In Episode 66 of So you want to be a writer: The word nerd test, what a blogger’s morning routine looks like, new books from EL James and JK Rowling, the book ‘Modern Australian Usage: A Practical Guide for Writers and Editors’ by Nicholas Hudson, why scheduling will make you a better blogger, interview with Managing Editor of Penguin Random House Brandon VanOver, hacks to make you a Scrivener pro, and more!
Brandan VanOver is the Managing Editor of Random House. He began his career in New York at the literary agency Curtis Brown for several years, initially as a switchboard jockey before becoming an assistant to the legendary and formidable children’s book agent Marilyn E. Marlow. He moved to Sydney and read a few YA manuscripts for Eva Mills at Random House between his hours labouring for a plumber and a caterer while his application for residency was on being processed. An opening eventually came up as the editorial assistant at Random House, and he was able to get that rare and crucial foot in the door.
For the past five years he has been the managing editor for Random House – allocating projects to the editors and guiding books through a busy publishing program every year, managing plant costs, negotiating terms with suppliers, representing editorial concerns at various meetings, steering the company into digital formats (often capsizing on exposed reef in the process) – but he still spends the majority of his time editing.
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Thanks for joining us today, Brandon.
Thanks for having me on.
You’re the managing editor of Random House. For people who are not familiar with that term what does that actually mean? How would you describe what you do?
We have a team of publishers and when they acquire a book and go through the acquisitions process then once the contract is signed it’s my job to allocate those books to our team of five editors here, and just make sure that the publishing schedule is delivering every year. We have titles each month and big — whether it’s Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, or Christmas, you have to make sure that those big dates are all hit.
But also I edit a full load myself. It’s a combination of managing and actually doing the day to day things the other editors do as well.
Did you always want to be an editor?
No, I actually wanted to teach English in high school. But, I went to New York and I went a New York university publishing program. I got a job with the literary agency and was just answering phones. I was working with the agents and they would give me manuscripts to kind of read and assess. I started representing a few authors and I realized that I was a terrible salesman, I couldn’t sell books. My feelings were a little bit hurt if an editor didn’t want to make a fabulous offer on a book.
I kind of knew my strength was always editorial. When I moved to Australia from New York I got a job as editorial assistant at Random House. I’ve always been attracted to working with authors and the creative process. I think we all read Kerouac and was angsty and wanted to write ourselves. You dabble in your own writing, that’s just the world that I kind of inhabited.
I get glimpses, we work next to the Coke building, I see those people and I’ve been in those professions before. I don’t think I could work in another environment. I don’t think I would last a second at Coke or anywhere else… not saying Coke isn’t creative. But, you walk in the halls here and you come in and you see David Malouf sitting with the publisher, or Tom Keneally walks through the door. I’m still wowed by it.
What do you find appealing about the process of editing? What’s rewarding about it?
If you love and admire writing and writers it’s rewarding to be involved in that process and to actually take a manuscript that isn’t quite there yet, or far from there yet, and work with an author to ask the right questions, hopefully. Just to think through a book.
I think a lot of people think of the editor as the task manager, but it’s really the conversation of asking good questions to help an author reach their goals. The goal is a full realized book that makes sense within itself, that is coherent and hopefully beautiful, even if it’s about — I just worked on a book on Goulburn Prison, which you’re not going to try to extract too much beauty from that. But, within the rules — the book on Goulburn Prison, it needs to be coherent and fully realized.
It’s just taking it from the idea, certainly as an editor you’re putting in commas and thinking through the syntax. It’s just kind of early stages where you’re less of the task master and it’s more of a conversation with a person who’s trying to do something special.
When you’re having that conversation, because you said you sometimes have manuscripts that are far from there yet, do you ever feel for the ones that are far from there like, “Where do I start?” Like, “Is this going to be possible?”
Having said that, in order to make it to the acquisitions process, the publishers are great in that they do a lot of upfront work with authors. Having said that, the ‘where do I start…’ we do a structural edit, the big ticket items, the English 101 things, voice, character, chronologies, “Is this chapter starting five chapters too late, or five chapters too early?” You’re kind of breaking it down to its principle parts.
I think one part you treat it clinically almost, like a mechanic. You distance yourself emotionally from it and you try to see it as almost a physical thing that’s like inside of a watch that’s ticking over. There’s plenty of time later for you to kind of fall in love with bits and really get emotional about things, and jump up on a couch like Tom Cruise or whatever.
I think initially it’s about diagnostic kind of looking at a book.
Do you focus on a particular genre or type of book in your editing load?
I don’t, only because I think as a young male American starting in Australia that it was kind of sport in non-fiction.
I worked for a children’s agent in New York, so I started out with a lot of kids books. I edited across the whole range. I’ve been at Random House for 11 years now, so the degree of difficulty goes up working with someone like Peter FitzSimons on his books. They’re gigantic and there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot research that goes into it and notes and making sure that everything is accurate.
I get certainly those big titles, but fiction, literary fiction, no, I kind of do it all, which is great. With all of our editors I think that’s the aim, is that people are all-rounders. You kind of need to be. If you have a strong editorial sensibility I think you can apply that to a lot of different genres.
But, of course, I think everyone fell in love with book publishing because they love literary fiction, most people. I think that’s kind of the goal of editors here, to work on literary fiction and the biggies, the Gill Jones of the world and the Richard Flanagans, the Roger McDonalds.
Do you find fiction or non-fiction easier to edit in a sense?
Wow, it’s kind of different, slightly different parts of your brain. I think fiction is tough because you’re kind of treading on sacred ground with something that often an author has been working eight years on something. They’re highly connected to it. It might be fiction, but there’s often a lot of them in there. It doesn’t play by the same rules, you can’t slap a style guide on to it. You need to be really flexible.
Also you’re dealing with — I don’t want to say non-fiction isn't creative, but you’re dealing with more of a volatile creativity. By ‘volatile’ I don’t mean people throwing things, but it’s something that is not stable. Often there’s kind of no absolute right answer, someone was either born in 1895 or they weren’t. But, here it’s like, “Maybe have you thought about that character being born in 1895?” Do you know what I mean? I find it, personally, a bit tough or a bit more sensitive.
When a manuscript first lands on your desk you said the first thing that you try to do is a little a bit clinical, that diagnostic approach. Is it a step by step diagnostic approach? Can you take us through it briefly?
Sure. This isn’t representative of a publishing course or what the other editors do, but I get a big piece of art paper out and actually kind of draw it almost, break it down to themes or where things happen and then try to piece it together there. I think if I can see it I can think my way through it.
You’re kind of giving yourself time as well, because once you read something you’re thinking through things and you want to take notes, there’s also a reading where you just kind of let it wash all over you to get your general impressions. Reading through it that second time and actually taking notes you kind of feel your way through it.
Editing is a lot about gut, you kind of know when things aren’t working or where holes are, not that I would rate certain chapters, but I would kind of establish in my mind that chapter three was kind of the benchmark of what we need to get the other chapters up to. Then from there you see maybe the deficiencies of other chapters.
I think as I kind of draw all of this out, I should probably burn those drawings, so no one gets a hold of them.
An English teacher once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” To actually have it down there helps me think it through.
When you are dealing with authors, after you have mapped that out and you’ve written your notes and you’re giving them feedback, how do they typically react? You’ve been doing it for 11 years, so I’m sure you’ve seen the gamut, but are they open to suggestions? Are there ones that are very precious about their work?
It’s both. I think I like to ask more questions than I don’t. I think if they see that I’m thinking through something with the same kind of energy that they’re putting into their writing… I don’t want to be this gadfly in the marsh of their work. I’m always saying, “This is what I’m thinking about this…” but I do think to err on other side, where you just run rush over, imposing your empirical will without saying anything, because now all of the edits are done digitally on screen that the risk of offending someone is a lot greater if they just kind of see that intervention of you, actually not having that conversation.
Speaking on the phone is also great, when you have a human on the other end… that’s the great thing about Random house, we try to edit in house as much as we can, rather than kind of project managing and freelancing things out, so that conversation is happening.
People can be. You’re always polite and diplomatic, I don’t think there’s ever really a real appropriate time to raise your voice, because it’s not that kind of industry. I mentioned sacred ground, but you are kind of trotting on sacred ground. I think if you have that kind of respect and discipline and realise what your role truly is, it’s just asking the right questions, guiding, maybe opening up a line.
You know, I still offer very definite plot suggestions, five for five, maybe they’ll take one, or maybe they’ll say, “Those five stink. But, it made me think of option six.”
I’ve never had an altercation or any — I think because I’m American and I feel like I would talk to someone at a bar, I almost feel like the outsider. The rules are in place, I want to be appropriate.
Have you ever had situations where the author has flat out refused to change something, for whatever reason, and it’s gone out that way and you thought, “Oh, it could have been better.”?
For sure. I think as a younger editor, if they came back and said, “No, no, I think it’s fine as it is,” I would just say, “OK, OK… thanks.” But, now I’m kind of more inclined to go back and say, “I’ve continued to think about this, I really feel like ‘X’ is letting the book down, for these reasons.” I think if you build a case, if you make an intelligent case for something it’s kind of hard to argue with, as long as it’s intelligent and not just… that’s kind of the trick about this whole thing. You wouldn’t last a day if you didn’t make an intelligent argument.
Certainly, god. Yeah, there was one book in particular, I was three years in and I just knew that the scene was wrong. It was fiction, obviously the author had made this side trip to where the scene was placed and was really grafted to it. It actually contributed nothing.
I went back, “I think it should be removed.” “No, it’s going to stay.” And then it came back and the next thing you know it’s reviewed, “God, this book, what the hell was this scene doing there? That made no sense.” It even said, “If this book had an editor worth his weight it could have been good.” I’m thinking, “Oh, god, I’m never going to work in this town again.” It was one of those kind of moments where I thought, “Maybe I should do something else, really.”
I think editors just add so much to the writing process and are such a valuable part of it. In fact, I’ve never told you this, I’ve never said this out loud, but your wife, who is an editor but in the magazine world, for listeners who don’t know, used to edit me like ten years ago. My writing was just so much better for it, because of her.
She’s good. She’s good.
She’s very good.
So many authors I speak to though, they really fear the editing process, new authors. What do you say to them?
I think it’s obviously something they should embrace. You’re so close to your own work that you’re often scared to even send it out as an attachment on an email, you feel so close to it, the fact that no one else is reading it.
I think it’s the feedback you need to… it’s something that I do everyday and really take seriously.
To answer it another way, I think the problem with some manuscripts is they’re workshopped to death. They go through kind of writing groups. You’re not working with an editor, but you’re kind of editing — you’re receiving editorial feedback that you’re probably comfortable with because it’s Sue down the street or Dan from university. They’ll give you kind of different opinions and often conflicting opinions or vanilla opinions. The next thing you know you’ve ripped out all of the originality out of the manuscript.
I often say I like getting just exactly what you did in its unvarnished self, because there’s a lot of kind of originality and spirit and tension that’s in that original manuscript that is often kind of sucked out.
I don’t want to bag out writers’ groups or anything, but I mean it’s really a community and it definitely has its purpose. It’s just funny that a lot of people embrace that process, but once they work with an editor… being an editor, it’s a trade, it’s something that you hone over time. I was going to say ‘craft,’ but I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. It’s a craft, it is. It truly is. It can really take your manuscript to places that you hadn’t imagined them. To help you find your own voice within yourself and your writing.
For an author who has written their manuscript but has yet to submit it to a publisher, they obviously want to submit the best version they can, of course, what are your comments or opinions on whether they should send it to an editor, like a freelance editor, before they send it to a publisher?
I don’t think that’s always necessary. Again, sometimes it can be a hindrance that it gives it maybe a false sense of validation almost. You feel like maybe your book is already edited, so, “I don’t need feedback from a publisher or an editor in a publishing house.”
I’m sounding like a gatekeeper or something, “No one needs to see it except the publisher and the publishing house…”
Have you had manuscripts delivered to you that require hardly any edits? Has that ever happened? Like they’re clean from experienced editors or just magically this is an amazing writer?
Absolutely. We’re talking about some really accomplished people, like Roger McDonald is someone whose books are — he does a lot of work with his publisher Meredith Curnow. Often when it comes to me I’m kind of shufflely, I put in a comma and sit there and think about it, and I’ll take it out again. Some people are just really… I think of it in terms of like marathon runners. There’s a lot of people who can run a marathon, gut their way through it and drag themselves across the finish line, but with people who finish in record times and look beautiful doing it and hardly break a sweat. Because I work at a larger publishing house you do get to work with some of the best out there.
They’re people, who even though they’re great, love the editorial process. I think if they embrace it I think everybody can.
It’s because they embraced it in their early years that they got to where they are now.
For sure. For sure.
Can you give people just an idea of the timeline of an editing process? When you first get it how long does it take you to do a structural edit, and then how long do you leave the author to fix stuff, and then how long do you edit the next stage? That sort of thing.
Generally, all things being equal, if you’re not trying to rush to meet a certain — Christmas, for instance, a structural edit might take a couple of weeks, two weeks, three.
Are you talking full time?
No, you are doing other things. You might be working on five books at the same time, but they’re all — one’s a piece proof, one is proofreading at different stages.
I think you generally allow yourself about that much time. The author, depending on the amount of work required, will go away for maybe a month or two months maybe, if we have that kind of luxury. They resubmit the manuscript and it might need another more structural edit before you can even think about copy editing something.
It’s kind of that inverted pyramid, you’re honing it down.
A copy edit might take three weeks and then the author will have generally two to three weeks to review that. He comes back and then the fun starts where you design the book, it goes into typesetting and the author gets page proofs and they’ll have two to three weeks to look over that.
You definitely have multiple looks at it at different stages. The time being ideal, that’s a general timeframe. You never want to treat a book rudely by rushing it through it, but sometimes that’s a reality. Hopefully you don’t compromise the quality of your edit. If you’re editing it at three o’clock in the morning you’re probably not doing your best work.
On that point then just take us through what your typical day might look like, because it sounds like there’s a lot of words on the screen involved. Give us an idea of what your typical day looks like.
We have standard meetings. We have an acquisitions meetings that I sit in on where we discuss proposals that have come through, so that’s one thing. The editors, we get together each week and discuss proposals that have come in that have not yet gone to acquisitions, which is good. The editor always has a voice throughout the process, it’s not just a, “We acquired this, go away and make it a book.”
We contribute and we have those meetings.
We have an open plan office now. All the editors sit in a pile and we’re all cracking away, working on either editing or working on page proofs, taking in corrections from proofreader.
We also work with cover design blurbs, proofreading, kind of in-house material as well. We QA eBooks, so each of our books has a digital life as well, which I think is good as well. If you put all of this work into the physical copy of a book and it’s look and it’s feel, to actually have fidelity across to the eBook is — I think it’s beneficial.
There’s just a lot of people giving after the edit.
What would your advice be for people who actually are interested in becoming editors?
I’ve got this in-house digital conference and someone asked me that question and someone asked me that question and I said, “Read your ass off.”
I think it is… it is reading like you can’t know… you can’t have an editorial sensibility if you don’t have an experience of all different kinds of writing, across all different genres. You can’t just be holed up in your English 101 class reading the classics, you need to get out there and read your Dan Browns. You’ve got to experience the world widely, read what you love as well.
Becoming an editor, it’s a sensibility that I think editors know they have. You might be working in a different industry, but you kind of know that you have that skill. People get diplomas and masters in editing, and all of those are great things to kind of learn, the mechanics of how to do the job, but jobs are so rare in the industry and it’s really hard to break in.
I do think there’s juniors in the editorial assistant world, just get in-house. Once you’re in-house ideas can come from anywhere, it’s easy to prove yourself. It’s not like… it’s easy to prove yourself. You can always put your hand up to a publisher and say, “Give me something to read.” “I want to write some reports for you.” “Here’s my thoughts on that manuscript,” which I guess is coming back to why I love working at publishing is because these discussions are happening all around me.
And finally, what’s the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is that I read for a living, I think about books for a living. It is a dream job.
Wonderful. On that note, thanks so much for your time today Brandon.
Thank you, Valerie. Have fun.