Taking Teens Totally Seriously
An interview with Dan Harmon, the editorial director of Zest Books, a San Francisco-based publisher of teen nonfiction.
What is Zest’s book publishing mission? How, when, and where did you begin?
At Zest Books we publish smart, funny, and informative nonfiction books for teens and young adults. The company was founded in 2006 by Hallie Warshaw. Hallie had been packaging books for a tween audience up to that point, but she felt that by publishing teen nonfiction, she could really fill a need for libraries, parents, and teens themselves. We now publish 12–14 books a year that run the gamut from memoirs to fashion guides, graphic novels, histories, and pop culture books. We’re distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but our offices are located in the SOMA district of San Francisco.
It’s difficult to imagine a trickier, more finicky reader than the typical American teen. How do you stay edgy, especially when the normal publishing cycle requires that you anticipate what will be hot next year?
In a way, I think that teens are the ideal book audience. They’re passionate, eager to engage in conversation, and absolutely unforgiving when it comes to material that they feel is in any way dishonest or apathetic. And really, that’s the kind of challenge that you want from your audience: the demand for something real, something valuable on every page and in every book. In terms of how we stay relevant and fresh, we’re lucky enough to work with an amazing group of teens on our Teen Advisory Board, and they provide a nearly endless supply of ideas and suggestions for new projects.
What has surprised you about the teen audience?
I’m not sure it’s surprising, exactly, but I can’t get over how passionate these teens are. Prior to joining Zest I’d worked with a number of academics, but it was hard, as a small nonfiction publisher focusing on fairly specialized topics, to get a lot of feedback from our intended audience. We don’t have that problem at Zest. The letters and emails that we’ve received from teenage readers about books like Queer and our forthcoming graphic memoir Little Fish have, I think, provoked more than a few teary eyes in the office.
Tell us about your upcoming releases.
We’re very excited about several of the books we’ll be publishing in the fall. The book that’s generated the most buzz so far is clearly How Not to Be a Dick, which provides common-sense etiquette advice along with a quirky, retro feel and absolutely hilarious illustrations done in a kind of ingenuous, 1950s style. We had a poster up at the recent Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and people really responded to it. We’ll also be publishing the novel How to Lose Everything, based on an incredible true story about a group of friends who discover a huge amount of cash in an abandoned house—and then struggle to maintain any kind of direction in their lives.
And, as it happens, I also wrote a book for Zest. It’s called Super Pop: Pop Culture Top Ten Lists to Help You Win at Trivia, Survive in the Wild, and Make It Through the Holidays, and it will be publishing in June. It’s a book that I really wanted Zest to do when I arrived in 2011, and after becoming more and more invested in the project in the proposal stage, I finally decided to just write it myself. The book was inspired by the fact that, as a teenager, I had a really hard time finding more of the things that I already knew I loved.
Most curated movie collections and online top ten lists tend to recycle the same topics and recommendations, and I wanted to get away from those more “established” choices. I also wanted to talk about all of the great and underappreciated podcasts, comic books, video games, and books that I’ve encountered in all the years since.
Any words of advice for those parents who might be squeamish about purchasing your books for their kids?
We really take pride in our ability to address difficult topics—sex, drug abuse, depression, etc.—without being either exploitative or pandering. We want to deal honestly with the things teens really care about, really worry about. And in order to do that we tend to hire authors who not only have a great voice but who have also actually had first-hand experience with the given issue. This confidence that comes from familiarity also allows our authors to speak realistically about these topics without going overboard in any direction. And I think it’s for that reason more than anything else that librarians and parents seem to trust our approach even when we do tackle potentially hazardous material. We want to give kids the tools they need to think through these issues a little more thoroughly.
Dan, put your imagination in a spaceship and tell us what will be topical for teens in 2018.
The publishing world is changing so fast right now, and I think that the kinds of books that we do will depend to a large extent on how the technology develops. But that being said, there really is a growing impatience with the naiveté and unreality in a lot of what’s still being produced. That trend is already being reflected at sites like Rookie and in the success of authors like John Green.
On a related note, we’re also true believers when it comes to teen nonfiction. Publishers keep churning out children’s nonfiction and nonfiction for adults, but there’s still very little available for teens and new adults who want direct access to the facts, issues, people, and stories that have grabbed them. And like anyone else, they want to be entertained by what they read.
But, to actually answer your question: mutant rabbits. The answer is mutant rabbits.