Even as a high school student, Malaika Adero knew that she wanted to work in the book publishing industry. “Somebody had to decide who was published, and why not me?” was her thinking. V-p and senior editor at Atria Books when this interview took place, she’s been making those decisions for decades. The long list of authors she has worked with includes Common, Reyna Grande, T.D. Jakes, Nelson Mandela, James Meredith, Victoria Rowell, Blair Underwood, and Zane, with an impressive number of bestsellers in the mix.
Of all her responsibilities, which include acquiring book projects, spotting authors, and managing their projects through publication, it’s the storytelling that Adero is most drawn to. While growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., she said, “I was an avid reader—we were encouraged to read, because literary arts were important in my home, family, church. You got points for being good at reading.”
Believing that “literature is just one of the storytelling arts,” Adero’s personal pursuits also reflect her passion for the power of storytelling in all its forms, specifically dance (she does folkloric and vernacular dance) and the visual arts (an alumna of the Art Students League, she makes art in oils, watercolor, and collage, exhibiting at shows and galleries). “I do it for self-fulfillment; I love color and line.” In addition, she’s often involved in producing and participating in cultural events, such as the Up South International Book Festival.
She actually began her publishing career with a degree in library science. Having earned an undergraduate degree in social sciences with a minor in communications from Clark College in Atlanta, she got an M.L.S. from Atlanta University. “I worked as a librarian, as a scriptwriter/producer for the Atlanta Public Library’s cable network, and as the reference librarian at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a bit,” she recalled.
But it wasn’t until 1980, when she was part of the inaugural class of the Howard University Book Publishing Institute, an annual Howard University Press summer workshop that trains minorities and women for careers in magazine and book publishing, that Adero entered the world of conventional book publishing. A stint as a college textbook sales rep was followed by a job as an editorial assistant at New American Library in 1984 and 1985. She made a lateral move to S&S, where she worked her way up to editor before leaving to write Up South: Stories, Studies, and Letters of African-American Migrations for the New Press (1993). Adero returned to publishing in 1993 to join the newly formed Amistad Press, where she developed and ran its editorial department for six years, departing just before it was sold to HarperCollins in 1999.
Between then and the time she joined Atria in 2002, Adero freelanced, providing editorial consultation to authors and cultural organizations. Among her projects were The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology (Wiley, 1999), for which she wrote the proposal, developed the content, and secured the deal, and contributed to the text for Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (Doubleday, 2004) by Hurston’s niece Dr. Lucy Hurston.
A few highlights from Adero’s editorial portfolio: Miles Davis’s Miles: The Autobiography (1989), her first book with S&S; Susan L. Taylor’s In the Spirit (1999), which was the first book she published at Amistad; Gordon Parks’s final memoir, A Hungry Heart (2005); Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon (2008); Spike Lee’s first four movie tie-ins; Prince’s 21 Nights, Randee St. Nicholas’s photo book; three of T.D. Jakes’s bestselling nonfiction titles (Reposition Yourself, Making Great Decisions, Let It Go) and two of his novels (On the Seventh Day and The Memory Quilt).
Adero enjoys reading her authors, too. “I published three novels by Maryse Condé, and she’s most inspiring—I learned a lot from her as a writer. She infuses humor in writing that’s layered and steeped in the understanding of the culture and psyche of her characters.”And she recalled a memorable experience while attending a Prince concert with Miles Davis. “I learned what a big fan he was of Prince and why: he could see the influence of not only James Brown in Prince’s work, but also Gilbert & Sullivan!”
A new personal project of Adero’s is her online Home Slice magazine (at www
.homeslicemag.com), which she described as a “small platform with a wide embrace.” She added: “I love magazines and journals, and decided a couple of years ago to play with some ideas for a publication to share the ideas, images, and stories of people in my orbit. We have world views that aren’t reflected enough in existing publications—we want to be inspired, informed, and engaged!”
Last title: V-p, senior editor, Atria Books
Books on nightstand: Just Kids by Patti Smith, Americanah by Chimamanda Adiche
Forthcoming titles: Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? A Memoir by George Clinton (Nov., Atria), and Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy (Nov., Atria)