Publishing Profiles: Kate Napolitano, Editor at Plume

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Kate Napolitano photoYPG’s Marisa Novello recently spoke with Kate Napolitano, Editor at Plume (an imprint of Penguin Random House), about her path to publishing and her experiences as an editor.

Tell us about your path into publishing. How did you get your start?

Like a lot of us in publishing, I was a lit major as an undergrad—a total nerd for Faulkner and Vonnegut and postmodernism and deconstruction. But when it came to deciding upon a career path, I was a bit stumped as to how to translate those interests into something that could make me a living. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher (much respect to those who are!), and I didn’t feel like academia was the right fit for me. It wasn’t until a sociology professor mentioned that he had handed in his manuscript to his editor that the light went on: I could work with the books, on the creative side. I took an internship at Rutgers University Press, where I was an administrative intern, liaising between various departments. That gave me a great introduction to the industry, and from there, I knew I wanted to see how publishing worked at a big house. I applied for a summer internship at Penguin, and landed one as the intern for Viking. It was the ultimate crash course in publishing, and a bit of an unusual internship experience. Pamela Dorman had just moved back to Penguin to start her eponymous imprint, and on one of the first days of my internship, I was asked to organize her office and bookcase before her arrival. I will say this: I’m by no means a neat freak, but I took to that task with a level of enthusiasm for organization that I’ve yet to replicate in my life. I remember standing on a chair in a pair of cheap-o heels, scrutinizing the distance between the shelves. But I guess that attention to detail was enough to catch Pam’s eye, because she ended up asking me to be her temporary assistant for the summer while she looked to hire someone. That was the ultimate trial-by-fire: I basically learned the job of an ed assistant as an intern, answering phones, talking with agents, reading submissions and preparing reports. When that summer ended, I had caught the bug. I loved the pace and the energy of the business, and I knew that I wanted to be an editor.

The economy collapsed during my senior year of college, and jobs in any industry were scarce, let alone in publishing. So when the job listing for the assistant to the editor-in-chief of Plume went up, I jumped at it, even though I was still a few weeks from graduating and it was an immediate hire position. When I was offered the job, I went straight to my professors and essentially begged them to rearrange my finals schedule. Luckily, they were extremely supportive and understanding, and I got the go-ahead. So, I started my career while as I was cobbling together my thesis and trying to enjoy the last days of college life. I found one of my final papers on my work computer a few months ago; I think I took off one day, for my graduation. It was a crazy start, to say the least, but I guess I’m of the mindset that you might as well jump into things with both feet.

Was your idea of editing similar to the reality of it? What are some of the joys of your job and what are some of the difficulties you’ve faced?

I think a lot of people have the idea that editors sit at their desk and read all day, moving words around a page. While that is a part of the job—and one of the best parts, in my opinion—it’s one of many facets. Being an editor requires that you wear many different hats: you’re a researcher and an evaluator and a negotiator and above all, you’re an advocate for your authors and their books. No two days are ever the same, and I think that’s why the job is so exciting. One day, you could be bidding on a book in an auction; the next, you could be working with an author to help shape the arc of their narrative; the day after, you could be researching comparative titles and evaluating market trends. It’s a job that requires you to be present for your books in all parts of the publication process but also looking ahead to the future. That can be challenging, and chaotic, but it’s also really rewarding.

As an editor, you are helping to shape the cultural landscape, as presumptuous as that sounds. That is an awesome responsibility, and one I really treasure. To me, the best part of the job is working with authors to help bring their words and ideas to fruition. Each book I’ve worked on has taught me so much; it’s kind of astounding to work with such talented and creative people day in and day out. Editing is an intimate process—you want to honor the writer’s ideas while helping them to bring out the best in their work. Watching a book go from the first draft to the final is so satisfying, and seeing the final product? There’s nothing like it. There are so many other joys to this job, too many to enumerate: watching a book succeed after your team has put their all into it, getting a great publicity hit, reading positive responses from fans, hearing someone say ‘I loved this book!’ And you will always remember the first time you see someone out in the world reading one of the books you edited. (Petite brunette on the uptown 1 train reading Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse: thank you for that!)

But the job does come with challenges, of course. First of all, it can be a grind. As a young editor, finding that balance between assisting and asserting your own editorial identity is crucial. Learn as much as you can from your mentors, and become an expert in the area where you want to publish. Once you are able to find that space where you can thrive, go running after it. As a young editor, you have to be aggressive in chasing opportunities—they won’t land in your lap. Publishing is an ever-changing business, so you have to keep your ear to the ground at all times. It’s also an industry of heartbreak, to some extent, which in and of itself can be challenging. You can love a book when it comes to you on submission, have a great conversation with an author, but end up getting outbid in an auction. Or you can get everyone in-house excited about a book, and land incredible publicity for it, but it doesn’t translate to sales. Because we are publishing books—which are products, but more than products because of the personal connection we have with them–those moments can be disappointing. But the moments of success outweigh everything else. It’s a labor of love, I’ll say that.

Plume is a trade paperback imprint. What are the challenges and advantages of acquiring trade paperbacks?

Plume has been a great place to grow up. Because it’s a paperback imprint, I was able to start acquiring earlier than I may have been allowed to at other imprints. That’s partly due to the fact that trade paperback acquisitions tend to be lower risk than hardcover acquisitions, and it’s also because Plume is an imprint that encourages the growth of their young editors. I was an assistant when I acquired my first book, Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse by Alida Nugent. Alida’s Tumblr, the Frenemy, was getting viral attention, so I reached out to her to see if she was interested in writing a book, because I felt she had an incredibly unique voice and was talking about issues that were relevant to my generation in a way that no one was. Luckily, she was interested in writing a book, and once we were able to come to terms on an idea that my team supported, and we made an offer. Because Plume is a paperback imprint, we can take chances with debut authors in the hopes of developing them into house authors. And it can work! I’m happy to say that Alida has a second book coming out with us in 2015.

As for the challenges, it can be difficult to compete with a hardcover imprint in an auction situation, because they can offer better royalty rates, and often, higher advances. That being said, there are certain books that are more appropriate for trade paperback format, especially if it’s a price-sensitive demographic. If I’m going into an auction situation where I am competing against hardcover imprints, I try to make a case for why Plume would be the best possible imprint for this particular author. More important than format or anything else, it’s about being published into a supportive environment that understands an author’s vision.

How do you acquire a book? What’s your thought process, and is it more analytical or do you use some intuition?

There are a few different ways that a book can be acquired. Sometimes the acquisition process is entrepreneurial—you find a writer that you think should write a book and you chase them and see if they’re interested in developing a concept, or your team is looking to publish a specific type of book and you find someone appropriate to write on the topic and approach them with an idea. As an editor, particularly for non-fiction, I think it’s important to try to anticipate the spaces where a book could exist but doesn’t yet.

The majority of the time, though, the acquisition process begins when a manuscript is submitted via a literary agent. The relationship between editor and agent is so important. You need agents to know you and understand your tastes, and vice versa, so you can connect on projects. That means networking, networking, networking. Even if you’re allergic to the idea of it, you have to force yourself out of your comfort zone and meet as many people as possible. You never know who’s going to represent your dream project.

As for whether the decision is analytical or intuition-based, I’d say it’s a combination of both. There’s a certain gut feeling that comes when you connect with a project, which is all intuition. Sometimes you read a project and you think to yourself I have to be the one to publish this. When the proposal for my author Michelle Tea’s forthcoming memoir How to Grow Up came in, I was so engrossed in it, so in love with her voice, that I literally missed my stop on the train. That’s pure gut reaction. But then you have to consider the audience for the book, which is more analytical. Who’s the readership for a book like this? What other books in this category have worked well, and why? Does the author have a promotable platform? These types of questions force you to think about the book from all angles. After that internal analysis, I ask my editorial board and my colleagues in publicity and marketing to read and give their opinions on the project. My colleagues are generous with their time and honest with their opinions, which I really appreciate. Having their support is crucial—if you can’t get your colleagues excited about a book, how will you get readers to be?

When I like a book, and my colleagues are supportive of it, I then talk with the agent to see what their plans are—whether the book is going to auction, or has a closing date, if there’s other interest, et cetera. Everyone has their own strategy of how they “play” this part of the game, but personally, I find it to be more advantageous to be upfront about my interest. During this stage, I’ll sometimes meet with or have a phone call with the author, which is extraordinarily helpful. You can give the author a sense of your personality, your vision for the book, and why you think their book would be a good fit for your list. These meetings can really help to differentiate you from other editors, so I go into them as informed and energetic as possible, so the author knows that they’ll be published into a supportive environment with an editor who is willing to go to bat for them.

And then it comes down to how a book closes! We run numbers to see how much we can feasibly bid on a book, and then, depending on the level of interest and what the agent wants to do, we’ll move forward accordingly. Whether it’s an auction or some other sort of closing, you put a strategy in place and hope that the numbers work and that you’ve made a strong enough impression on the author that they want to publish their book with you. It’s safe to say that there’s never a dull moment on auction days.

As an editor you work with other departments as well. What makes a great pitch? How do you position your books to help inspire the publicity and sales teams?

As an editor, you are a book’s primary advocate in-house, and a crucial part of that role is rousing up enthusiasm amongst your colleagues. A good pitch can help your book stand out from the pack, and a great pitch will have people talking about your book after the meeting is over. Presenting in front of a room of sales people and marketing and publicity folks can be nerve-wracking, but it’s your best shot at getting people to understand why you love this book and why you think readers will, too. Before I go into these meetings, I think about what a sales person might want to hear about the book—who’s the market for it? What’s the author’s platform like? What other books have been published successfully in this category that we can use an example for our publication? If I can make a pitch that sales or publicity can in turn use to inspire their own pitches, that’s an effective speech.

When it comes down to actually presenting my books, I try to be as engaging and energetic as possible. You want to be able to wake the room up, make them pay attention, even if it’s 9am and no one has had their coffee yet. As lame as it may sound, before I go into a launch meeting, I play pump-up music. I was a javelin thrower in high school, and I find that before launch meetings, I listen to the same scream-so-loud-so-angry music that used to motivate me before track meets. But you want to carry energy with you into your presentations. I always write out my speeches, but I try to avoid reading them off the paper as much as possible. That takes a lot of practicing; a lot of rehearsing  in front of mirrors and willing audience members at home who don’t care that they’ve heard this same speech four or five times in a row.

The most important thing to remember is to be authentic. I think my best pitches are the one that are natural and personal and can make people laugh. If I can get people to remember the book that way and have them channel my enthusiasm for the book into enthusiasm for reads, I consider it a success.

What’s been the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career so far?

Risk is an inherent part of this job; there are no guarantees as to a book’s success until it hits the stands. You make educated guesses as to how to publish a book, and try to anticipate the audience and the publishing environment, but there’s no specific equation of A + B + C equals a bestseller. Every acquisition is a risk, in the way, and sometimes, the higher the stakes, the more you feel that risk. But those risks can also lead to great payoffs, and career-defining moments.

In terms of my own career, the riskiest moments have come when I’ve had to advocate for myself and my projects. Sometimes, as a young editor witnessing certain moments in the cultural climate, you may identify opportunities that stray from the traditional publishing model. And being the person to say, Okay, I know maybe you haven’t heard of this website or this platform, but I think this author has a wide reach and a promising future and we need to invest in this can be intimidating. Luckily, my bosses have been willing to take risks and expand the idea of what publishing can be.

I’ve asked for promotions during my career, and doing that felt very risky each time. The leap from associate editor to editor was a particularly challenging moment—I felt I had put the work, had chased and published projects that were meaningful and successful. But there’s still anxiety around it, those “do I deserve this?” feelings of doubt that I think that many of us, particularly women, experience on the job. We don’t want to ask for too much. As it turns out, I was an editing a book called Mistakes I Made At Work, wherein high-achieving women from a variety of different fields discuss errors they’ve made on the job, and how they were able to turn these blunders into career-making moments. There’s an entire section of the book devoted to learning to ask for what you deserve in your career, be it a raise or a promotion or some sort of quality-of-life improvement. There was a moment where I was like, Duh, Kate. You’re editing this book that champions the idea of women being assertive and advocating for themselves in their careers. Maybe put this advice into action. And so I did, and it worked. If you put in the work, and can back it up with facts, it doesn’t hurt to ask. It can feel risky in the moment, but you’re the only one in charge of your career path, so you might as well be your own biggest advocate.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known as an assistant?

I would tell my younger self this: YOU WILL GET THROUGH THIS. As an assistant, you’re going to put in long hours, especially when you’re trying to build your own identity as an editor while also assisting your bosses on their books. It can be tough to manage that balance. When I was an assistant editor, I had already started acquiring my own books while working with two highly respected senior editors who had prolific lists. There was a stretch of three or four months where I didn’t leave the office before it was dark—it was like the sun didn’t even exist. But if you can get through the gauntlet, you can get through anything.

I also know now that it’s important to be bold about what you want. Don’t let your title hold you back. When I was an assistant, I remember having to fight the feeling that I wasn’t “senior enough” to pursue certain opportunities. There were book ideas that I sat on, and some eventually did become books, and successful ones at that. Looking back, I know that it was my own insecurities holding me back. If you have an idea, and it’s supported by your colleagues, be fearless and chase it.

This article was contributed by YPG member Marisa Novello. To learn more about Marisa, visit our Contributing Writers page.

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