and noticed I felt most at home in the nearby Paperback Booksmith, where I went on breaks. I walked in one evening after work and begged the manager, Jim Fudge, for a job. Not sure what to make of me, he offered me a shift on the register at $3.00 an hour, but only on Wednesday nights. I was thrilled. Being paid to work in a space full of books and records instead of lug wrenches or snow tires seemed like a good move. Forty-two years later, I can say that it was.
I’m sure my answer is true of 99.9% of us in this business: I am a life-long reader and lover of books! I can’t remember not reading. Every trip to the library or bookstore was magic and memorable for me. I looked forward to English class in school like none of my other subjects. I was an English and sociology major, and then did my graduate degree in library science. I knew I would be involved with books somehow. I worked in educational publishing for the first fifteen years of my career. I was always most drawn to the projects that felt they were directly serving the greater good, so when the position opened up at Beacon, I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend my days working with two of my greatest passions: books and social justice.
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.
A typical day involves reading and copyediting manuscripts or parts thereof, so editing for style, sense, and grammar, while maintaining the author’s style and intention. When I’m not doing that, I’m corresponding with authors about language and usage (sometimes deadlines), overseeing (that’s the managing part) the work of the wonderful freelancers who also copyedit manuscripts for us, spending quality time with The Chicago Manual of Style, reviewing edits with editorial and production staff. Then I read some more.
I thought I’d continue in academia but realized in grad school that I didn't like teaching, so faced with student debt and with no idea how to channel my love of books and my interest in social justice, I considered a number of different careers before I noticed an opening at Beacon Press. I’d been a longtime fan of Beacon and jumped at the chance to work as an editorial assistant. Needless to say, publishing was the right career path.
Oddly enough, I hated reading as a child. In elementary school I was placed in lower level reading groups because I read at a slower pace than other students. Sometime around sixth grade, my teachers realized that it wasn’t that I had trouble reading; it was that I didn’t enjoy the books I was reading. I distinctly remember going to my school’s book fair and being overjoyed at that I was able to choose books to read. Today, I am an official book nerd (why else would I be in publishing?). I now read books quite quickly and love discovering new stories that relate to my personal experiences. My love of reading and of diverse books drew me to publishing, and Beacon happens to be one of the best places to work on such books.
I have always had a passion for politics and social issues, so publishing was a natural segue. I was a history major in college, and considered a career in academia. The MBA came a few years after college. I was working my way up the ladder as a CPA at a large accounting firm when an opportunity arose at Houghton Mifflin, which was a client, for a position in corporate finance. I was intrigued at the prospect of working at a publisher involved in educational and trade publishing and interacting with creative people—going back to my liberal arts roots.
Like everyone else who works in publishing, I grew up as a bookworm. My grandfather and my parents used to take me to the children’s section at the Needham Public Library, and we’d leave with more books than I could carry. In high school, my friend Alex and I were total Harry Potter diehards. We used to make trivia quizzes to determine which of our classmates was worthy of attending the movie premieres with us. So books were always a huge part of my life, but it never occurred to me to make books into a career until I had finished my second year of law school. Luckily, there are plenty of ways in which law and publishing intersect—contracts, licensing, permissions, and more—so I started networking and scouring the Boston area for jobs that combined my interests. When I saw my job posted at Beacon in December 2012, it sounded perfect for me. And it was!
I tend to read email on the train ride to the office, so that when I arrive at my desk I’m ready to respond to my colleagues and the authors I’m working with. Sometimes I spend the first hours of the morning drafting a response to a problem an author is dealing with. Or I could be writing to ask someone if they would be interested in writing a blurb for a book. Or maybe I’m sharing title or cover ideas with my colleagues. Most mornings tend to revolve around these kinds of discussions, and then in the afternoons I try to make time to read proposals, get up to speed on environmental news, and edit the manuscripts I’m working on. It varies from day to day, which is one of the aspects of the job that I enjoy.
I came to Publishing via a rather circuitous route. It began at Rutgers College of Pharmacy where I was accepted with a full scholarship. After two and a half years in the program, I had one of those “what am I doing here?” moments. After some serious deliberation, I decided to follow my true passion: Art. Three years later, I finally graduated from Rutgers University with a BFA in Studio Art and Art History. I did a brief stint with an advertising studio in NYC, which led to a position designing coffee table books for a book packager. From there I went on to work for Random House, Little, Brown and Co. and Houghton Mifflin. In 2004, I was hired by Helene Atwan as the Creative Director at Beacon Press.
The first thing I used to tell people interested in editorial work—interns, or people applying for the job—is that it’s not what you think it’s like. While we do read and edit, there are a multitude of other tasks that constantly require one’s time and attention. These days, the first thing on everyone’s list is responding to email, of course. And then there might be working on titles, or copy, or helping the design department think about the right direction for a cover, or reading and responding to many submissions that come in from agents and contacts, or keeping up on reading that pertains to the fields I acquire in, or about a dozen other things. And then we search for time to edit, which is slow and painstaking, but also deeply rewarding.
I vividly remember sitting on my bed my sophomore year in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, because law school didn’t seem like an amazing option at that time. I remember asking myself, “Self, what do you want to do? What do you like to do?” Insert long story about how I’m a reader/writer and I exhausted most options because I couldn’t see myself doing anything besides being around books and helping them—help in the sense that I thought books weren’t being marketing to their full potential online or in bookstores, and the industry needed help with diversity in both literature and staffing. I found Beacon after I finished my publishing program. I really just wanted a change and to work for a company whose mission I could get behind and one that would help me continue learning after graduating.
I’ve been in publishing since about 2000, so a lot has changed! At that point, company websites were just becoming the norm, but direct sales on those sites and content management systems definitely weren’t. Remember a time when social media didn’t exist? I do. We’re much more connected to readers than ever before. I spend a lot of my time working online, so these are some of the things that really stand out for me. There’s so much that has stayed the same, too, but one thing that really sticks out right now is that people continue to turn to books to fulfill basic needs, like finding comfort and solace in others’ experiences. Or to understand a different point of view or find ways to move forward in a difficult time. I worked in publishing in the post-9/11 world, and now we’re in the Trump era, and books continue matter.
The life of a publicist is varied. Most of my days are spent pitching media, writing press releases/press materials, answering phone calls, coordinating interviews, scheduling author events, and more. In addition to answering emails, I generally try to start each morning reading and skimming around ten to twelve different news sources (my favorites right now are the Washington Post, the Nation, and the Atlantic) to see what’s going on in the world and if there are any writers talking about specific issues pertinent to my books.
I’ve always loved books and viewed them as important tools, so by extension, I’ve probably always had an interest in the publishing business. A love of reading and writing led me to the realm of English and humanities in high school, and ultimately guided me through a degree in English literature as an undergraduate. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to read so many outstanding books throughout my life; it feels fitting that I’m now a part of their production. Several of Beacon’s titles, such as Dr. Cornel West’s books, were featured in my college English courses, and having grown up in Cambridge, MA, Beacon was always a familiar name.