Meet the Conference Faculty

An Interview with Editor Meg Leder

Meg Leder is an executive editor at Penguin Books. She’s looking for nonfiction books that are as beautiful to look at and own as they are to read. Her acquisitions include the international bestseller Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith (and subsequent titles by Smith), bestseller Chasers of the Light by Tyler Knott Gregson, and Souris Hong’s contemporary art coloring book Outside the Lines. She’s interested in nonfiction books that appeal to the gift and trade markets, as well as quirky upmarket nonfiction. Previous to working at Penguin Books, she worked at Perigee Books, McGraw-Hill Trade, Writer’s Digest Books, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers. She’s the author of the forthcoming young adult novel The Museum of Heartbreak (Simon Pulse, 2016). Read the interview below to learn more.
meg-lederScribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?
Meg Leder: For a long time, I used to describe the books I worked on as my babies, and compared the process to being a parent. Now, however, I’ve amended that analogy to say that I’m more of the midwife. My job is to help an author bring into the world the smartest, strongest book possible. The book is their baby, and my job is to help it make its way into the world: to be the best possible in-house advocate, to anticipate problems ahead of time, and to suggest ways to make it better.
On that note, I tend to work pretty intensely with my authors—shaping the projects from the get-go and doing a lot of heavy editing, with the idea that it’s a dialogue—if they don’t love something, we can talk about it. Often, if there’s something that’s not working, I’ll suggest a way to address it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Being a good editor involves listening to what the author wants and trying to honor that, while also thinking of the reader. I also like to remind myself that at the end of the day, my authors and I have the same goal: to make the best book possible.
Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?
ML: While I write fiction in my free time, for my full-time career, I’m a nonfiction editor at Penguin. For nonfiction authors, I’m first looking at the idea (and since I acquire a lot of illustrated books, often the aesthetics as well). If there’s something there that catches my attention, then I start taking next steps. Who is this person, do they have a platform, are they amenable to editing and growing, will they be active advocates for their books? Will we work well together? Do they have a realistic understanding of the marketplace and how their book fits into it? And then I’m on to looking at what the marketplace is like—is there a good chance I can make a go of this particular project with this particular author at this particular point in time?
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
ML: Maybe not advice so much as empathy: be aware that your writing is making you a crazy person. When my agent started shopping around my young adult novel, I figured I’d pretty much be a dream author. I’ve been an editor for more than 15 years, so I know how things work from a professional angle—whether it’s the acquisition process or cover design, etc. Turns out, all that professional wisdom and common sense goes right out the window when it comes to my own writing. I’m in the middle of revising my novel for Simon Pulse (publishing next year), and I’m so incredibly tired of revising, I obsess about the cover constantly. I lay in bed at night and try to think what my character should be doing. I let myself look at Good Reads (How do I already have a 4-star review? I’m not even done with the book yet!), and anytime I email my awesome agent, I constantly refresh my email for the next twenty minutes to see if he’s written back. (Not to mention the editor rejection letters I can still quote from memory.)
I should know better! But it turns out, no matter how much I know about the process, when I’m in writing brain, all I can think about is me, me, me, my book, my book, and me. The crazy is still there, even if I’ve been an editor, so I’ve tried to moderate it as much as possible – to remember my agent and editor have a lot of authors who are in the same spot, to remind myself that my publisher wants to sell the book as much as I do, and to know if something’s bugging me, it’s best to sit on it and see if it’s still bugging me 24 hours later before sending off a crazy email. I’ve also tried to bring this understanding to working with my own authors.
So maybe the advice would be: be aware that your writing is making you a crazy person, and then try to moderate it. It won’t go away necessarily, but try to make it as tolerable as possible for everyone around you.
Scribe: Tell us about a project you took on because there was something special or unique about it, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on; or tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an editor.
ML: The proudest moment of my career? Pretty much anything and everything associated with Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal. I acquired the book in 2005 and published it in 2007. Since then, it’s gone to sell more than three and a half million copies worldwide, and I’ve been able to continue signing up amazing projects from Keri. What I love so much about Wreck (even more than the incredible sales) is the passion it inspires—Keri routinely shares reader letters with me, and they’re amazing. People have written her telling her how Wreck has helped them work through suicidal thoughts and self-harming tendencies, how it’s provided an outlet for their feelings of loneliness, how it’s helped them grow as artists. She gets letters from teens and kids and seniors and even soldiers in Iraq. It’s an honor to have participated in a project that has reached so many people. Keri’s a truly good person who thinks in such brilliant, beautiful, and new ways, and I love that my job involves getting her amazing ideas out into the world.
— Thanks, Meg!
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