Editor Said, Author Said: Nadia Bennet and Eveline Chao on Niubi’s Editorial Process
Here's an interview tiwh editor Nadia Bennet and author Eveline Chao, who worked on NIUBI , a humor book about Chinese slang, together. As the assistant to her agent, I worked with Eveline to get her book proposal for NIUBI in shape for submission to Plume.
Editor Said . . .
Nadia Bennet is an editor at the luxury art book publisher, Assouline. Nadia has worked as a freelance editor with clients like Booz & Company and Melcher Media. She started her New York publishing career at Penguin’s Plume imprint, acquiring and editing all manner of nonfiction titles: memoirs, humor, popular science, art, and more. Originally from Los Angeles, she has also lived in Santa Barbara, CA, and overseas in Paris and Lyon, France.
Q: Where did you work, and what was your position when you edited NIUBI? How did you come to be assigned to NIUBI?
I was an assistant editor at Plume, an imprint of Penguin group. The editor who was originally working on the book left, so NIUBI was assigned to me.
Q: What was your vision for NIUBI?
Plume has a series of slang language books that they have been publishing since the 1990s. Because of China’s economic strength in the world, we felt it would be a popular addition. I hoped that the book would give Americans a deeper insight into day-to-day Chinese culture–especially youth culture–and I think it succeeded in doing that, in an informative, but entertaining way.
Q: How many rounds of editing were there with NIUBI?
I really don’t remember, but I can’t imagine it was very many–maybe one round on my end. Eveline had done very thorough research and had consulted with various native speakers. I mainly checked it for organization and if necessary, cut any repetitive and superfluous sections.
Q: Were there any lessons you learned from working on NIUBI that you applied to other books?
With each book, especially as a young assistant editor, you gain confidence in your editorial choices and decisions. I really mean with everything, each big or small decision, from overall structure–which is the best order for the chapters–to word choice, and so on. Each one of those is a style choice– and like choosing a cover, there’s no science. The decisions come from instinct, experience, and being able to put yourself in the readers’ shoes and knowing who the readers are in the first place.
Q: What was working with Eveline like?
I’ve said this before and it’s not exaggeration–she was a dream author! I could really tell that this book meant a lot to her. Her research and fact-checking was thorough, the manuscript she delivered was clean and careful. It makes such a difference to work with an author who puts a lot of thought and care into their work–it makes the editor, and the reader, care more. I can’t remember if she ever missed a deadline, but I know that if she was late I had plenty of advance notice. Plus she’s smart and funny, which always helps the process move along smoothly.
Q: The cover of NIUBI is supercute and funny. What was the process in choosing it?
We had used the illustrator on another Plume book and were very happy with his work so we approached him to do this book–as well as new covers for all the previous slang language books in the series. We sent him the manuscript, or at least parts of it, and he chose a few scenarios that Eveline described, to illustrate. From those, we chose one we liked best. (I can’t remember who exactly was involved in choosing, but it was probably me, maybe Eveline, the editor-in-chief, the art department, and then finally, the president and the marketing director weighed in.) There is very little science in choosing a cover, it’s mostly instinct–some we get right and some we don’t.
NIUBI was definitely one of the successes.
Q: I know you’re an editor at an art book publishing house now. How has your role as editor changed? What things have stayed the same, if any?
The main difference is that I don’t acquire books now. I work more as a project manager overseeing the production process from start to finish: I hire writers, copyeditors, proofreaders, and work with in-house photo editors, designers, and production managers, while being the main contact with the client (if there is one). The timeline is also much shorter, so many aspects involved in producing a book, that in standard trade publishing are separate, happen simultaneously here–i.e. the design/layout/photo selection and the text development. Plus the text is much shorter, so overall less homework–no submission manuscripts or 80,000 word drafts to read. I get to read for pleasure now!!
What has stayed the same is that I still have an important role in the development and editing of the text. While there is a general approach to the text that I need to adhere to (it comes from discussions between the editorial director, the company founders, and the client), I can work directly with the writer to make sure we reach those goals–through developmental discussions and line editing.
I have loved working with the team to make sure the visual elements and the text align.
Q: How do you feel your role as an editor has evolved over your career?
Well, it has changed dramatically just because of my move to illustrated books. This segment of publishing is far removed from the industry changes, because making these books electronic would defeat their purpose as objets d’art. That does of course mean that it is a much more specific niche, so the jobs are fewer. But I do think that because I am involved in many more aspects of the book publishing process I am gaining valuable skills that can be transferred to media production and project management in general.
Author Said . . .
Eveline Chao is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, and the BBC, and is a 2013-2014 Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers Workshop. She previously lived in Beijing for five years, where she edited a business magazine and wrote NIUBI!. She grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Q: How long did it take you from making the deal to the publication of NIUBI?
My agent sold the book in January 2008, the manuscript was due January 2009, and it came out in November 2009, so it was about two
years from signing the contract to holding a finished book in my hands.
Q: What were your favorite parts about writing NIUBI?
I love having a filter for looking at the world, and working on a long-term writing project like a book gives you that. What that filter is changes with whatever I’m working on at the time. But for the year I was working on NIUBI, I looked at the world through the filter of language and slang, and I really enjoyed having a consistent thing I was always looking for and thinking about. It was really fun to go to parties, sit in cafes, hang out with friends, hang out with strangers – it didn’t matter who or where – and ask people, “Do you know any interesting slang?” The answers were always fascinating, though they didn’t always make it into the final book. And I enjoyed the experience of walking around on high alert, keeping my ears pricked for any interesting language I might overhear. It’s like being a detective.
Q: Did you feel your vision of NIUBI differed from the publisher’s and if so, how?
Not too much. I’m an unusual case because NIUBI was part of a series of slang books for different languages, so I had the benefit of having seen some of the previously published books (for Japanese and Russian, for example) and knowing the format and also how kooky (and dirty) it was okay to be.
One thing I did bring up with the publisher was that I didn’t love the illustrations in the older books. They agreed the art was outdated and let me be involved in the process of finding a new illustrator. I ended up liking the work of the guy they recommended, Chris Murphy, so there was no drama there.
Q: How did writing NIUBI change/affect your future writing?
The most valuable thing the book gave me was a feeling of legitimacy. When you’re young and still struggling with writing, you always feel kind of sheepish telling people you’re a writer – or at least I did. Just a few weeks ago I had a pretty typical conversation where someone asked what I do, and I said I’m a writer, and they said, “You mean you’re actually a writer writer, or you just want to be a writer?” And in the past, even after I’d published a few journalism articles, I still had trouble saying I was a writer because it felt more aspirational than real. Once I’d written the book, though, I could feel like, yes, I am. Of course you should have the fortitude to believe in yourself with or without the publishing stamp of approval, and I really admire the writers I know who are able to be totally unwavering in that belief, but, you know. Self-doubt is a demon for everyone.
Also, having written a book demystifies the whole process and enables you to envision writing more books down the line. It makes everything tangible instead of this hard-to-tackle abstraction.
Q: What were your LEAST favorite parts about writing NIUBI?
The feeling of constant, low-level terror that I was going to somehow screw it up? I guess either by writing something terrible, or missing the deadline, or even not turning in a manuscript at all. I had a year to do the manuscript, but because I knew I was going to leave my job at some point (which at the time was editing a business magazine in China), I kept putting off starting on it until I left the job. That ended up being just four months before the manuscript was due, so for nearly four months straight, I parked in a cafe from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single day, seven days a week, working on the book and trying to just hold myself together and not panic. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and looking back don’t think I could do that again. It’s also clear to me now that I could have worked a lot less hard, and it still would have turned out okay, but at the time it felt like I had to be killing myself for it and that still wouldn’t be enough.
Q: Were there any changes Nadia asked for that surprised you?
Not really. Nadia was a very chill editor. Her edits felt minimal to me, and they all made sense. I was only ever grateful to be getting an outside eye on everything so I always trusted her judgment. Nadia inherited me from her old boss, who had been the acquiring editor on the book but then left Penguin, so she suddenly had to deal with a bunch of new authors all at once and probably wasn’t sure what she was going to get with any of us.
Q: How did you feel about the book when it was in its final form?
Now I feel great about the book! But when I first got the advances, it was like I still had PTSD from the writing process, so I could barely even look at it. Other people would read it and tell me it was great and I’d be like, “If you say so.” It took a few months after the book was out, and after I started receiving fan messages from readers on Facebook and praise from people in media, that I finally absorbed that I had really finished this monumental task and could actually relax and be happy about it now. I had coffee sometime that year with a former boss who’s an editor at Little, Brown, and when he asked me how it felt to be an author, I said it was a lot more awesome than I realized it was going to be.