Nonfiction Has A Woman Problem: Julia Cheiffetz Wants To Change That

“I want to publish a book about that thing you haven’t heard about,” Julia Cheiffetz says in the promo video for her new imprint, One Signal. At 40, Cheiffetz has published books by and about some of the world’s most interesting women — Abby Wambach, Reshma Saujani, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and a little known cryptologist named Elizabeth Friedman who helped win WWII with her codebreaking. just to name a few — providing readers with what she lovingly calls “nutritional candy,” those smart and fun titles you can’t put down and keep thinking about long after you finish.
Refinery29 chatted with Cheiffetz at her office in the Simon and Schuster building in midtown Manhattan about her career, the inspiration behind her mega-bestseller Notorious RGB, and what famous woman she wants to publish next.
Can you tell us how you got your start in publishing?
I found a listing on a Columbia job board for a publicity position at FSG, and I interviewed with a really nice man by the name of Jeff Seroy. We talked about poetry — we had both studied Kenneth Koch — and he was like, "So you want to be an editor?"
This makes me feel old, but he faxed my résumé to Random House. I just remember in the second interview, the hiring manager asked, "Do you have any questions?" And I was like, "Is there dental insurance with this job? I have a toothache." I started at Random House in 2002. I was there close to seven years and that's where I really cut my teeth. And also spent a lot of time photocopying things.
You went from Random House to HarperCollins and then to Amazon. The tech giant wasn't quite controversial back then, but it was a big deal for a traditional print editor to join the so-called enemy.
I was almost enrolled at Columbia in an executive MBA program when Amazon called. They were launching a new imprint in New York. It was really exciting. I was super impressed with the people I met, and I'm still friends with a lot of former colleagues. I got an incredible business education while I was there. I don't regret it for one second.
You had your first baby while you were at Amazon, and you had a terrible experience when you returned from maternity leave, which you detailed in a 2015 Medium post that went viral. (We syndicated it on Refinery29.) Were you nervous about the career implications of publishing your op-ed on Amazon?
Yes, absolutely. I spoke to a lawyer who said "Absolutely do not publish this. You don't want people to know that you had cancer. You don't want people to know that you are on a performance improvement plan." I just remember pausing before I pressed publish. It was a big deal. It was really, really scary to put all that out there. This was pre-Susan Fowler/Uber, it was pre #MeToo. I just remember taking this deep breath and having faith in the universe that the world was changing and that people weren't afraid anymore to share their stories.
I got so much positive feedback — my inbox flooded with positive emails. I still get messages on LinkedIn, still have people call me. But I was terrified to publish it.
I can't imagine. How did you not just give up? How did you find the confidence to keep going?
It definitely rattled my confidence. There is an element of Am I crazy? I have a strong sense of justice, and I knew that something smelled really bad about the whole thing. I should qualify this and say that Amazon's a huge company. I think they've made efforts to modify their business practices. Publishing is such a relationship-driven industry, and the Amazon experience did give me a sense of what the real business world is like. I'm grateful for that education.
In the fall of 2015, you published Notorious RGB, a book that’s sold more than 300,000 copies. Can you talk a little about your inspiration for that book?
Right when I started back at HarperCollins, I noticed how everyone online seemed to be talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I was like, this notorious thing is like a thing. I remember being in an edit meeting being like, Guys, we should do a Notorious RBG book. I don't want to say there were blank stares, but ...
That was my first book back at HarperCollins.
Does that happen a lot — that you see something on Twitter or read about it in the Times and then turn it into a book?
Absolutely. I would say 90 percent of the acquisitions are via agents, but I am somewhat unique in my journalistic approach to seek out writers and cultivate ideas. For example, the New York Times ran that fabulous Overlooked column about women who are left out of the obituary column, including one about Ida B. Wells, the activist and journalist. I couldn't understand why no one had written a popular biography? There's a lot of academic work, but she was this incredible maverick, visionary, trailblazer. I managed to get in touch with her great-granddaughter, who's now contracted to write a biography.
It was a similar story with Katy Tur, where I read an article she had published in Marie Claire. I was like, Ding ding ding! This is a book. I jumped on the phone with her. I remember I was sitting on my kitchen floor, eating pita chips or something, and we just talked it through. We pretty much had a deal at the end of the phone call. I love building nonfiction from the ground up with writers.
It seems like the books you publish fill a hole in the market — they are a mix of high-brow and low-brow. Books for and about women, especially in the nonfiction space are either, like you said, super academic. or they're terrible, or they're very self-help focused. Why do you think that is? Do you think that's changing?
Honestly, I don't think about the gender of the reader. Women buy over 70 percent of all books, period. I think it's a great time for storytelling. People want to engage with powerful narratives, particularly in the nonfiction format. I'm interested in books that engage with serious issues in a way that's story-driven, sometimes playful.
I don't know if there's a hole in the market so much as thinking about the gatekeepers. My favorite quote is Henry Ford saying, "If I asked people what they wanted, they would've said faster horses." So what publishers publish is what is consumed. I think that's where the conversation around diversity gets really complex, and it's an important conversation to have. I felt that so strongly this year about International Women's Day. One day? We get one day frickin' day? We're half the population.
I want to make smart books, shine a light on important stories, and do a good job of bringing them into the world.
How has the publishing world changed since you first started at Random House?
I think ebook sales have plateaued somewhat. The retail landscape has changed. I think $25 is a lot of money, you know? It's not a song, it's not a movie, it's not an episode of Breaking Bad. It's a real commitment.
Trump has snuffed a lot of the oxygen out of the media ecosystem. It's become a situation where the hits are mega-hits, which is exciting and can often make a company's year, but it leads to this kind of mono-consumerism. You go to the airport, and you're like Why is everyone reading the same three books?
It's counterintuitive because there's more content than ever. Yet the discoverability issue is real, especially with contracting retail. We as publishers talk about "platform," and sometimes there's a desire to look at how many Instagram followers a person has. I challenge that thinking a lot. It's not necessarily a one-to-one. Someone can have a huge following, but it's very shallow.
One of the questions I ask myself when I'm reading nonfiction proposals is: Is a book the right medium for this story? Should it live as a Netflix series? Is it a comedy special? Is it a New York Times op-ed or a magazine feature? To be a book, it has to be totally immersive.
What are you most excited about publishing this year?
I'm very excited about the book We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump by Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, the founders of Indivisible. It's just astonishing to see the amount of momentum they have with 2 million members. I think we were all in a fog after the 2016 election. I'm a doer, and I love doers, and Leah and Ezra just took action. This is their story of how they did it, their critique of structural democracy, and their blueprint for not just how to get rid of Trump but solve the underlying root cause of the problem. So I'm very excited about that book.
Is there any dream book you would love to publish one day? Or an author you want to work with?
I want to publish a book by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I think she's amazing, and we'd love to publish her.

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