Industry Insights with Jesse Shuman, Associate Editor at Ballantine Books
By Karoline Tübben and Zahra Islam
This week, we spoke to Jesse Shuman about his experience of being an Associate Editor and some of the projects he’s worked on . . .
How did you get into publishing initially?
I wanted to be a writer – that’s what I studied in college. But I loved working with other writers, offering feedback and seeing the difference it made when someone who read my own work closely saw my intentions and offered me a key. It’s a specific thought or point that comes out of a deep sense of care and that opens a story up in an unexpected way. As I’m sure almost every editor will say, books were a kind of escape for me throughout my life. The idea of transforming books from a Word doc to a tangible object seemed like a pretty cool career option too.
In your opinion, do you think that being a native New Yorker was an advantage, given that the US publishing industry is somewhat centred in NYC?
Being a New Yorker gave me a real advantage. I was able to take on internships (I think I ended up working five total – doubling up some semesters and post-college years) while living at home with my parents. It’s important for me to be honest about that: I was privileged, but I hope things are changing for others who don’t share my experience.
How would you describe your experience of working on the You novels by Caroline Kepnes? On that topic, what are your thoughts on the process of adapting books into film/TV shows? How does that work from an editorial perspective?
It’s been a highlight of my life. Caroline’s many fans know just how blazingly intelligent, sharp and fun her work is. To me, they are the epitome of voice-driven fiction because Joe grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Sure, the body counts pile up, but Caroline also has this wonderful literary sensibility and ambition. And she’s so kind, so humble, so cool. To say I admire her is an understatement.
I view adaptations as their own thing, their own world really. Often, we’ll work together with studios and streamers to do tie-in editions, to say “Hey! Read the book and see what inspired it all!” Of course, we want people to discover the original genius behind any project.
Can you tell us about a project you are working on now and what you find most challenging, enjoyable or rewarding about it?
There are so many, but I’ll talk about one. Jinwoo Chong is the author of Flux, which was such an ambitious and mind-bending debut. He is a tremendous talent and rising star and he’s really taken things to the next level with his new book: I Leave It Up to You. It’s about a Korean-American man who ran away from his destiny of taking over for his father as chef at their sushi restaurant. He went to college. He fell in gay love. He hadn’t spoken to them in years. But then he wakes up from a coma to find himself utterly alone – but his family’s there. They bring him back and he returns to the point of choice again, wiser than before, and with the possibility to lead a better, more soulful life. It’s offbeat, it’s heart-rendering, there are gorgeous depictions of food. Oh, and there’s a wonderfully tender love story with his former male nurse. I could talk about this book forever.
My favourite aspect of being an editor is providing a key. You’re having conversations with your author, and you’re in deep. You’re trying to see what they’re doing on the most fundamental level and you’re bringing in your own experience – which might be so different from theirs – to enrich it. It’s in those many talks where I might say something and it sparks a grand idea from my author, and that epiphany, that convergence of understanding and artistic generation, it sends chills up my spine. It happened a lot with Jinwoo. As an editor, I often fear my ideas will lead things astray, or that I may have failed to understand the soul of a book, but you can course-correct and if you’re lucky, and right, and the trust is there… you make magic.
Can you recommend any online courses for editing/proofreading that you have taken in order to help you start in the industry or that you’ve undertaken to keep up to date (and do you think it’s essential to have some of these under your belt)?
I read for agents and literary journals (who work in accordance with style guides) and you get a sense of not only catering to specific tastes, but also trusting in your intuition: When you see it, you know! And then, when you’re good at that, you start to see what a book has done and what you want from it, and in trying to shave down the boundaries between the real and the ideal, bam, you’re editing. I think there are more chances now, with the advent of remote work, to inquire about these opportunities.
I think knowing how to read and analyse is the most important step when you’re just starting out. From there, it’s usually editors you work for who can teach you. Just getting to see veteran editors’ notes and line edits taught me so much.
There is a Wishlist on your website of projects you wish to work on in the future, how do you come up with the list? Are these projects inspired by potential future industry trends and previous projects you’ve worked on?
A combination of reading and being nosy about sales figures. As editors, we bring in passion and personal taste, but you also have to back everything up. Having a repertoire of books you’ve read in the market to refer to is a necessity.
I’m also always talking to friends about what they want, what they like and don’t like. “Future sight” (is that a term or a Pokémon move?) in publishing seems, to me, to be a lot of luck, but if you read widely, you’re on the internet and you’re a person communicating with others in society, you can discern patterns if you’re open to seeing them.
What advice would you give someone looking for, or just starting, their first role in publishing?
Be patient with yourself. I had so many interviews, so many internships. Eventually, hopefully, you will click with someone who sees your potential. I’ve been lucky to have accrued so many amazing mentors. Also, being in the thick of it in an actual publishing job is so different from writing reader’s reports all day. I’m still constantly surprised by what comes up in my day-to-day. I’m still learning.