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Jess Zafarris: Author Spotlight

Author spotlights (like this one with Jess Zafarris, author of Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids from Rockridge Press) are a great way to learn how other authors are finding success.

Author spotlights (like this one with Jess Zafarris, author of Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids from Rockridge Press) are a great way to learn how other authors are finding success.

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 Jess Zafarris

Jess Zafarris

Jess Zafarris is the author of Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids (Rockridge Press, 2020)It's available for preorder at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

She is also an award-winning innovator of digital content and marketing solutions and a prolific online and print journalist, having most recently served as the Executive Director of Marketing & Communications for Gotham Ghostwriters. Before that, she served as Digital Content Director and Content Strategist for Writer's Digest and Script, and she still occasionally writes for WD.

Her nine years of experience in digital and print content direction and marketing include such roles as editor-in-chief of HOW magazine and online content director of HOW and PRINT magazine, as well as writing for the The Hot Sheet, the Denver Business Journal, ABC News, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

She has a bachelors in English Literature (with minors in Arabic and Anthropology) from DePaul University and a masters in Journalism & Mass Communications from the University of Colorado Boulder. She spends much of her spare time researching curious word histories and writing about them at

Follow her at @jesszafarris or @uselessety on Twitter, or on Instagram at @uselessetymology.

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Name: Jess Zafarris
Book title: Once Upon a Word: A Word-Origin Dictionary for Kids
Publisher: Rockridge Press
Release Date: February 25, 2020
Genre: Middle Grade Nonfiction

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Elevator pitch for the book: With more than 800 definitions and stories, this is an accessible, entertaining, and informative etymology dictionary for kids. With an emphasis on understanding word origin, root meaning, and exploring the multicultural nature of the English language, this etymology dictionary uses history and storytelling to improve vocabulary and deepen interest in language over time.

What prompted you to write this book?

I've been writing about etymology on my blog (, and on social media (@uselessety on Twitter and @uselessetymology on Instagram) for about a decade. My publisher thought both my work and my platform struck the right tonal blend of informative, energetic, and humorous to develop into a middle-grade kids book. They asked me to write it, and I obliged!

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

The publisher approached me in June 2019, I signed on in July, and I finished the first draft of the book in September. It was a whirlwind! Of course, I had been writing about the subject for a long time, and I was able to use a great deal of my past research when developing the definitions, so it wasn't as if I was working from scratch. For about two months after that, I worked with two amazing editors to nail the right tone and level for kids. Then, the design team took over, developing some awesome charts and working with the illustrator to add some visual magic to the book. The book is in the final stages of completion right now and will be formally released on February 25th!

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I had heard of Rockridge/Callisto Media’s process for acquiring books, but experiencing it firsthand was another matter entirely. Basically, they determine what book topics people are searching for that don’t yield many results, and they seek out influencers and experts who can create a quality book that meets the needs of those queries. In my case, I believe the queries in question were around “word origins for kids” and “dictionaries for kids.” Some of the other titles from the Rockridge imprint and others from the Callisto umbrella that have performed particularly well are niche cookbooks, which makes sense considering that people with specific dietary needs or preferences would likely search for cookbooks in that category. For example, Callisto is behind several of Amazon’s bestselling keto, paleo and celiac-friendly cookbooks because many people were searching for keywords in those veins, and the books were authored by successful bloggers who run popular recipe sites.

Discussing this model, a literary agent friend/colleague of mine suggested that this data-driven method of acquiring books is a bit heartless—and I can certainly see why he says that. Data-driven creativity can seem a little bit like hailing our robot overlords. Then again, as a digital content creator who has experience using SEO and other data-fueled tactics to get more internet points, I know the importance and value of creating content that meets the needs of people searching on the web.

The way I see it is this: Callisto’s process does indeed subvert the traditional process of an author presenting his or her lovingly crafted manuscript or passion-driven proposal to be judged by the Almighty Publisher. But as traditionally published book sales trends have shown over the past few years, that system has become excessively top-heavy, favoring only a few, often already well-known authors to be The Chosen Bestsellers with all of the Power of Investment behind them, while the majority of authors are left with the responsibility of fueling their own sales, which means traditional publishers hardly glance at manuscripts that don’t come with preexisting author platforms attached. And sales-wise, the traditional model is increasingly brittle—it splinters under the weight of the information age and doesn’t reliably yield book sales or author earnings across the board.

As a result, many authors who might have previously sought out a traditional path (and even those who already have been traditionally published) are turning to the self-determined and ungatekept frontier of indie authorship instead. But of course self-published authors are not unbeholden to the beast of big business; after all, many find their success to be at least partially at the mercy of Amazon, which can both be exploited for profit or do the exploiting itself.

Callisto’s solution isn’t quite traditional, and it definitely isn’t self-publishing, though it is fueled by the author’s prior platform-building efforts. And because the acquisition process begins with the publisher seeking out an author without a query or proposal, it’s publisher-initiated and not something authors are entirely in a position to specifically work toward. But it does manage to drive book sales and growth with a reasonable degree of reliability because it’s initiated by user data. (And it does so in a way comparable to the tactics I’ve used when developing SEO-informed digital content and marketing strategies.)

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I will not say that one of these paths is more ethical or better for authors than another. Each has its flaws, challenges, and determining factors. And in terms of sales for Callisto in particular, let it be said that I’m talking about overall book sales, not author income, which I’m not at liberty to discuss, though you can read about it from other authors who have published in the same way. I chose to take advantage of Callisto’s offer because it was right for me and my platform at that moment; it wouldn’t be right or worth it for everyone, or even everyone who’s a preestablished blogger or researcher.

It is by no means pitfall-free, but for the right type of author at the right point in their career, my overall impression is that Callisto's model does allow for talented people who have proven themselves subject-matter experts to expand their platform and credibility into the realm of books and authorship without some of the challenges of traditional and self-publishing. And I appreciate the reduction of guesswork in terms of book sales through data-informed acquisition.

Regardless, all three of these publishing paths—traditional, indie, and what I'd call data-driven—have one important thing in common, one thing that puts the heart back in the machine of production, so to speak: The author is deeply passionate about the topic.

Callisto approached me about writing this book because I love word origins, linguistic facts, and etymology research so much that I’ve dedicated years to writing about it purely for fun. The food bloggers who started providing more gluten-free recipes for people with allergies didn’t do it for the book deal—they did it because they were meeting a need and an interest.

Regardless of which publishing path you end up taking—whether you put in the work to get a literary agent and publish traditionally, or you do the self-driven work of building an indie career, or a publisher finds you because you're one of only a few people writing a niche blog for etymology enthusiasts—authorship is and has to be all about passion for your subject.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Every definition was a surprise—that's the fun of writing about etymology! Every time we say or write a word, we call upon millennia of human history and call upon the wisdom of our ancestors. It is absolutely extraordinary to learn why we use the words we do, and what they meant to different cultures of the past.

For instance:

  • "Amateur" comes from the Latin amatorem, meaning "lover," because an amateur does something for the love of it rather than for work.
  • "Thesaurus" essentially means "treasure trove," from the Greek thesauros, meaning "treasury" or "treasure chest."
  • "Clone," comes from the Greek klon, meaning "twig" because the earliest cloning process involved breaking twigs off of plants and using them to grow new ones.
  • "Brilliant" comes from a Latin word literally meaning "shining like beryl" (beryl being a category of mineral/gemstone to which emerald and aquamarine belong).
  • "Algebra" comes from the Arabic al-jabr, meaning "a reunion of broken parts," and was both an Arabic mathematical term and a medical term for setting broken bones.

You see? There's so much story contained in one little word.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope both kids and adults will learn something new about words. I hope they'll find a favorite word origin to share with their friends and family so that that knowledge becomes more widely known. I hope they find something surprising, interesting, and delightful.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Words have extraordinary power—their definitions and colloquial meanings, the way they evolve, and where they come from. Be deliberate and selective about the words you choose. Be voracious about collecting new words for your authorial toolkit. Always look up words you've never met before. And above all, wield your words for good, for creativity, and for the cultivation of knowledge.

If you're an author who would like to be featured in a future post, send an email to Robert Lee Brewer with the subject line "Author Spotlight" at

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