In March 2021, days after he was hired as a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, Yahdon Israel went on Instagram Live to tell his thousands of followers what kind of books he was looking to acquire—essentially a call for submissions, which Big Five editors rarely put out.
He would be acquiring eight to 12 books per year, he said, and briefly rattled off the genres he was looking for. But for most of the livestream, he painted a picture of the sort of writer he wanted to work with: writers with strong senses of selves as well as business acumen, who understand that their art is also a product and that their work doesn’t end with turning in manuscripts. He encouraged anyone who fit the bill to email him directly.
Later that day, he received an email from a self-taught, unagented writer named Aaliyah Bilal with the manuscript for a debut short story collection about the lives of Black Muslims in America. It was titled Temple Folk.
“This book is the proof of concept of what hiring someone like me could mean for this industry,” Israel said of Temple Folk, which was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. As an editor, Israel is keen to circumvent traditional channels—for instance, he hosts livestreams instead of lunching with agents—to engage directly with writers outside of the literary establishment. Temple Folk showed that alternative methods of acquisition can yield extraordinary results.
“She knew who she was and she knew who she wanted to be as a writer,” he said of Bilal. “But how would an agent have found her?” For Israel, looking for authors outside of their usual habitats—your Iowa Writers Workshops, your Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences—creates a healthier literary ecosystem.
“There are people who don’t have an agent, don’t have MFAs, and are probably writing something fire—and there’s actually no way to get to that person,” he said. “You’re trusting—or you’re hoping—that the cream rises to the top, but that only works if there are reliable and consistent factors that are finding cream in all its forms.” The onus, he said, is on the publishing industry to actively seek out talent, whether it be authors or employees, in unconventional places: “If you look for it, you’ll find it.”
Israel himself came to S&S without a traditional publishing background. Though he had long been deeply involved in the literary world—he served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and the selection committee for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, taught at CUNY’s MFA program and the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and founded the Literaryswag Book Club, among other endeavors—he had never before worked at a publisher.
But the circumstances of his hiring, he stressed, were “an anomaly.” In late February 2021, Israel reached out to Kathryn Belden—a friend and Scribner’s editorial director—to let her know he was looking for a job in publishing, hopeful it might lead to an informational interview. Within a week, he was being courted by S&S CEO Jonathan Karp and then-publisher Dana Canedy. To his surprise, they offered him a senior editor role, despite him being prepared to start in an entry-level position. “Without those people,” he said of Belden, Karp, and Canedy, “I’d still be circling the outer perimeter of the industry.”
At every opportunity, Israel gives due credit to his colleagues—a personal practice that encapsulates the philosophy behind his social media presence. He’s become known for using Instagram to demystify the publishing process, and in doing so, he hopes to show readers—especially those who might balk at the prices on hardcovers—just how much work and how many people are needed to publish a book.
“Part of that transparency is about getting consumers to really think about, well, why does this book cost so much?” he said. “Because there’s a lot of labor from a lot of people that contributes to what you’re reading. It’s about getting people to appreciate labor that they don’t see, to think about the entire process that extends beyond and in addition to an author.”
He likened his explanatory Instagram posts to flinging open the kitchen doors in a restaurant, telling patrons to “look at these line cooks and look at how much goes into that meal.”
Humanizing the labor behind books, Israel hopes, can also help nurture an affinity between readers and publishers. “I realized that publishing is a B2B business,” he said. “Most consumers don’t buy their books from publishers directly,” instead going through retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or indie booksellers, so “that colophon on the side of the book really means very little to a consumer. How do I give a sense of a more direct feeling, a more intimate connection, between the publisher and the consumer?”
Broadcasting the industry’s inner-workings and his own work on Instagram, Israel bucks what he called “the old Max Perkins framework,” in which editors strive to be invisible. “I think that what that also does, ironically, is inadvertently reduce the valuation that an average person has for a book, because in their mind you’re only paying for one thing.” Writing a book may be solitary pursuit, he added, but publishing is “a collaborative endeavor.”
Case in point: while telling the story of Temple Folk’s success, Israel detailed not only his own contributions, but also those of his colleagues, including publicist Chonise Bass, Sienna Ferris and Imani Seymour of the multicultural marketing department, and former S&S editor-in-chief Mary Sue Rucci, whom he called “an unsung hero” of the book.
As for Israel, one of his most heroic feats has been managing his inbox, which is perpetually flooded with submissions. The day after his initial Instagram livestream, the one that yielded Temple Folk, he received more than 500 manuscripts. But Israel’s open call remains open.
“For every 500 submissions, you get Temple Folk,” he said. “And when you think about it, isn’t that worth it?”