Here’s another one of our five question series posts from another amazing publishing professional.
Henrietta Verma, review editor at Library Journal and expert reference librarian, has agreed to share with us a little about how she found herself at Library Journal as well as her predictions for the publishing world in 2015. She also shares with us the role of professional reviewers in today’s publishing world:
1. Tell us about your background and how you joined Library Journal?
First off, thank you to Bibliocrunch for asking me to contribute to this blog. It’s fun to look back and to try to take a peek at the future.
I came to the United States from Ireland in 1994. I already had a Bachelor’s degree, and after floundering around for a while and figuring out my new home, in 1997 I started library school at Queens College in New York. At first they turned me down because Irish Bachelor’s degrees take only three years, and they wanted a four-year degree, but they finally admitted me, at first as a non-matriculated student. It took me until mid-2000 to graduate—I went to school at night and had two jobs, one full-time, one part-time—but I finally did it!
For a few years after graduation I worked in libraries. At first I was a library trainee then a reference librarian at various branches of Queens Public Library. After that I worked as a reference librarian and then library director at DeVry Institute of Technology, then in Long Island City, Queens. In 2006, while I was working at DeVry, I learned of a part-time job at School Library Journal (SLJ), editing reviews of children’s books. Over my years as a librarian I had done reviews for publications other than SLJ and my free writing paid off, because when I went to the SLJ interview with my published reviews in hand, they hired me. I worked at SLJ from 2006-2011 editing reviews of reference and other books, and I also started a supplement there that is still running, Series Made Simple. In 2011 the reference editor job opened up at LJ and I got it, and in 2012 the head of the review department left and I was promoted to that job, which I still have. Whew!
2. What do you think is the one thing missing right now in book publishing?
Diversity. It’s a problem at different levels and in different ways. First, in terms of people. Go to BEA or other publisher conventions and you still see too few people of color. I can go months in my various meetings and other encounters without meeting another immigrant who has a high-level role. And just this past December, after eight years in the business, I for the first time met a book editor with a significant disability. Economic diversity is also an issue. Sorry to say, the entrée to publishing for too many people is still to take unpaid internships or very low-paying jobs, and only young people of at least some means can do that. Lack of familiarity with a given subculture doesn’t mean that you would never take a chance on a book by someone of that background, of course, but it lessens the chance that you’ll be aware of it or of the genre it comes from, or that the author will think of your publishing house as a possibility for their book.
I only really got the importance of diversity in publishing a few years ago when I thought about what it would have meant to me as a little girl in rural Ireland to see a child of my background in a book. My favorite title as a child was Heidi—she lived on a mountainside, just like me!—but I would have been ASTOUNDED and thrilled to read a book about a little Irish girl. There may have been some, but I certainly didn’t have them. And since those books don’t exist, the myth continues that there’s no market for them, and the cycle is perpetuated. (I’ll get to the We Need Diverse Books initiative below.)
The problem exists in librarianship, too. A survey released last year by the American Library Association revealed that 87 percent of its members are white. A majority of that size of any ethnicity is of concern. It affects which books are bought for libraries and, I’m sure, how welcome minorities who are under-represented in librarianship feel in in the profession and as patrons, and which direction library hiring committees, subconsciously or not, lean. Of course, a librarian of any background can help a patron of any background, and librarians tend to be very welcoming and generous, but if a child saw a librarian like themselves, imagine what that would mean to them. Having your culture validated by seeing it represented on a library shelf is meaningful, too.
3. What role do you see professional reviewers playing in the book publishing industry?
I’m not sure what you mean by professional reviewers: our reviews are by professionals—librarians—but they’re not by people whose sole profession is to write reviews.
I think reviews published in “formal” venues such as LJ have a valuable place in a spectrum of review types. The days are gone when a print review in a traditional publication was the only show in town, and I’m glad about that. Reviews from multiple voices are valuable, especially if they tend to coalesce around a given verdict. They also offer the opportunity for the market to see a variety of review types. For example, a Goodreads reviewer has the leeway to make her review only comprehensible to fans of a very specific subgenre of sf. Those reviews are useful to those fans. LJ’s audience is librarians, meanwhile, some of whom have to buy for a whole library, so that specialized knowledge about a given genre can’t be assumed. They need information on which kind of library should buy a particular book (or not buy it) and which kind of patron it will work for. Advice on how to “sell” a given book to a patron is also invaluable to librarians and isn’t provided many places. A magazine such as ours has a role, too, as a vehicle for reviews of genres and formats that won’t be covered elsewhere. For example, while some academic journals cover reference works, LJ is one of the last magazines to have a reference section. Our poetry reviews also stand out—readers can’t find those in many places now, either. The same is true for professional development titles for librarians.
If by “professional reviewers” you mean people whose whole job it is to write reviews, I know those have their place, but I don’t rely on them myself. (Although I read them.) To me it’s something similar to when I’m buying consumer electronics. I don’t only want a review by a Silicon Valley engineer, though I might read it as part of my research. But my buying decision will be much more swayed by information from an everyday user.
4. Share something about yourself that most ppl don’t know. Also, what’s your favorite book of all time?
Most people outside of family and friends don’t know about my family background, which was covered in The New York Times last year. While it’s sad, I’m glad to have the stereotypical adoptee trait of being ambitious (read anything by Betty-Jean Lifton to explore adoptee psychology). On a lighter note, people don’t know that I love, love, love, maps (and atlases and books about cartography) and jigsaw puzzles.
My favorites are anything by David Foster Wallace (the pathologically sweaty character in The Pale King is the best-written character in literature) and Irish author Donal Ryan. Ryan so far has only two novels, both released last year in the United States: The Spinning Heart and The Thing about December. He’s writing two more novels now at the same time and I’m on the edge of my seat. Also Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. But if I had to pick one: The Spinning Heart. To find out what my LJ and SLJ colleagues and I are reading, by the way, see our weekly What We’re Reading.
5. What are some of your predictions for 2015?
Thankfully some of the problems with lack of diversity in publishing are being addressed by the We Need Diverse Books program, which is gathering steam all the time. I predict that it will only go from strength to strength this year. I’m sure the biggest book of 2015 will be Harper Lee’s second title, Go Set a Watchman, but otherwise I’m hoping for an increased number of successful titles from debut and other lesser-known authors. As the recession recedes, at LJ we’re noticing books that wouldn’t have made it to publication a few years back—more quirky standalone titles, for example, whereas for a while everything had to be in a marketable series. It’s a welcome change.
About Henrietta Verma:
Henrietta Verma (firstname.lastname@example.org, @ettaverma) is reviews editor at Library Journal, edits LJ‘s science reviews, and is one of the team behind the magazine’s new SELF-e, which will choose the best of self-published books for libraries around the country. Before joining LJ‘s staff, Etta was reference editor at School Library Journal for five years and edited that magazine’s Series Made Simple supplement. Etta, who is from Ireland, has also been a reference librarian and a library director and is the mom of two avid readers.