Leila Sales has long been drawn to books and publishing. She has worked at Penguin Young Readers since 2006, currently as an editor at Viking Children’s, and has four books to her credit as an author—most recently Tonight the Streets Are Ours (FSG, Sept.). But she sent her first submission, a middle-grade novel, to publishers when she was 11. The story featured five roommates at an all-girls boarding school for the artistically gifted. “It was rejected,” she says, “because it was by an 11-year-old.”
Sales has always been interested in children’s books. “I was a good reader—fast, thoughtful,” she says. “It drove my teachers crazy. I remember them trying to get me to read classics—big, thick books about grown-ups doing important things.” It wasn’t until her high school librarian showed her YALSA’s Alex Awards list (which highlights adult books with crossover interest for teens) that Sales finally started to find adult books that captivated her in the same way that children’s books did.
In college, Sales majored in psychology. She finds that the degree has been useful to her careers as editor and writer, because both fields are “filled with stories,” and that it also helps her understand characters’ motivations. Rather than drawing on what she sees in other novels, Sales’s background in psychology drives her to try to understand what characters would do in specific situations, with the knowledge they have, helping her create more authentic portrayals of human behavior.
After graduating, Sales sought a job that would allow her to work with children’s books. She landed in the marketing department at Penguin Young Readers for a few years, but found herself walking over to editorial with suggestions after reading galleys. When an editorial assistant position at Viking opened, Sales jumped at the opportunity.
During her early years at Viking, Sales assisted editors Catherine Frank, Tracy Gates, and Joy Peskin. “They were all really great,” she says, adding that Peskin, who would eventually figure into Sales’s writing career, was an “amazing mentor, and incredibly funny—I loved working with her.”
As Sales was learning the editorial ropes, she met agent Stephen Barbara at a party in 2008. Sales is “insanely bright,” Barbara says, with “razor-sharp wit, a real point of view, and a lot of self-confidence in how she expresses herself.”
Barbara agreed to work with Sales on her first novel. “She took a year to write it, getting early advice from editors and authors, and we had time to develop it,” Barbara says. “We went page by page, and I was laughing on each page. A lot of writers take time to find their voice and point of view, but with Leila it was always there. [Our work] was just about making it sharper.” The book, Mostly Good Girls, sold to Anica Rissi at Simon Pulse in 2009; a second novel, Past Perfect, followed in 2011.
Rissi moved on to HarperCollins right as Sales’s two-book deal at Simon & Schuster was up, which left her looking for a new publisher. At the same time, Peskin was named editorial director at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A month later, the Sales and Peskin met for lunch, and Sales brought the first 25 pages of her work in progress, This Song Will Save Your Life. Peskin read the pages on the street as she walked back to her office. “It was the first chapter,” she says. “It’s a rough chapter [emotionally], but it made me feel happy. I just loved it. When you read pages that are that perfect, you feel an ecstatic feeling.” Peskin immediately contacted Barbara to bring Sales over to FSG. Because of their time at Viking, Peskin says, “I had a good sense of how to work with [Sales] personality-wise. Part of our job as editors is being a psychotherapist, to figure what makes someone tick, and how to get their best work.” And what’s the trick with Sales? “She needs a lot of praise,” Peskin jokes.
The pair’s previous work relationship has helped inform their current author-editor relationship. Peskin delights in working with Sales, calling her “a very nimble writer. She has a great natural voice, and she’s very open to collaboration and feedback. One thing I admire is that she knows her own mind. Her confidence shines through—she knows her vision and wants to do what’s right for the book.”
A Balancing Act
Balancing her full-time day job and a writing career in her free time can be tricky, Sales says, but she has developed a system: “It's hard, obviously, but anyone would tell you that it's hard to make time for writing. I have rules in place for myself. I won’t edit outside of the office. I’ll read, but not edit. Computer time at home is for my own career. And I have a lot of friends who are YA authors so we write together.” Sales heads to friend and fellow author Lauren Oliver’s house in upstate New York for writing retreats, and in the city she often writes with friends.
Sales adds that she’s able to separate her two roles fairly easily. Peskin agrees: “She’s good at compartmentalizing. When she’s working with me, she’s an author; when she’s an editor, she’s editing. It can be challenging—when you’re an editor you’re the expert, and it can be hard to set that hat aside. I imagine it’s how a doctor would feel if he goes to the doctor. She’s very good at separating those two identities, though I have no doubt she is a better author because she knows the process from the other side.”
Sales eventually rose from editorial assistant to editor at Viking, and she has worked on projects for all ages. “I like books with resolutions you’re not able to anticipate from page one,” she says, pointing to Tea Party Rules, Ame Dyckman and K.G. Campbell’s recent picture book. “It’s really funny and really cute. There’s clear conflict but done in a whimsical way.” When working on novels for middle graders or teens, Sales searches out works that evoke empathy and surprise—particularly when characters have an interesting way of viewing the world—and that move beyond stereotypes.
“I look for books that feel life affirming in some way, and that’s a large part of why I love children’s books—because that feels necessary for a kids’ book, even for a YA novel,” Sales says. “Adult books just don’t have that requirement.” Among the titles she has edited are Sally Green’s Half Bad trilogy, Gayle Forman’s I Was Here and Just One Night, and Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli. Sales edits around 12–15 titles a year, “pretty evenly distributed among picture books, chapter books, middle grade, YA, and nonfiction,” she says. “So at any given point in time, I’m working on a lot of different books, all in various stages of production.” Sales is currently editing another picture book from Dyckman, to be illustrated by Bob Shea.
“I think what my job as an editor allows me to do is to get a sense of what the obvious choices are,” Sales says, when considering her day job’s influence on her writing craft. “I know every stereotypical character, every obvious resolution to a conflict. And it’s such a delight when I’m surprised by something, and I don’t know how it’s going to end, or when the character has a particular way of looking at things that I wouldn’t have considered. So when I’m writing, I’m trying to surprise myself.”
Sales’s latest YA novel, Tonight the Streets Are Ours, follows 17-year-old Arden, a generous-to-a-fault friend who goes on a road trip to meet a blogger whose work she admires (and who turns out to be quite different in real life), in the process doing something for herself for once. “Thematically, there are two big parts to Tonight,” she says. “One is the online component—the way people present themselves online is not necessarily who they are. That’s their business, but you do yourself a real disservice if you take their story as truth.” And second, there’s the theme of selflessness, almost to a fault in Arden’s case. “I find that society tells women that what they’re worth is how much they’re willing to sacrifice for other people,” Sales reflects. “And I think girls really internalize that. Not all girls, but some. Arden does. I think I had a similar definition of love to what Arden has, and it isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s just that it’s overly simplistic.”
As far as what’s next for Sales, she has plenty to keep her busy. This Song Will Save Your Life has been optioned for both film and Broadway, in an unusual deal brokered by Michelle Weiner at CAA. She is at work on her next YA novel for Peskin, and her first middle-grade novel, Once Was a Time, will be published by Chronicle next March—her first middle-grade work since that manuscript she shopped around at age 11. Though the new book, which features time travel, is a new genre for Sales, she won’t be using a pseudonym, saying, “I write under my name because I want people that were mean to me, and my exes, to know my success.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Catherine Frank's name and had the incorrect publication year for Past Perfect.