What are some upcoming trends for 2014?
This is probably a bad thing for an acquiring editor to admit, but I’ve never found it too fruitful to try to think about trends. For one thing, unless you specialize in instant books or are exceptionally prescient about spotting nascent trends (neither of which describes me), by the time you note a trend, find the right book and author, wait for it to be written, then edit and publish it, the trend has often passed or is on the downslope—and yours is the 20th book on the subject.
I do, though, look for books that address the same broad phenomena in culture that are moving, troubling or thrilling me: the clash of cultures and the ways cultures are morphing—while also preserving their uniqueness—under the stress of globalization; the ways we are rethinking medicine, food, the environment, and, more abstractly, purpose, satisfaction and belief as the limits of long-held ways of thinking and doing become apparent. I don’t know if those qualify as trends, but maybe they bear the same relationship to trends as books do to journalism—they’re slower, larger, more layered responses to the same currents tugging at us all.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
I really respond most to books that get at the above-described shifts, whether in fiction or nonfiction. Riverhead is known for “multicultural” books, of course, but again, this is less a matter of us having a checklist, I think, than of us responding to what feels new, exciting, untrammeled. I have a special passion for nonfiction that gets at any of these things without being didactic. That could be through narrative—the narrow story that gets big by going deep—but it can also be through ideas or through a narrative that stealthily develops an idea. I like books that take risks, that don’t portray or teach what I already know.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
Memoirs that don’t find a way to reach beyond the author’s particular story and those that mistake the ups and downs of a tragic or traumatic personal story for the ups and downs in great writing. Unless they are really, really fresh and larger than life in this way, I could do without any more addiction, fertility or parenting memoirs, for example.
What is unique about your corner of the industry?
Riverhead is really about the writing and the writers. We enter into relationships with authors expecting them to be ongoing, collaborative and for the long haul; that’s the intention. There’s a lot of work well in advance of, and beyond, publication. Several things follow from this orientation: As above, we don’t tend to chase headlines. We almost never take on one-shots, even when they look very good and potentially very commercial. We keep our list small, and we invest heavily in publicity and promotion—not as measured in dollars per book for tours and ads but as measured in time and labor and thought and innovation and collaboration, with the writers and among ourselves. As an editor, I have never worked more intensely with my colleagues in publicity, marketing, rights and sales to give each book every chance to come to the attention of readers who might love it. We all understand how necessary this is for our one-size-doesn’t-fit-all list of books and writers in this age of fragmented attention.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Rumors of the demise of publishing have always triggered skepticism in me because I’ve been hearing them since I got into the business three decades ago. But there’s no question that the past half-dozen years have been particularly unsettling and unstable, and it looks likely to continue that way. Nerve-wracking as this can be, I’ve also found it thrilling. As with marriage, it’s possible for the routines of an editor’s life to become numbing, since the deep patterns of the work remain the same. But having to think in new ways about how to bring books to publication and learning to exploit a whole new set of avenues for doing so—which sometimes means being willing to look foolish or to admit ignorance and being open to learning from younger, new-media–savvy colleagues and authors—has been rejuvenating for me and my lifelong passion for my profession.
Rebecca Saletan is vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books. She has also worked at Yale University Press; Random House; Simon & Schuster; Farrar, Straus and Giroux (where she was editorial director of North Point Press) and Harcourt (then Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), where she was publisher. Over the course of more than three decades in publishing, she has acquired and edited a range of award-winning and best-selling fiction and nonfiction by writers such as Peter Matthiessen, Masha Gessen, Mohsin Hamid, Claire Vaye Watkins, Junot Diaz, Hanna Rosin, Ivan Doig, Diane McWhorter and Philippe Petit.