It’s a quiet, cool day in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood when I meet Yahdon Israel to adanne, a bookstore dedicated to African-American culture. The word “Serenity,” also her daughter’s name, dances across her fingers in black ink. It’s a good word for now. We start chatting easily, surrounded by the warmth of books, incense, and walls stained with sweet tangerine.

I first discovered Yahdon on Instagram, his account was once (and still is) dedicated to impeccable style and literary taste. This combination became Literary Swag, both a phenomenon he cultivated and a Reading Club he designed and named “the best-dressed book club in Brooklyn.” Literary Swag was partly created to make books cool and accessible to people who didn’t read and to connect with like-minded people, people who knew being into great literature didn’t stop you from reading either. look great. You could be Roxane Gay and in Marc Jacobs, for example, or Alexander Chee and in Zegna.

Although heralded by the likes of the New York Times and NBC, Literary Swag is only one facet of Yahdon’s work in the literary sphere. He also has an MFA from The New School; is an instructor at City College; was editor of Brooklyn Magazine; served as an associate of the National Book Critics’ Circle, among many other accomplishments. And then, in March 2021, he became editor at book publisher Simon & Schuster.

Yahdon Israel’s hand tattoo

Elyssa Goodman

His path is not typical, one that Yahdon himself did not expect. “I didn’t even know I could be an editor,” he told InsideHook. He knew he was interested in participating in the literary world and had shown such an interest over the course of his career, but for a long time being an editor was something someone was in many ways traditionally ‘groomed’ as. undergraduate student or college student. MFA program: you would become a junior member of a publishing house and progress. Even further, it was a perspective of those from wealthy families in high society. If none of these things applied, was being an editor even a possibility?

“I wanted to be part of making books, but I thought the only way to do that was to write books,” he said. He developed his own work, but over time he learned there could be more to his story. “I didn’t know there were all these other ways of inhabiting the industry and I think that’s true for a lot of people. [whose] first encounter with their love for books is by reading them. But there are so many hands in this experience. It also turned out that you could groom yourself in a non-traditional way. His interest in publishing began in 2015, and it was an accumulation of skills, he said, including his stint at Brooklyn Magazine and as a content director at a startup, that brought him to believe that he could really do it.

This thought popped up during a conversation with Simon & Schuster Senior Vice President and Publisher Dana Canedy last year, just before he was hired. “I remember her saying, ‘It breaks my heart to know that you didn’t know [you could be an editor].’ And she said to me, ‘You’ve done publishing, curating and finding an audience and all these different things’. You galvanized books and talked to writers, you did an editor’s job and you didn’t know it,” he recalled. By creating and working according to his own interests in the literary world, Yahdon acquired all the skills required of an editor in a leading publishing house like Simon & Schuster. In an industry renowned for its exclusivity that is making strides in changing the way it operates, Yahdon, his work and his hiring have set an example of what is possible as a new era of publishing begins.

He started putting his own ideas into motion almost immediately. Three days after starting, Yahdon recorded a video on Instagram titled “The book I want to acquire, the writers I want to invest in”. In the nearly hour-long video, Yahdon transparently touched on the types of work he was interested in, how he wanted to work with writers, the business side of the industry, his feelings on writer’s responsibility. to his audience and more. Although many agents list the types of online work they’re interested in, it’s much rarer for editors to do the same.

The video went viral, picked up by Publisher’s Marketplace and Shondaland, and has nearly 24,000 views to date. The publishing industry has long been characterized by what is seen as a lack of transparency, but perhaps more accurately it has its own language that has been spoken internally for so long that something gets lost in the translation outside. Yahdon’s hope with his work in general is to dispel that, to help people understand how the industry works on both sides, and to prepare them for the developing partnership between writer, publisher, and audience. . “What I was able to do was come in with the curiosity of like, how does that work?” he says. “I wanted to be able to connect the dots for people and connect the dots for myself so I could explain it to people.” The video was just the start.

Yahdon’s transparency on social media has seen his inbox open to agent and non-agent writers whose work fits into all the boxes he detailed. He proudly announcement all of his acquisitions in line with the publisher’s market listing and includes screenshots of the back and forth communication about how he came together, the backstory, and generally a great outfit. It remains at the forefront of this transparency. Over the past year, his non-fiction acquisitions include memoirs about diversifying a Colorado garden by Camille T. Dungy; Mental Illness and Southern Evangelical Faith by Anna Gazmarian; and Confront Whiteness by Garrett Bucks; and fiction includes a collection of short stories about the lives of black Muslims by Aaliyah Bilal.

Scribner’s veteran editor, Kathy Belden, believes Yahdon’s vision and passion for books will take him far and help make the industry more inclusive. “If the best way to change what gets published is to change who makes the decisions about what gets published, if publishers are essentially new businesses, the only way to really change that is to change the people who make the decisions” , she says. “So he will have an impact there. I also think his entrepreneurial approach to things means he won’t necessarily do things the way they are done, which I’m sure will lead to new ways of looking at things. And that’s part of what I love about the conversations I continue to have with him is seeing someone from the outside looking at the industry with fresh eyes.

Likewise, Rakia Clark, editor at Mariner Books and a 20-year industry veteran, is enthusiastic about Yahdon’s work and believes he can impact the industry “in wild and wonderful ways”. She hears a lot about people wanting to make changes in publishing by being disruptive, and while she agrees, she considers Yahdon’s approach to her work to be quite expansive. “There is a difference in the way the work is performed because there is a difference in the way the work is received,” she says. “I don’t think Yahdon is trying to turn things around that much. He brought his own chair to the table. It is another type of chair. But he knows deeply, deeply the other chairs that are already there. So he’s not just throwing elbows saying everyone’s doing him wrong. He wants to be additive. And I think that’s really exciting.

Yahdon Israel's pile of books

Yahdon Israel’s pile of books

Elyssa Goodman

Interestingly, Yahdon’s love for books developed while he was a student at Pace University — he only went to college, he says, because his mother wanted it there. go. Growing up, he found reading tedious: Raised as a Jew in Brooklyn, he spent every Friday and Saturday from dusk to dusk doing careful Torah readings and wishing he was outside in contact with other people. Reading, he found, wasn’t so much the way to go back then, where music, movies, wrestling and Pokemon were. In college, he began to read voraciously in the library. It took on a new form when the work of James Baldwin was discovered. Moved by the writer’s words, particularly “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely costly it is to be poor”, from Baldwin’s 1960 Esquire essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” Yahdon says he developed a better understanding of the possibilities of literature. “People who are able, by identifying specificities of the human condition, to talk about what we all experience, literature is that for me,” he says. “That’s when it became enjoyable, when I saw that it applied to everything, it didn’t just apply to school, it didn’t just apply to the study of Bible or temple and stuff like that… That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, now I can make this fun’ because now it was malleable in a way that I had never seen her before.

Yahdon’s understanding of this malleability has allowed him to fashion a life in literature that is truly of his own design. He saw how he wanted literature to have a place in his life, filled the voids he saw, and invited others to participate in his vision, whether in his work with Literary Swag, now at Simon & Schuster, or anywhere in between. He did it all by being himself, that person inspired as much by Cathy Park Hong as Kanye West, wearing thick square-rimmed glasses and painted fingernails, leather pants and locs.

“I’m showing up like I’m not because I’m trying to prove a point. It’s because I can’t do my job the way I want even though I’m not fully myself,” he says. “If I’m shrinking at times when I should be expanding, I’m complicit in perpetuating the very things I’m trying to dismantle.”