While staffing Rodale’s Modern Times imprint, which launched in 2007, editorial director Leigh Haber reached out to Shannon Welch, a young writer she knew through mutual friends. Welch, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad, had, at the time, been in New York for five years, writing her novel and taking jobs as an adjunct English teacher to make ends meet.
“I was cobbling it together,” said Welch. “I think I faced the reality of how difficult it is to be a writer, and thought, I’m just not sure if this is for me.”
Though she didn’t previously have any “publishing ambitions,” Welch accepted a position as an editor at the nonfiction venture. “The opportunity came along, and I was excited about it,” she recalled. “It was a way for me to be involved [in books], and it allowed me to do what I love.” While Welch felt comfortable in the editorial aspects of the job, she got a crash course in the business end of buying books, an education in trade publishing that came at one of the most disruptive and tumultuous periods in the history of the industry. The economy was on the verge of recession, and publishing was in the throes of the e-book revolution. Rodale was in the midst of its own shake-up, and the Modern Times imprint shuttered in 2008.
Welch stayed on at Rodale for four years after the imprint closed, rising to executive editor. During her five-year tenure, she acquired and edited a variety nonfiction titles, from memoirs to cookbooks. In 2009, she published The Blue Sweater, Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz’s memoir about her years fighting global poverty, and was named the editor of Rodale’s line of books with Runner’s World and Bicycling magazines.
In 2012, Welch was hired as a senior editor at Simon & Schuster’s Scribner imprint, with a charge to acquire more broadly than she had at Rodale, capitalizing on her “Iowa background” and buying more “writerly” books. Upon her arrival at Scribner, she bought the The Opposite of Loneliness, a posthumous collection of essays and stories by Marina Keegan, a young writer who died in a car crash five days after her 2012 graduation from Yale University. After her death, Keegan’s last essay for Yale Daily News, which shares a title with the book, went viral.
“I responded to the backstory, but also to her voice,” remembered Welch. “She had such a phenomenally exuberant voice, one that’s really present and alive on the page. [The book] reminds people of life’s preciousness, and of its fleeting quality.”
For as young as she was,” said Welch, “Keegan was prolific,” leaving behind a trove of plays, poetry, stories, and essays. Deciding what pieces stayed on the cutting room floor was no easy task, and Welch worked closely with both Keegan’s parents and the writer Anne Fadiman, Keegan’s mentor at Yale (who also provided the introduction), to shape the collection.
Although Welch described publishing Keegan’s collection as a “totally singular editorial experience,” the book still shares larger, overarching qualities with the kinds of projects she seeks out.
“I look for books that speak to how people desire to live their lives, and that readers will find enriching,” said Welch. “[That makes] readers ask questions of themselves and the world around them.”
News broke in April 2014 that Scribner acquired rights to actor Bryan Cranston’s memoir (very tentatively titled Say My Name), which Welch will edit. The book, slated for publication in fall 2015, will tell Cranston’s life story, including the six years he spent filming the TV series Breaking Bad, with insights into the craft of acting integrated throughout.
“He has eloquence and grace about what it is [actors] do—connecting to some elemental human truth,” said Welch. “Bryan is a natural storyteller.”
Welch promises that there will be “ample fodder” for fans of Breaking Bad, which wrapped last fall, but Cranston will also chronicle his early years, his life and ambitions before he became an actor, and his “struggles” to make it big.“It’s notable that he’s been a working actor since the age of 26,” added Welch. “He writes really powerfully about the meaning and value of work.”
When speaking to the editorial relationships she has with all her authors, Welch touched on her own understanding of the craft of writing, noting that her experience as an aspiring novelist now informs her identity as an editor. “I struggled,” said Welch. “I know what it means to sit alone in a room and write. For many authors, it’s like their baby, and as a publisher you’re bringing it into a process that’s mystified to the outside world. One of the services I can offer is an understanding of what it means to be on the other side of the machine.”
Current title: Senior editor at Scribner
Athletic prowess: All-American water polo player
Higher education: B.A., UC–Santa Cruz; M.F.A., Iowa Writer’s Workshop
Book on the nightstand: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbes (Scribner, Sept.). “It’s fantastic and gripping.”