Atria Books Vice President Malaika Adero talks Black books

By// Julius Rea

For National Novel Writing month, we have talked to some of the stars — well-known and up-and-coming — about literature, novel writing and their careers. Experienced and sagely, Malaika Adero is one of the top African-American names in the publishing world. Being a Vice President and Senior Editor at Atria Books can do that for a person. JET spoke to the writer and editor about her career, and she shared some advice for writers trying to break into the business and explained the one thing she wants to see in publishing: more color.

What did you do before arriving at Atria Books?

“I’ve been in the trade side of publishing in New York since 1984. I worked at New America Library. I worked at Simon & Schuster from 1985 to 1991. I left to author a book called Upsouth: An Anthology on the African-American Migration from the South Over the First 50 years of the 20th Century. I also worked with Amistad Press, an independent African-American publishing company that was sold, years later, to Harper Collins. After working as an executive editor there for five years, I freelanced as an editor, publishing consultant and writer.  Then, in 2002, I came back to work at Atria.”

When you were younger, did you know you wanted to go into publishing?

Actually, I did. In high school, I worked on our literary journal and, in college, I was a writer being published and worked for the Institute for the Black World, an activist organization which published books as well. And that’s where I got my first experience in book production and distribution.

Looking back on it, was there one book that you fell in love with immediately that became a source of inspiration?

There were many. The first memoir I ever read was the memoir of Kareem Abdul Jabar. Among the authors that I loved as a young person were Nikki Giovonni, Amiri Baraka, Sonya Sanchez, Jackie Baldwin, but James Baldwin wrote the first novel I read.

Coming back to your current job, can you tell us about some of the first things you look for while reading new novels?

In terms of fiction, it’s art. I look for something to be well-expressed and to be well-written, great storytelling, strong characters, plot and setting — kind of traditional things. It’s like music; you look for people who understand the craft but bring something special to it. That’s what makes it magical. You look for something that will touch you and will touch other people. It needs to evoke some kind of feeling.

Are there certain qualities that you look for when you’re reading African-American fiction?

With any work, not just African-American, it’s about authenticity. The writer needs to be connected to the work.

Are there any specific topics that you’ve found African-Americans gravitate towards?

We’re like anybody else; we love great stories. We love to see ourselves in the stories, so that’s the main thing. Something particular to Black people is that we want to see that ourselves, what we look like, what we sound like, our issues, our circumstances and our history are reflected in the literature. We want something that relates to us.

What is the best piece of advice you have for aspiring novelists?

For people of  any age, write. Many people talk about the desire to write a book but, with most of them, the thoughts remain in their head and don’t get on paper. People write, dance or make music; it’s a verb not a title. So you are it by doing it.

Do you have any tips for people who are trying to break into the publishing world?

Apply. We desperately need more people of color in publishing. One of its biggest problems, in my opinion, is the lack of diversity — not just in race but background. Do the research and find the career options that are available. Publishers need lawyers, accountants, marketing people, editing people, sales people and designers. There are so many options. And be persistent because the industry needs more of that.

What continuously pushes you in your work?

The rent. But seriously, I chose this field. I love the craft. That and the fact that someone still hires me keeps me in it. I would still, if I were out of a job, continue doing this kind of work.