Publisher Mara Anastas Talks with Roger

Mara Anastas Talks with Roger

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As the vice president and publisher of Aladdin Books and Simon Pulse, Mara Anastas and her team work hard to have their fingers on the...well, you know, of children's and YA today.

Roger Sutton: How did you arrive in the job you have today?

Mara Anastas: I actually came up through sales and subrights. It was a nontraditional way to become a publisher. I was always in sales, and then had the opportunity to run subrights here at S&S. They called it VP of sales, and I worked with all the publishers on their budgets.

RS: Wish you'd come here and work on mine.

MA: Well, I'm happy to do that. Any time. Although that could be a conflict of interest.

RS: Might be.

MA: Then the division was totally reorganized, and they created this role of deputy publisher. They asked me to be the deputy publisher for a couple of imprints, and then since I was on the publishing side and had learned that part of the business, I moved over into the role of publisher for Simon Pulse and Aladdin Books. I'm so lucky to be the publisher — lucky that I get to come here every day and work with the people I work with, because they all love what they do, which makes my job so much easier. That's probably the best part of the whole thing.

RS: Didn't both of those imprints used to be exclusively paperback?

MA: Yes, a while ago. But if you look at the lists today and what's coming up — Want by Cindy Pon and Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman and Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon — they're really diverse lists. It's all about having the editors work on what's most exciting to them. We're publishing fantasy and science fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, romance.

RS: I'm guessing that in your job, and it's certainly true in mine, knowing what you like is an important part of it. You realize that there are genres that, while they definitely have their fans, you might not be one of them — but it doesn't mean you don't have a responsibility to treat that genre fairly.

MA: That's exactly true. Even though this book or that may not be your exact cup of tea, you know when the writing is good and the voice is compelling. You know where it's going to fit into the market and that it'll be a book that people are going to like.

RS: What kind of book do you take to the beach?

MA: I do love a contemporary realistic book. If I had my choice they'd be all contemporary realistic, but that doesn't make for a well-rounded list.

I also love a good mystery, and we do have some good YA mysteries as well. Maggie Thrash, the kind of mysteries she writes — we originally called her book We Know It Was You — it was a clever satire, and some people, I think, missed that, so we've repackaged it as Strange Truth and Strange Lies.

RS: Satire's tricky. You have to have that particular bump on your brain. Not everybody has it. If you read everything in a really straightforward kind of way, that type of irony doesn't work for you.

MA: That's true.

RS: What do you think makes a Simon Pulse book?

MA: It's the editors behind them. Take our new books When Dimple Met Rishi and The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell. One is basically a rom-com, and one is fantasy and magic. You get all of these different editors with different tastes, who are smart and connected to what they're doing, and that's what creates great books. If you're doing the thing that you love, you're going to do a great job at it.

RS: The Simon Pulse books that I've read do seem very hook-y. For example, with something like Amy Reed's The Nowhere Girls. One kid who has read it can say to another kid, very quickly, "It's this book about these girls who decide to do something about the rape culture at their high school and form a secret society." It's the sort of thing that's going to have the other kid just grabbing the book out of the first kid's hands. You don't publish quiet books.

MA: I appreciate that you said that. I don't think we publish quiet books either. In fact, The Nowhere Girls is a perfect example of the non-quiet books we publish, because it tackles tough issues like rape culture in a very careful way. Many of the Pulse books touch directly on issues and emotions that teens are going through. We're giving them a way to deal with what's happening currently in the world, through fiction.

RS: Do you have a sense of what the breakdown is for either Simon Pulse readers or YA readers in general, in terms of gender and age?

MA: The prevailing wisdom is that it's eighty percent girls reading teen books. There are also those reports that say that most people who buy teen books are over the age of twenty. But — and I always hate when people say this in sales meetings — I have a thirteen-year-old daughter. I know ten-year-olds are reading teen books.

RS: Sure.

MA: It was always that way. I read up when I was ten, eleven, twelve. I wanted to read stuff that I wasn't supposed to read. I remember reading Forever... at a friend's house, and staying up the entire night to read it because I knew my mom would never buy it for me. I encourage my daughter to read books with positive sexual experiences in them.

RS: Do you find that being a parent affects how you think about publishing?

MA: I think it did when my kids were younger, especially because at the time, I was also working in preschool. I do now learn about marketing from my kids.

RS: What do you mean?

MA: I knew about Snapchat before we were even talking about it in the office. My son and daughter were using all of these apps, and playing certain games on their phones, and then suddenly I was reading about it on YPulse as if it was this brand-new phenomenon. So I look to them for the next big social media activity. But it's the editors here who are really smart about what they're reading and sharing their insights. Like I said — I learn something every day from the people I work with.

RS: Are they of a different generation? he asks, delicately.

MA: Everybody here is younger than I am. It is quite a young team. They bring stuff to the table that I wouldn't — like the whole concept of sensitivity readers. We weren't doing that two years ago.

RS: And is that something you do now?

MA: I think a lot of publishers are doing it. At least the discussion of it has started. And there are certain types of books that we wouldn't have even thought of publishing years ago, or subjects we wouldn't have talked about. Strong female characters have always been a core of most of the books we've published. But the way we write about them and the kinds of characters they are has changed over the years. Going back to The Nowhere Girls as an example, taking on rape culture in that way is really important. Some of the books we're doing now are quite different from the books we've done in the past.

RS: I'm probably generalizing wildly here — but in YA fiction, girls are tougher than they used to be. Even when they were tough thirty years ago, there was always a sort of tomboy-cute quality to it. Think of Katniss, for example. Not a tomboy. Not cute. Just tough, fierce. I think there's more freedom for that kind of characterization in YA now.

MA: I think tough can mean a lot of things, and at Pulse, we try to show a range of what that can mean. You can be tough whether you're in a romance or shooting a bow and arrow. I'm thinking of a book we have coming out, Last Star Burning by Caitlin Sangster, where that character is kind of a warrior, having to go out and live off the land. She's tough in the way that Katniss is tough, but you could also be tough in the way the Nowhere Girls are tough, taking on real issues that are actually happening to girls in school every single day. We can publish books like The Last Magician, which is fantasy, but also publish things that take on environmental issues, like Want does. And books like Kara Lee Corthron's The Truth of Right Now, which confronts violence and bullying, with a tough female character.

RS: Do you have in your head, or do your editors have in their heads, do you think, an ideal reader for your books?

MA: That's a really good question. I would say with each book the editor connects with an author's voice and topic. We publish the kind of books that we needed as kids.

RS: That's interesting.

MA: It goes back to that organic love of a manuscript that you're getting into, or the love of a topic, and you want that book to come to life, so you find the right writer to do it. It becomes something you can really champion as editor, and marketing can really champion, and that's what creates the magic. When I say "the magic," I mean the books that really resonate with readers. When you have books like When Dimple Met Rishi — for one editor who never saw herself in romantic comedies, to be able to publish that romantic comedy and get the feedback from teens that, oh my god I'm finally seeing myself in a book, it feels great.

RS: Do you as a publisher — and I'm not going to ask you to name any names — do you look at your forthcoming list and make bets with yourself about which books are going to do the best?

MA: Absolutely. That's the whole game. That's the game you play with the business office too. You do the budget for the upcoming year and you go, "Okay, but where's the money really going to come from?" And you point to a couple of books on the list. At the end of the day, it's still a business. That's the biggest contradiction. It's art, but it's a business. You're grappling with those two things all the time. From every little phone call you have with any author, any agent, any conversation with a designer, anything — it's art, but you've got to make money. That, to me, is the greatest challenge. But that's also what makes it fun.

RS: How then do you turn art into money?

MA: That is why Pulse is what it is. We built a team of editors who each has a specific vision for the kinds of books she likes. They each, in a way, have a little mini-imprint of their own. But as a team we read everything together. Sometimes there'll be feedback, like an editor's not really sure if there is a market for a project, and they bring it to the whole group and then we make a decision. But on the flip side, they're bringing in the books that they love, and then we take it from there. Because that love comes across when an editor presents that book to sales. That gets contagious. And then you're presenting that book to the designer, and the designer is then getting excited about making a cover for it, and you have this great book that ends up with a great cover and a great title, and then you're presenting it at the sales meeting, and then everybody's getting excited about it, because it's the book you always wanted to do. It's a personal story, which also comes across. I wish I had taped Jennifer Ung's presentation of American Panda, a book by Gloria Chao that's coming out next March. The book is so true to Jennifer's own life. The room was roaring, because she was so funny in her presentation, but it was also a great story, with a great title and a great cover. People are excited about it, because they heard a great presentation, and you can only give a great presentation when you really feel good about what you worked on.

RS: This is an interesting point that you're making. We often talk about successful books coming from people who are able to read the market well. But you're talking about making successful books by creating the market. The authors and the editors and the sales forces, the marketing department — everybody's enthusiasm can make a great success.

MA: I absolutely believe that. Editors who are really excited about something would go from person to person and talk about the book. Some bestsellers just come from that excitement. Pulse can take those commercial, marketable books that are beautifully written stories and support that passion.

RS: So my next question almost contradicts the one we just had, but I remember years ago, Jean Feiwel telling me zombies were going to be the next big thing, and I laughed at her. This was during vampires.

MA: She was probably right.

RS: She was totally right.

MA: She did My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish, and I wanted it. She bought it. I remember that.

RS: Do you have a prediction for what the next big thing will be?

MA: If I knew what the next big thing was going to be, I'd probably be running a much larger children's division at a very large house. I don't think anyone can predict what the next big thing will be. What we do is continue to use what's at our disposal, which is the passion for what we do. That's what I think will lead to, like you said earlier, creating the market rather than having the market decide for us what we should create.

Sponsored by
Simon & Schuster

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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