When you're writing a book, you will reach a point where you can't stand the manuscript anymore. You need expert help to turn it into a quality book, especially when you're starting out.
Professional editors can help transform your book, and I continue to use them with my books as I think personal feedback is the best way to learn. In today's interview, I talk to Natasa Lekic from New York Book Editors about her tips for editing and how you can find the right editor for your book.
In the intro, I mention Amazon launching support for Arabic books on the Kindle, The Guardian reports on the ALCS findings that author earning have dropped to under £10,500 per year, and Jane Friedman's (excellent) response to the survey.
I talk about my personal story of synchronicity in Mallorca (pics on Instagram.com/jfpennauthor), and my thoughts on how we all rebrand and change over time. Click here for my tutorials on building your website and email list. Plus, the truth about traffic and feeding the beast – my thoughts on Yaro Starak's podcast on the truth about traffic and why it's also true for authors.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
Natasa Lekic is the Founder of New York Book Editors, which matches writers with experienced, vetted, professional editors. She previously worked in publishing and also co-founded an animated story platform for kids.
- What editors do
- How the changes in the traditional publishing industry have changed the landscape for editors as well
- Matching authors with editors
- Why working with a good editor is the fastest way to progress as a writer
- How to know when your manuscript is ready to send to an editor
- Thinking about our readership while we’re writing
- Painting your vision of your future as an author-entrepreneur
- Balancing creativity and ambition
You can find Natasa Lekic at NewYorkBookEditors.com [my affiliate link if you want to use it is www.TheCreativePenn.com/nybe ] and on Twitter @NYBookEditors. You can also click here for a list of other book editors I recommend.
Transcript of Interview with Natasa Lekic
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com. And today, I'm here with Natasa Lekic. Hi, Natasa.
Natasa: Hi Joanna, so happy to be here.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Natasa is the Founder of New York Book Editors, which matches writers with experienced, vetted, professional editors. She previously worked in publishing and also co-founded an animated story platform for kids.
Natasa, start by telling us a little bit about you, and how you got into publishing and then editing.
Natasa: I started really the way almost everyone starts, as an intern at Europa Editions which publishes literary fiction, a lot of translation as well. And then I went to Atlas & Co as an editorial assistant, and slowly worked my way up to managing editor there, we published literary nonfiction there.
It was really during that time that I developed a true appreciation for what editors actually do, which is often behind the scenes. Unless you work in publishing you don't really get to see that.
Joanna: Did you study English at university?
Natasa: I did. English and Econ.
Joanna: Fantastic, there we go. A little bit of a business background as well. Which I think really shows. You mention there an appreciation for what editors actually do.
Give us a little insight into what editors do.
Natasa: A common misconception is that they fix your grammar. Copy editors do that, so that's a completely different role.
But editors actually work on your story development, character development, pacing, clarity, flow, really from the big picture, but also the way the prose actually reads. That's what editors help with.
Joanna: And in terms of the job of the editor as a traditional publisher because there are commissioning editors, aren't they, who might look at what to buy? And then other editors work with authors.
Is the job just sitting with manuscripts every day?
Natasa: It sounds great, doesn't it? With a comfy couch in your office and that's all you do all day.
It's actually very, very different. Most of the workday is spent in meetings because the editor is really the author's biggest advocate in-house. They're there for production meetings, marketing meetings, they're meeting with agents for pitches.
And a lot of the editing and reading manuscripts is done in the evening and on weekends. Editors are really a committed bunch of people, doing their real work during other people's off time.
Joanna: I do get that sense. But things have changed haven't they? And we're going to come to how editors work with indies, but it used to be that all the editors, I guess, worked in-house and everything.
How has the industry changed for editors in terms of freelance work, and the combinations of what they do now?
Natasa: Given the big merger that happened between Penguin and Random House, there were quite a few layoffs. And on top of that the editors who remained in-house…and I mentioned that they work at night and on weekends, this is in addition to that, they had more on their plate.
A lot of them, it came to a point where you couldn't even give the manuscript the attention that it needed, just because they had so many books that they had to go through.
This isn't true across the board, but I think a lot of editors ended up seeing freelancing as a viable option, and a way to really focus on what they love about editing, which is working with authors and working on the story. And that's the impact of self-publishing becoming so viable.
Joanna: Obviously there's the big five and four or whatever it is now.
But lots of publishers are also using freelance editors as well, aren't they?
Joanna: It's quite common to use freelancers in the industry.
Natasa: That's true too. And that's part of the issue, I think, of the fact that their in-house people are so overwhelmed. And so they also reach out to freelancers when needed.
Joanna: It's quite a busy time.
I found an interview with you in “Business Insider” which is very cool, and you mentioned that self-publishing is the feature, and that's part of why you started your business. Tell me about that.
When did you have this realization about self-publishing, and how did that impact you?
Natasa: I look at a lot of things from an economic perspective, and at Atlas & Co I built the ebook arm, so I started the ebook production. And just given the breakdown of numbers, the margins that authors make self-publishing versus publishing traditionally.
And really having an insight into how much marketing and publicity most authors actually get when they go in-house, which as you know is not that much.
Just given those factors, it was pretty clear that self-publishing was going to become a force in the industry. That's when I decided to leave and really devote myself to that area.
Joanna: Why do you think so many people don't think the same way as you? Is it because most editors, most people in the literary space don't have a joint honors with economics or whatever?
Natasa: I think it's so hard when you spend, not your life, but a lot of time in the industry, you sort of drink the Kool-Aid.
And on the other side, I understand their concern that, it's true that a lot of self-published work hasn't had a lot of thought or care put into it.
And so that's where their doomsday perspective comes from, no, it just doesn't work, look at what's being published. But there are a lot of wonderful books that are being self-published.
I think it's just a matter of drinking the Kool-Aid, and being part of the industry, that you don't want to see certain things.
Joanna: It's funny. I honestly think there is an aspect of entrepreneurial stuff in there, the employee mindset versus the entrepreneur mindset. I will say to people, most editors are paid a salary. If they work for a big publishing house they're paid a salary and that salary is not dependent on how well a single book performs.
Natasa: Exactly yes.
Joanna: So they don't have any skin in the actual game really.
Natasa: That's true. Most places it's not true in the long term because people who are reviewing your list, if your books consistently don't do well some questions will be raised and your job will probably be in jeopardy. So there is some of that.
But sure, they definitely get their salary regardless, for a while at least, and depending on how understanding their boss is.
Joanna: New York Book Editors, you now have a whole load of amazing freelancers, who've worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. People like Stephen King and Jojo Moyes, who are the top of their game in terms of traditional publishing.
So the editors you now work with, do you have to almost educate them around independent authors, or do you find that attitudes are beginning to change?
Natasa: All our editors are recommended to us by our colleagues, by our editors, so there might be some selection bias there.
But usually what happens is an editor will still be in-house and will work with us on occasional projects. So they want to basically get their feet wet. They want to see what is it actually like to work with an indie author before they make the leap because it's a big thing to leave your job.
And I have to say that in every single one of those cases, the editor has ended up leaving and freelancing full time. So that's just a testament to how great it is to work with independent authors. And I'll tell you a secret.
Joanna: It won't be secret for very long.
Natasa: Often it's more of a joy for an editor to work with an indie author than it is to work with a superstar traditional bestselling author. You can understand why.
Joanna: I've read some books, like Dan Brown is a classic one. I'm like seriously, can someone edit the guy. I imagine like when you're super famous, you're like, “Yeah, whatever I don't need to listen to you.” Whereas I'm still like, “Please, give me more. Help.”
Natasa: Exactly. That's exactly right, you've got it. It's that openness and receptivity to the edits that really make it a joy for the editor to work with the author. And on the other side if it's always a battle, one change and then the other, it's not going to be fun.
Joanna: Now before we get into our detailed questions I have for you, I do want to tackle what is a very common question that new authors always ask which is, what if I send a manuscript to an editor and they steal my manuscript?
Whatever you think that means but do you hear that and what do you say to that?
Natasa: I hear it less and less these days. I say, don't worry.
Joanna: So do I.
Natasa: Just to reassure people from the perspective of the law, you automatically have a copyright. It's on your computer, the date is stamped, you own the copyright, you don't have to do anything extra to have it.
And I know there's fear around this, but actually, in reality, just doesn't happen. And so I don't know quite where the fear comes from. Editors work on so many manuscripts and they don't steal it.
Joanna: I agree. I wanted to tackle that up front because I know that some people have that on their mind and now we've tackled that we can just move on. I think it has to do with vulnerability and we'll come back to vulnerability in a minute.
Let's start with a really common question. Most authors would love to find that perfect editor. They would just love to find someone who works well with their genre, who works well with their personality.
And amazingly, NY Book Editors, you specialize in matching authors and editors. So you actually do this kind of matching which means that you've been looking at this.
I want to know if people out there are listening and they want to find an editor who matches without going through your service how can we find the best editors for us? And how do we work out that matching?
Natasa: I'll start with some of the basics, and then go into the more nuanced aspects of it. And the first thing which I think is the most critical, but I've had some pushback on this because I'm particularly strict about experience, is experience.
We advocate for editors who have had at least four years of in-house editing experience at a major publisher. And that number sounds like it comes out of thin air. Why not around five?
But at four years there's a certain hierarchy in the publishing world. You start off as an editorial assistant, assistant editor, associate editor, and then editor. And at four years, regardless of title, because titles vary between houses, you've had a chance to acquire a manuscript probably, but you've certainly edited books on your own.
Editing is really an apprenticeship career; it takes so much time working under other editors initially just looking at what they do then co-editing underneath them, really taking the time to puzzle through developmental issues to understand how to come up with solutions that are true to the novel.
Which is really hard to do without putting your ego into it. Really understanding what the author is doing with the story, and how you can suggest a solution that makes sense within their world, and what they're attempting. That takes time.
In the early days we worked with more junior editors, we even worked with bestselling authors, we worked with creative writing professors, we tried it all. And the edits are really different when you work with someone who has had that experience. You'll find people who haven't had it tend to focus on the micro issues.
So things like, in this scene show don't tell, which is important definitely, but it takes time to develop the big picture awareness, and the ability to guide someone in those aspects.
Our second editor ever at New York Book Editors was Andrea Walker who's now the Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. She was the one who came up with that magic mark of four years. So credit where it's due, and it's worked for us ever since.
So experience definitely. I would say if you don't listen to anything else that I'm about to say just that, and you should be okay.
The other thing you mentioned but it's worth just highlighting is genre. Making sure that the editor has worked in your genre, and also that they enjoy working in it, that's a big one.
And then the more nuanced things are, really think about how developed you are as a writer. Are you early on in your craft? Are you a first timer? Have you worked on your craft for a while, or is it further on?
Editors defer based on their preference. Some editors really will only work with authors who are more developed, and others love it when they're matched with a first timer. So it's important to be open about your writing history with the editor that you're interviewing.
The other thing is every manuscript is unique, and if you think about aspects of your work that are unique, but really integral to the story such as maybe there's graphic violence, or maybe in a Sci-Fi you use really heavy scientific concepts.
You will certainly find an editor who loves whatever aspect it is, but I think by being open about it, you're more likely to find that match rather than having the editor midway be surprised and say, “Wait, wait, wow, wow, wow, where did this come from?” And then not be on board with it, not understand it as a vehicle for what you're trying to do. So that's another thing, just think about those unique elements and talk to the editor about them.
The other thing is really the dynamic is important. As you mentioned this is a relationship, and you want to have, before you hire them, at least a phone call, an in person, honest to goodness live phone call where you figure out what the communication is like. Is this someone that you want to talk to about your work, which is often a very personal thing?
And get a sample edit, or a trial edit, some kind of brief look at what the editor would actually do with your pages to see if you agree with it. It will immediately be obvious. If it's the right editor you'll think, “Yeah, this is it. Man, I can't believe what they did to my first few pages, this is awesome, I can't wait for that to continue.”
Joanna: It's really good to hear and I like that enthusiasm, and I think that's the way it should be, that we're making things better together.
I do want to circle back on that vulnerability because I had an email from an author the other day who said she was feeling disheartened. She'd had an edit back and she felt that she now had this huge mountain to climb, and she felt like there was so much that she had to maybe change to improve her book.
I think she felt a bit, not attacked, but she felt they were being a bit mean. This wasn't one of your editors. But I read through the lines from this email and I emailed her back and I said, “Look do you want to pay for a pat on the back that says, oh, you're amazing there's nothing to improve.”
Obviously not. I don't, if I pay someone I expect them to help make my work better.
Where is the balance? How can authors, especially newer authors, accept the vulnerability of sending the work of their heart to this person who then will come back with things that might be quite significant?
Natasa: I can sympathize because I just went through that myself. I got an edit in December, and I'm still working through the edits.
I think setting up expectations is important; just knowing that it will be a challenge when you see it, it does feel like you've suddenly got this mountain to climb.
The editor is supposed to show you a trail up that mountain. Because the truth is you always had a mountain you just didn't realize it, and the editor is pointing it out, but they're also saying, “Hey, look, I see a route.”
Focusing on the fact that at least you have these guideposts, and you know where to go where with it is very encouraging. And edit is really similar to being in a graduate level class, but it's just you sitting in the auditorium with the professor. It's going to be really intimidating and challenging. And the only subject is your work and your words, and you're both focused on it.
So yeah, it's hard but it's also the fastest way I know to progress as an author. And those two things usually go hand in hand. When things are hard, it also pushes you further than you ever expected you could go.
Joanna: I think you're right, and I think that graduate level education, I think that is why it's an investment. I think that there are lots of people who just use beta readers these days, and I'm like that's fair enough if you're just checking basic things.
But if you want an educational process where you become a better writer, that to me is what a professional edit is about. It's almost like taking your writing to another level, whatever genre you are. That doesn't mean it has to be literary writing. It's about story and everything. I definitely agree with you.
How can an author get the manuscript in a proper state before sending it to an editor? What should they do before submission so that there aren't basic things to fix?
Natasa: I'm so happy you asked this. I am so happy. This is a common issue.
It's hard to get into specifics just because every manuscript is so unique. There's an urge when you've been with your manuscript alone for so long to want to pass it on to someone else, and get help as soon as possible. But I would say resist that urge.
The best thing that they can really do is work on their manuscript on their own, for as long as they feel like they can make improvements.
Until it really makes you want to puke, you just don't want to have anything to do with that work anymore. And that's the point at which, okay, find an editor.
But really, even I go so far as to say when you've done as much as you can for your manuscript, put it away. Put it in a drawer for maybe even two months or more if you can stand it. And then come back to it with fresh eyes, you'll pick up on things that you didn't see before.
And the point at which you genuinely can't do anything else for your manuscript is the point at which the editor is not going to be responding to things that you would have picked up on, the basic things. You don't want to pay the editor for that.
You want it to be at a level at which they're picking up on very nuanced things that you wouldn't have seen, and that you can learn from as we mentioned. So at that point, that's bringing the big guns, when you feel like you can't do anything else for it.
Joanna: I totally agree with you. I think that we do get to that point of just feeling really sick of it.
And it's so funny because I think people worry about that feeling, like maybe that means they shouldn't be a writer, but it's completely normal. Everybody feels that way, and this is part of the commitment to making a better book as is having an edit.
Is there anything else that you want to kind of talk about in terms of editing before I start asking you some other questions?
Natasa: There's this executive editor who always says, “If you're not a reader, you're not a writer.” And that's so huge; to be a good writer you need to read at least in your genre.
It will be great if you read beyond that. But definitely read as much as you can, just pick up on what other people are doing.
Sometimes it's best to read once for the pure entertainment and joy of it as a reader, and then go back and reread it as a writer. And see, “Well, how did he do that?” How did this author keep my suspense, and pay attention to sort of how that magic is wielded on the page.
Joanna: As you talked about in the beginning, there's a dichotomy in readers as well as in writers. They call it whale readers for example in a romance category who devour a book a day, are very different to the readers who might buy the one book a month or just a couple in a year, and they might buy whatever “The New Yorker,” recommendeds.
I read across so many genres. I read the literary books. Last night I was reading a post-apocalyptic horror novel. I read a lot of nonfiction.
When we're writing and finding editors, is the most important thing that we're really keeping an eye on the readership we're aiming for as opposed to the ego celebrate of, “Oh, I'd love to win a Pulitzer or something?”
Natasa: That's a hard question. I think there's so little control over whether you win the Pulitzer that it's not, I believe, an audacious goal, don't get me wrong. But I think writing with that in mind is only going to terrify you.
On the other hand, writing for the general reader is also very hard. It's sort of this anonymous mass. How do you think about that? What I advocate is actually writing for a specific person or two, or a target reader as you mentioned.
I know Stephen King famously writes for his wife, which I think adds a lot of depth because you're thinking about that person; what makes them laugh, what will make them keep turning the page. It seems like you lose a lot, but you actually gain a lot from that specificity.
That's always my recommendation, keep in mind a certain target, and your work will develop a little differently.
Joanna: That's so tough like when you write across so many genres like I do.
Natasa: That's right.
Joanna: None of which my husband read. So people listening, if you feel like your partner or your friends don't read your genre it's fine. You can think of an imaginary person.
Natasa: Absolutely, you can think of an imaginary person. Absolutely. You can think of Joanna Penn, she reads across genres.
Joanna: I read everything. No, that's fun.
I want to come back to the entrepreneurial side because you were in a job that I guess maybe you dreamt of when you were doing your English degree. You were like, “I'm gonna be an editor.”
But then you started running your own company in the creative space which many people think that running a company in like an authors space wouldn't be a great idea but you're doing really well. Many authors also want to run their own companies, many editors do as well.
What type of mindset shift did you go through when you went from employee to entrepreneur? And any sort of tips for going through that difficult time?
Natasha: Going back to choosing to be in the publishing space and to work with authors, my own father said, “What are you doing? Who writes anymore? You're not going to have any clients.” So yeah, it was a very big step, but mindset is crucial.
It was different for me because I love really steep learning curves, and I'm crazy enough to take on risks. So I just had a different mindset compared to a lot of the entrepreneurs I know now.
And I think what's more typical is, and what I've been learning from other entrepreneurs, is to do things like practice morning visualizations, write up what's called a painted picture.
I'm in this organization called the Entrepreneurs' Organization Accelerator Program, and a painted picture is actually part of the curriculum. Writing down exactly your vision, just like you're doing it for a story, of what your creative business will look like in one year, or three years, or five years.
What will it feel like, what will you see around yourself, what will it sound like? I mean everything; what will it smell like, what will the people around you be saying?
Really get concrete with the visualization aspect of it, so that you fully embrace the goal that you are moving towards, I think that's key.
All of us carry around so much fear and things like impostor syndrome, a ton of self-doubt. The fear is pervasive. Fear is important, but this is a way to mitigate it and make sure that it's not in the driver's seat as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it.
I think the morning rituals help with that. It's crazy the number of entrepreneurs I've met who are so successful, their businesses are nine-figure businesses and they practice this. This is what they do in the morning.
And the other side of it is, of course, taking action. And taking action does the same thing, it helps you slowly start to shift your mindset and believe in yourself a little bit more. And the action can be really small steps.
Setting up an About page for your future website. Slowly, bit by bit, these habits will start to shift something on the inside. You'll start to develop confidence, you'll start to believe more that hey maybe that creative business is actually possible, maybe it's within reach. And that's crucial, once your mindset starts to shift the self-empowerment is really key it, follows from that.
Joanna: Wow, that's really cool. I do visualizations.
Natasa: You do?
Joanna: Yes, affirmations, visualizations. I always did that and still do. I've recorded an audio of mine and I listen to myself saying it.
Natasa: That's great.
Joanna: Everyone has their different ways, but it's so interesting, isn't it? Just circling back to the editing, even the process of getting to an end goal with a book, can be such a long process that you almost need to be visualizing the end goal to get through the little task of one page of edits or something.
My first thing was I want to leave my job and be a creative entrepreneur.
My second goal was make six figures. Many people go from six figures then they want to make seven figures. Certainly nine figures is nowhere in my comfort zone at all. I can't see that, but I can see seven figures and it's interesting the mindset shift.
And it's not all about money we should just say to people, it's not all about money, that's just one of the things, one of the measurements on the way, I guess.
I know your business is very successful now, but do you think there are these levels where you have to reset your visualizations. You have to go, “Oh, I am here and now I need to look at the next level.”
Is that what you're getting from these higher up entrepreneurs?
Natasa: Absolutely. Once they set it, it's not like that's going to be it for the year no matter what. They certainly do revise it depending on what's happening.
Sometimes that happens earlier than expected. Then it's just, “Okay, what's next?”
My first goal, when I left publishing, was to make $2,500 a month. That was it but doing what I loved. So I calculated that that would sustain me. And as you said, it sort of just changes from there, you see what happens and you're right, it's not all financial.
A lot of it, I think, as you achieve the financial goals that are enough, and it becomes much bigger than that, it becomes bigger than yourself, and how you can really deliver value to other people, and that ties into your goals.
Joanna: I could talk about this bit forever, but I'm interested in your thoughts on creativity and ambition. Because often the word ambition can be quite a dirty word in the creative space, especially with writers and I imagine editors.
How are you juggling creativity and ambition?
Natasa: How did I make that switch? It switched at some point where I really embraced the idea that if you have ambition you're allowing your work that you put…that you really hope will deliver value to people to reach more people. So in other ways, you're helping the creativity. It all flows into the other.
I think really accepting the idea that by reaching more people, which is what ambition really is, you are improving. Your creativity is actually doing what it's supposed to be doing. It's touching people rather than remaining in your little desk and just being read by your spouse or your mom.
Joanna: That ties into one of my affirmations.
Joanna: Which is so funny, we're clearly the same person. I talk about the best-loved authors like Stephen King because I love horror and Stephen King.
The reason he's one of the best-paid authors is because he's one of the best-loved authors because people want to read his books.
So what it all comes back to…and this is a great tie-in, if I do say so myself. It comes back to being a better writer and writing things that people want to read, and want to tell other people about. I think all of this does tie together being a better will hopefully, if you do everything else right, make you more money in the long run.
Natasa: Yes, exactly.
Joanna: Fantastic, yeah. Circling back, so we're out of time, but tell us a bit more about New York Book Editors, and what people can find there.
Natasa: So as you mentioned, we have a really phenomenal editing team, and we basically facilitate the entire editing process. So we can be found on nybookeditors, newyorkbookeditors.com, and also through thecreativepenn.com/nybe.
Joanna: That's all right. So basically I'm an affiliate of New York Book Editors because it is fantastic, and I think even if people don't want to do anything they should at least come to your site and scroll through the editors. Because I'm just like, “Oh, my goodness, I'd love to work with that person, I'd love to work with that person.” I have to write a lot more books.
Natasa: Well, you're well on your way, Joanna.
Joanna: Fantastic, Natasa. It's been so good to talk to you. So thank you so much for your time today.
Natasa: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a ton of fun. And if anyone wants to reach out to me personally with any questions, I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org, that's me.
Joanna: Fantastic. And I'll put all the links on the show notes. So thanks, again.
Natasa: Thanks, so much. Bye, Joanna.