Novel Matters: The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey in publishing when you took hold of your career.
What did that look like?
Nicci Jordan Hubert: You know, I have many flaws, but taking charge isn’t one of them. Or rather, maybe it is. I’d argue that taking charge is something I do a little too easily. Just ask my husband.
Anyway, I can think of two turning points.
Since college (which now seems forever ago), I knew what I wanted. Not specifically, but I knew that I wanted to be in charge. As a publishing intern, that meant announcing to my bosses in a meeting—with several other interns in attendance—that I was determined to work with them permanently, that I wanted to run the place someday. Later, as a new editorial assistant, and as a result of the “entitlement generation,” I made it clear that making copies was not something I would agree to for long. My bosses must have chuckled incredulously behind my back—the audacity! What I hadn’t anticipated was that, although I was a smart kid, it couldn’t make up for my lack of work ethic—I was an assistant and I would have to pay my dues. After almost getting fired for what boils down to total arrogance, I took charge in a new way: I began to work hard and learn the ins and outs of publishing. I decided that whatever I’d gleaned from a liberal arts education wasn’t enough. I had to become a publishing expert. I started coming in early and staying late. Soon enough, I was promoted to senior editor of a new, burgeoning imprint. I was 24.
NM: My hat is off, Nicci. By age 24, I’d learned exactly nothing. What happened after that turning point?
NJH: A couple years after that incredible experience, I was hired as at one of the largest publishing houses in the world, located in NYC. It was a dream come true… until my first day of work. It would be only a matter of days before I learned that the woman and executive editor I worked for was that woefully stereotypical NY editor: cruel, unhelpful, and sabotaging. After only about half a year, I left my post at the house, took a job as a receptionist at an Upper East Side day spa, and swore off publishing forever. It was, undoubtedly, a turning point.
NM: A head spinning turning point. First you dig in, then you have to bail just to save your sanity. You didn’t stay away from the world of publishing for long, though.
NJH: Some things are just in your blood, are they not? For some reason, I can’t seem to escape publishing. Not even a year after I quit the publishing house, I secured a freelance editing gig that would change my career forever. Nearly ten years later, I am still working as a freelance editor, and now I edit for just about every major publishing house in the industry.
NM: Just the sort of editor every hopeful writer wants to work with. What is the process for an author to come under your direction as their editor?
NJH: Unfortunately, I do not typically accept clients who haven’t been given a publishing or agent contract. There are a few reasons for that. Number one: I hate charging people whose chances of getting published are slim. Number two—and this is the brutal truth: amateur authors often require a heavier hand, a longer editorial process—in other words, much more work from me. And since I can’t convince myself to charge an individual more than a publishing house, I end up working a lot harder for a lot less money. That being said, it brings me a great sense of joy when an author requests me to be their editor, once they’re signed. Other than by author request, I am usually hired by the editorial staff, who pair me with the authors and projects they believe are good fits.
NM: Publishing is changing on every front. What is the biggest change you've noticed in the last few years?
NJH: Publishing has changed dramatically, to be sure. But to be honest, I’m on the sidelines. As a freelance editor, I’m not in those meetings where the discussion about digitalization and social media takes place. My job—my only job—is to help authors make their books the best they can be. And that process will never change.
Which is what I tell people when they ask me what I think about the future of publishing (which almost never happens, by the way…. Most people don’t care about my freelancer opinion…). I suggest that although the medium may change, the relationship between authors and readers will never change. There is no “end of books.” Books will live forever, of course, whether they’re read on paper, an iPhone screen, futuristic computer-glasses, or perhaps some kind of cool osmosis process.
NM: As an editor, what are always hoping to see when a book crosses your desk? Can you spot a book that has the "it" factor?
NJH: Almost every editor will tell you that we can spot whether a book is publishable or not within the first 50 pages. Typically, we’re looking for either that “it” factor, or, better yet, just a great book.
NM: Writers tend to hate that phrase because we all think we’re writing a great book. But you mean something specific, right?
NJH: A great book is simply something that’s well conceived and well written. But the “it” factor, that’s a different story entirely. Of course, a classic example is the Twilight series. I devoured Twilight in one sitting, as I’m sure many of you did. I loved it (of course the rest of the series is another matter). But was Twilight a great book? Not really, right? But it certainly had that “it” factor. Which explains why some books, like Twilight, have not only been published but have gone on to sell bazillions of copies. It’s the greatest mystery of publishing.
NM: As much as it drives us all mad, we love the mystery of it all. I think that is what drives so much of the industry; chasing after the mysterious “One”, that novel that will capture the imagination of millions of readers. Should hopeful writers nurture that part of their craft?
NJH: Although there are certainly writers who have “that something” that simply can’t be taught—writers who manage to tap into that it factor without even trying—for those of you who are still aspiring writers, I’d like to suggest you don’t try to go that route. I hate to tell you this, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ve got a barnburner on your hands. You might, but it’s doubtful. You might be the kind of writer whose writing is magical. But you’re probably not; I hate to tell you.
NM: Just give us a moment while we breathe deeply into a paper bag. We. Can. Recover. From. Horrid. Truth.
Okay. Back on wobbly legs. What if we’re not magical? What if we can't find our unicorn? What’s left for us?
NJH: If you really want to be a successful writer, there are no short cuts. Okay, if you’re related to a celebrity, you’ll have an easier time getting published, but for the rest of you… There is only one path to becoming a good writer: Reading lots of good books. Studying the craft of writing. Practicing writing a lot. Self-editing ruthlessly. And seeking out honest feedback.
NM: Do the work, ask people to kick our butts. Feedback is so often a butt kicking, right? Do we really need it? Isn't it just confusing to a writer's relationships?
NJH: The honest feedback part is important. Don’t ask your friends to edit your work, of course, and make sure the people you do ask have a sense for what makes a good book and will tell you the truth about your work. The last thing you want is to be one of those contestants on American Idol whose best friends told them they were amazing and, yet, they sound like a hyena who just got shot. Right?
NM: Kapow! (That’s Bonnie imitating a gunshot in a desperate and lame attempt to ease the tension that Nic’s truthful answers are producing.)
NJH: One of Stephen King’s classic lines from On Writing goes, “…while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. ” Take that advice to heart, and you will either see your dreams fulfilled, or you will save yourself a lot of time and hardship.
That’s a long answer to a short question. So here’s the short answer: the “it” factor that editors are looking for is a book that is either excellent or magical… or both.
NM: I’m just going to go over to the corner here, and have a little cry.
NJH: So don’t. Cut. Corners.
NM: One of the many reasons I love working with you, Nicci, is your ability to tell the truth (even if it stings a little), and your ability to lead by following. You never told me what to do with my story, instead, you offered ideas, you led gently, and when I hit on what I knew would work for the story, you dug in and made it shine. I recall an early morning phone call (someone had forgotten the two hour time difference) after we’d finished the edits on Talking to the Dead, but you were up early rethinking several small but important issues in the manuscript. I recall sitting in bed (it was that early), rather dazed (I repeat, it was that early) and thinking: She’s every kind of brilliant. What kinds of influences do you credit for developing your skills, instincts, and talent as an editor?
NJH: Influences? Well, there are the people I give ALL the credit to in terms of my success. Dan Rich, Terry Behimer, Don Pape, Beth Adams. Then, there are the books I’ve read. The Shining. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Pride and Prejudice. Franny and Zooey. The Poisonwood Bible. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Life of Pi. Wild. Genre be damned, these books taught me about literary magic.
In terms of instincts, I credit God for that one. I’ve had to trust my gut—along with my experience—in every project I’ve done. Most of the time, it works out okay.
NM: You're a Carpe Annum woman—I know you jump into every year full of enthusiasm and drive. What are you doing this year to seize the year, professionally, personally, or both?
NJH: Well I don’t know if I jump into every year full of enthusiasm. It’s more like fear and trembling. Will I get enough jobs to sustain me financially? Will I continue to grow as an editor? Will my stock rise? A typical NY transplant, I am ambitious to a fault. We’ll see how this year goes. As my best publishing friends here in NY say, “We’re Big in 2013.”
Thanks so much, Nicci, for taking time to appear on the blog today!
Well, dear reader/friend, have you recovered from the interview? There's nothing like a kick in the truth to motivate a writer. I know that every word from Nicci is delivered with love: love for writers, for readers, and for books.