It’s a quiet, chilly day in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood when I meet Yahdon Israel at Adanne, a bookstore dedicated to African-American culture. The word “Serenity,” also his daughter’s name, dances across his fingers in black ink. It’s a good word for the moment. We begin chatting easily, surrounded by the warmth of books, incense, and walls colored a soft tangerine.
The first time I discovered Yahdon was on Instagram, his account was at one point (and still is) dedicated to impeccable style and literary taste. This combination became Literary Swag, both a phenomenon he cultivated and a book club he designed and named “Brooklyn’s best dressed book club.” Literary Swag was in part created to make books cool and accessible to people who didn’t read and to connect with like minded individuals, people who knew that being into great literature didn’t exclude you from looking great, either. You could be Roxane Gay and into Marc Jacobs, for example, or Alexander Chee and into Zegna.
Though 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 the City College; was the editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Magazine; served as an associate of the National Book Critics’ Circle, among many other accomplishments. And then, in March of 2021, he became a Senior Editor at book publisher Simon & Schuster.
His path is not a typical one, one Yahdon himself didn’t 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 enacted 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” for as an undergrad or an MFA program: you’d become a junior member of a publishing house, and work your way up. Even further back, it was a prospect of those in well-to-do, high society families. If none of these things applied, was being an editor even a possibility?
“I wanted to be a part of bookmaking, but I thought the only way that I could do that was by writing books,” he said. He developed his own work, but over time he learned there could be more to his story. “I did not know that there were all these other ways I can inhabit the industry and I think that 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 that experience.” It turned out, too, that you could groom yourself in a non-traditional way. His interest in editing began in 2015, and it was an accumulation of skills, he said–including his time at Brooklyn Magazine and as the Content Director at a startup–that led him to believe he could really do it.
This thought came up in a conversation with Simon & Schuster Senior Vice President and Publisher Dana Canedy last year, just before he was hired. “I remember her saying, ‘that breaks my heart to know that you didn’t know [you could be an editor].’ And she was like, ‘you’ve been doing editorial, curating and finding an audience and all these different things. You’ve been galvanizing books, and talking to writers, you’ve been doing the work of an editor and you didn’t know that,’” he remembers. By crafting and working within his own interests in the literary world, Yahdon gained all of the skills required of a Senior Editor at a top-tier publishing house like Simon & Schuster. In an industry with a reputation for exclusivity that is making strides in changing how it works, Yahdon, his work, and his hiring set an example of what’s possible as a new era of publishing begins.
He started setting his own ideas into motion almost immediately. Three days after he started, Yahdon recorded a video on Instagram entitled “The Book I Want to Acquire, The Writers I Want to Invest In.” In the nearly hour-long video, Yahdon transparently addressed the kinds of work he was interested in, how he wanted to work with writers, the business side of the industry, his feelings on the writer’s responsibility to their audience and more. While many agents will list the kinds of work they’re interested in online, it’s significantly more rare for editors to do the same.
The video went viral, picked up by the likes of both Publisher’s Marketplace and Shondaland, and to date has nearly 24,000 views. The publishing industry has long been characterized by what’s seen as a lack of transparency but maybe more accurately has a language of its own that’s been spoken in-house for so long that something gets lost in translation on the outside. Yahdon’s hope with his work in general is to dispel that, to help people understand how the industry works from both sides, and to prepare them for the partnership that develops between the writer, the editor, and the audience. “What I’ve been able to do is come in with the curiosity of like, how does this work together?” he says. “I wanted to be able to connect dots for people and connect dots for myself to be able to explain it to people.” The video was just the beginning.
Yahdon’s transparency on social media saw his inbox open up to both agented and unagented writers whose work fit into all of the boxes he detailed. He proudly announces all of his acquisitions online with the Publisher’s Marketplace listing and includes screenshots of back and forth communication about how it came together, backstory, and usually a great outfit. He remains at the forefront of such transparency. In the last year, his nonfiction acquisitions include memoirs of diversifying a Colorado garden by Camille T. Dungy; of mental illness and Southern Evangelical faith by Anna Gazmarian; and of confronting whiteness by Garrett Bucks; and fiction includes a short story collection about Black Muslim life by Aaliyah Bilal.
Veteran Scribner 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 is published is to change who’s making the decisions about what’s being published, if editors are essentially new business, the only way we’re really going to change it is to change the people making the decisions,” she says. “So he will make an impact there. I also think his entrepreneurial approach to things means he won’t necessarily just do things the way they’re done, which I’m sure will lead to new ways of seeing things. And that’s part of what I enjoy about the conversations I continue to have with him, is seeing someone coming from the outside looking at the industry with fresh eyes.”
Similarly, Rakia Clark, Executive 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 sees Yahdon’s approach to his work as being expansive instead. “There’s a difference in how the work is executed because there’s a difference in how the work is received,” she says. “I don’t think that Yahdon is so much trying to turn tables over. He’s brought his own chair to the table. That is a different kind of chair. But he’s deeply, deeply familiar with the other chairs that are already there. So he’s not coming in throwing elbows saying everyone’s doing it wrong. He wants to be additive. And I think that’s really exciting.”
Interestingly, Yahdon’s love of books developed while he was an undergraduate at Pace University–he was only in college, he says, because his mother wanted him to go. Growing up, he found reading tedious: raised Jewish in Brooklyn, he spent every Friday and Saturday, from sunset to sunset, doing close readings of the Torah and wishing he was outside connecting with other people. Reading, he found, was not so much the avenue to do that at the time, where music, movies, wrestling, and Pokémon were. In college, he began to read voraciously at the library. This took new shape upon discovering the work of James Baldwin. Moved by the writer’s words, particularly “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor,” from Baldwin’s 1960 Esquire essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” Yahdon says he developed a greater understanding of literature’s possibilities. “The people who are able to, by identifying specificities about the human condition, speak about what we all are going through, literature is that for me,” he says. “That’s when it became enjoyable, when I saw that this applied to everything, it didn’t just apply to school, it didn’t just apply to Bible study or temple and stuff like that…That was when I was like, ‘okay, now I can make this fun’ because now it was malleable in a way I hadn’t seen it before.”
Yahdon’s understanding of that malleability has allowed him to craft a life in literature that’s truly of his own design. He saw ways he wanted literature to hold space 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, this person inspired as much by Cathy Park Hong as Kanye West, wearer of thick, square frame glasses and painted nails, of leather pants and locs.
“I show up as I am not because I’m trying to prove a point. It’s because I actually can’t do my job the way I would even want to do my job if I’m not being my fullest self,” he says. “If I’m shrinking in moments where I should be expanding, I’m complicit in perpetuating the very things I’m trying to dismantle.”
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