Litdish: Hilary Rubin Teeman, Executive Editor
Hilary Rubin Teeman is an Executive Editor at Ballantine, an imprint of Penguin Random House, where she publishes a wide range of literary and commercial fiction. Previously, she was an editor at St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan. She began her career in publishing at Trident Media Group, a literary agency. Some of her notable titles include: One Day in December by Josie Silver, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan, Women in Sunlight by Frances Mayes, The Windfall by Diksha Basu, The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday, Sweet Salt Air by Barbara Delinsky, Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer, The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers, Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler, and Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet.
Lunch Ticket connected with Hilary Rubin Teeman by email, in July 2019, to ask ten questions of the Executive Editor.
1. Would you give us a little background? How did you get into editing?
I grew up in Los Angeles but came to the east coast for college, where I majored in English Literature. At some point my senior year, I decided I wanted to move to New York and try to find work in book publishing. I had an inkling that I’d like being an editor, but editorial assistant jobs at publishing houses are notoriously difficult to get and it ended up that the first job I was offered was as an assistant at a literary agency. I jumped at it and it turned out to be a wonderful decision. I got to work directly with many of the writers my boss represented, and was able to learn how to give feedback on material and shape proposals, probably more than I would have if I had gone straight to a publishing house from college. At the agency, I learned a great deal about the breadth of the publishing landscape because agencies work with a large variety of houses and imprints.
After three years at the agency, I decided that editorial [work] was really where my heart was, so I began looking for an opportunity to move over to a publishing house. A lot of the experience of being an agency assistant is applicable to working in an editorial department, and I was thrilled when I was hired at St. Martin’s Press as an Associate Editor, which was a job that allowed me to begin acquiring my own list of books while learning the ropes of editing on the desk of a more experienced editor.
2. I attended a lecture from you last December, so I heard in person how difficult and demanding this job can be with everything you have to do every day and every week. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
Well, I guess what I love about being an editor is that there is no typical day. That sounds like a dodge, but what I mean is that the job is incredibly varied and changes depending on the long term and short term tasks that need accomplishing. We publish three lists a year, and it’s very cyclical, so on any given day, I have multiple books at various stages of production and publication and most of them need some bit of attention every day.
So for example, today, I have two just-published Summer 2019 novels whose sales figures I need to analyze, and whose reviews I need to decide how to leverage for online content and ongoing marketing. I have one book publishing in Fall 2019 for which I have a marketing and publicity “check-in” because the plans are ramping up now that we’re four months out. I have three books on my desk that need line-editing before they go into production for the Spring 2020 list and two other books on that same list that are already in production but need their cover art finalized, their galley letters written, and their design layouts scrutinized. Our Summer 2020 launch is two weeks from now, so I need to write my presentations for that, as well as my descriptive copy and sales bullets for the launch sheets.
These novels are the ones that are in the revision stage, so the authors and I are going back and forth and back and forth on the actual structure and story editing, and that’s something I usually work on outside of normal business hours because it’s very hard to be in the weeds of editing a book during the day when there are so many other things going on. Then there are the submissions from new authors I’m considering (and I get ten to fifteen of those a week, full novels usually) as well as option material and proposals from writers with whom I already work. If I’m interested in acquiring a new author, the entire day can be spent crafting financial forecasts and editorial notes. And then there are departmental meetings, author meetings, meetings with foreign editors, scouts, new agents… So, yeah, there’s an ebb and flow to every day. But it’s really great fun and an extremely interesting and challenging position that allows me to flex many different intellectual muscles.
3. Being an editor, you approach writing from a very different angle than perhaps some writers are used to, especially when it comes to selling our work. How important is it for writers to get an agent before they begin trying to shop their works around?
I think agents are crucial for a writer who is interested in selling his or her work to a large trade house. I can’t speak for more independent publishers or self-publishing outfits because my experience doesn’t lie there. It’s not just because agents have the relationships and the understanding of the various houses to make sure an author’s work is reviewed by the right editor, but because they protect the author’s interest at all stages of publication, and they also work in partnership with me and the author to make the publication the most successful one it can be.
4. From an editor’s standpoint, what’s something that turns you off or makes you pass on a work?
Oh gosh, that’s a very broad question and I’m afraid it doesn’t have a concrete answer. I publish almost exclusively fiction, so for me, the bar is often whether I can put it down. I don’t mean put it down for an hour while I deal with something else, but, “Is this book in my head? Am I thinking about how it’s going to end? Do I want to go back to reading it to the exclusion of other things?” If the answer to these questions is “Yes!” it means the novel has hooked me, that I am feeling an authentic connection to it, that I can see myself working on it and championing it. Whenever I find I’m forcing myself to finish, or that I’m convincing myself to read fifty more pages “just to see,” then that’s usually an indication that it’s not going to be a match for me. So it’s not really something that “turns me off” and makes me say no, but rather that something is so exciting it makes me say yes. Just to be clear, my not feeling that particular excitement for a project does not mean it’s not a publishable book, or a good book or even a great book, just that it’s not a good book for me to acquire and edit. You want an editor who says “Yes!” to all those questions. You want a champion who “cannot put it down.”
5. In your lecture, you talked about how important the pitch is because it’s literally the thing used to sell works. Could you talk about what’s included in a good pitch? Any advice on how to write a good and catching pitch?
I’ll preface this by saying that I’m, generally speaking, a plot-loving editor, so the best pitches for me are the ones where a writer can tell me the set-up of the novel in a single sentence or two and then tantalize me with some version of the question, “What’s going to happen?” This does not mean that I don’t love or need wonderful writing and interesting characters and a coherent structure, but those are never things an editor can know from a pitch. To know that, I have to read the material. Your job (or your agent’s job) in a query or pitch, is to encapsulate the story succinctly and intriguingly enough to make me need to pick it up. I know that is hard, I am deeply, deeply aware of how hard it is because I have to do it every day, when I’m pitching an author’s book to my publisher as one we should invest in or to my sales force as one we should really push. I go through this pitch exercise every time I’ve read a 400 page novel that I love. The onus is on me to condense the novel to its most appealing attributes, to convince my bosses and my sales force to pick it up. Fundamentally, it’s what booksellers, librarians, and even your family and friends will naturally be doing in order to draw readers to your book. I get that it’s reductive and simplistic and not “really what the book’s about.” But it is worth your time to learn to distill your story down to its most basic parts. Of course your novel is about “more” than what you can get into a sentence or two, but no one will ever know what’s it’s “really about” if you can’t entice them with a thirty-second elevator pitch.
6. I know you’ve had experience with writers who are reluctant to taking advice and suggestions from you and other editors. I think there’s a real struggle between fighting for your own work and then accepting the changes. Do you have any advice on how best to find that balance? Of staying true to what you wrote while still making the work sellable and more appealable?
It is absolutely a difficult balance to strike. At the end of the day, it’s not my name on the book, and I firmly believe an author should be comfortable with everything in his or her book and not just change something [to] please an editor. But it’s also important for authors to know that I’m coming to their novel with fresh eyes, the way a new reader would, so some of the things an author might feel are obvious, because he or she knows the characters so well, can sometimes be less obvious to the reader and it’s my job to point these out and sometimes, ask authors to reconsider the way information is shared. I try to be very thoughtful about the way I suggest changes, and to illuminate underlying issues that need attention, while giving an author the space to make his or her own choices about how to address them. I do advise authors, if possible, to have an editorial call with an editor who has expressed interest in a manuscript before they agree to a publishing agreement, because I think it is important for an author to know how an editor sees their book and what kind of work an editor would encourage the author to do. Not nitty gritty line-edits, but the general scope and shape of the revisions so an author can know if he or she is comfortable with the direction the editor’s notes will take. It’s not always possible, but I do think it’s the ideal way to enter into an editorial partnership, because both parties will at least have some expectation of what the work will be.
7. What’s the number one thing a writer should focus on as they begin shopping around their book?
I’m going to say two things: Get the manuscript in the absolute best shape you can BEFORE you look for an agent, and think about realistic titles your novel could be compared to. Any agent you sign with will likely have editorial feedback and revisions to suggest (and be able to flesh out your comparable titles list), but with the volume of queries and pitches they receive, it’s crucial to be concise and clear about what company you think your novel can keep and to be certain that the manuscript you’ve sent to them represents your best work.
8. Many writers try to find editing jobs to stay within the writing community while also being able to stay active in it. Do you find there’s a lot of crossover between editors and writers?
There is some, for sure, but I can’t really speak to how good an idea it is since I’m not a writer myself.
9. I’m one of those people who would like to get into editing in the future, but there’s so many avenues to choose from. Do you have any advice for people trying to break into the editing world for a career—where to start or what they should expect?
I sort of addressed this earlier, but I guess I’d say that it’s really important to understand that there is not one way into editing. Many, many people who become editors do not start a editorial assistants, but enter publishing houses through many other departments (production, publicity, marketing) or other adjacent fields (agenting, scouting). Eventually, yes, you do have to make a choice to join an editorial department but knowledge of other areas of the business is extremely important in building a successful editing career, so don’t be discouraged if your dream is to be an editor but there are no editorial department openings. Once you are in the industry in some capacity, the experience you gain can eventually help you transition to editing. Or, potentially, you’ll discover you love a different piece of the industry!
10. What’s the one thing you’d like to leave people with when it comes to the editing side of things?
It’s an extremely diverse, interesting, and challenging job that can be incredibly exciting and rewarding and heartbreaking and stressful. We’re mostly just book lovers who want to bring stories we love to the world. I feel grateful every day to have the job I have.