An interview with Lex Hirst

by Samuel Elliott

While Lex Hirst has undoubtedly become a leading authority on the Australian literary landscape, it is perhaps her passion for working closely with new authors which has distinguished her most from her contemporaries. The recent immense success with debut novelist Daniel Findlay’s Year Of The Orphan has demonstrated not only her aptitude for identifying outstanding Spec-Fiction titles, but also her determination in bringing such a unique literary voice to the fore.

Among her many prestigious achievements thus far, Hirst has served in various capacities with festivals and events scattered around our island continent in roles ranging from guest-speaking to even directing, including that of the National Young Writers Festival. She continues numerous such pursuits including the running of workshops and contributing to an array of panels, all the while maintaining her full-time job as Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House.

She first embarked on her vocation via the Masters of Publishing and Editing degree found at Sydney University, confiding that upon completion of her matriculation she was still yet to gain a comprehensive knowledge of the publishing industry.

‘You can do quite a bit of research on the internet,’ she says. ‘And not manage to get very far of what is legitimate and what isn’t.’

An inherent difficulty oftentimes encountered by those from the outside seeking to gain an understanding of the actual workings of the publishing industry. She first recommends anyone seeking to do so should first spend time working to hone their own craft, before beginning to try and establish contact with those in the industry and ultimately try and attain publication.

Hirst enjoys the liaison aspect of her role, assisting to demystify much of what can be an opaque industry for authors while also finding burgeoning talent. ‘I think that it’s helpful and part of the reason I do go to events and chat to people, is to try and help people get an idea of who the publishing houses are here and how the system works and try to make that a bit clearer.’

In touching on helping to remove some of the debilitating confusion surrounding the industry for writers, Hirst also points out that, purely based on the population difference alone, Australia is still comparatively a drop-in-the-ocean of a readership market compared to the colossal ones of the United Kingdom and the United States. She explains the first notable difference between the Antipodean industry to that of its overseas counterparts. ‘Most publishing houses here don’t have people who specifically read submissions.’

Fortunately, Penguin Random House, where Hirst works, is one such place that does have a dedicated submissions department and contrary to commonly held belief, the slush pile still exists and manuscripts among it have gone on to be published. ‘I know that in the time that I’ve been here, we have pulled out people from the slush pile, it’s such an awful name for it but yeah, they definitely get looked at.’

Having clarified that, Hirst next delves into whether it is essential for authors to secure a literary agent in order to truly have a chance at being published. ‘I think that if you can get an agent, that’s almost always fabulous.’ She warns that agents themselves are frequently inundated with their own backlog of submissions, warranting any authors submitting to be patient. She also adds that although having a literary agent is advantageous in that they will be pundits of the industry and able to determine who best would be to approach, it is not essential.

Hirst stresses that before even approaching a literary agent, it is best for the author to ensure that the manuscript they are submitting is at its polished best, as frequently agents will, even if interested, send it back requesting further drafts to be made before they will take said manuscript on and then go about contacting publishers. ‘Just a few drafts down the track and that makes a huge difference. As a publisher or a commissioning editor, even if you can see the potential in the work, you have to convince the other people in the company of what that potential will be, so if it’s more crafted by the time it gets to you, that just makes your job easier.’

Now having touched on the process of how a book comes about to be taken on by a publishing house, Hirst shares her insight into how this is done, first correcting the commonly held misconception that it need be a unanimous vote.

‘Not everyone has to be onside,’ she reveals. ‘But in order to make a book truly stand out, it helps. It’s a tough market after all. You really have to want to give it every single chance that you’ve got. In an acquisitions meeting, if you’re passionate about it, then everyone else might be able to see the value in it too, but not always. And I think that’s why we quibble sometimes with books.’

She describes a quandary she occasionally encounters where she believes in the potential of a manuscript yet the other members that comprise the team have held a different opinion. ‘People are often pretty willing to take your advice for it, particularly now with Spec-Fiction. That’s where things like comparing it to other books really come in, because you don’t need everyone to love it, but you need them to see who will love it and then they can aim at reaching those people.’

She provides a list of elements commonly found within a publishable book. In addition to that of the high quality of writing, or how unique and engaging the characters might be, it can also include “the hook”. Additionally, there are many other factors at play that can serve to make publishers want to take on a unique and original book.

‘Being able to provide reasons to the publicity team as to why the media will be interested in the book. For example, is there a really interesting backstory? Is it a theme that people have been talking about a lot? Also tied into that, is the author someone that can talk about their work? Are there any big upcoming events the author could appear in? What television shows might be interested in having this author on?’

She touches on the aspect that writers may overlook, yet is nevertheless crucial in the process – that of the marketing. This can encompass the ever-burgeoning social media aspect of publication, including if a new title will fare well on established social media channels and what demographics said title might appeal to. Sometimes a title might not necessarily apply to any one of the long-established demographics, but the publishers might be interested enough to determine if they could establish an entirely new one. ‘These are all the sort of questions that we would discuss, in the meetings and then, on top of that, we talk about which bookshops would stock it and how many copies would they likely take for the initial period.’

All creativity aside, it does ultimately boil down to the sales projection. The majority of sales of a new title occur within the first three months of publication and are dependent on many variables, chief among them being which book-sellers will actually take the new title.

‘We’re talking about shelf-space here, is this the sort of book that some of the chains will take? Is this one that independent bookshops will really get behind and sell? Is it one that the other big brands whether it’s Big W, or K-Mart, or Target, will they get behind?’

This part of the process is left in the seasoned hands of the sales team, all of whom have cultivated strong ties with reps from the vast assortment of booksellers within the Australian market. ‘They are basically calling on the past successes and the history of that in other books and determining who will or won’t be interested from that.’

It takes a deft hand to do so and a trained eye for recognising who is the best place to place the new title in. This process is also in somewhat of a transitional period in accordance with the emergence of the Spec-Fiction titles that Hirst and others are championing, with one of the latest being Daniel Findlay’s, Year Of The Orphan.

Hirst comments on the shifting trends which have heralded in a new era of Australian spec-fiction. ‘I think that for a long time there’s been a thought that these American and U.K. authors of Spec Fiction are the only ones that will sell in the Australian market and this is now changing, publishers are starting to accept new, Australian voices too.’

Hirst goes on to explain what she herself looks for. ‘The books that I’m interested in publishing are the ones that cross genres and appeal to a broader audience and still those other, niche readers as well.’ She also weighs in on why such works are emerging to the fore and becoming so immensely popular. ‘I think our reality feels dystopian in many ways and those sort of books manage to toe the line with pure escapism but also in some ways seem to mirror the world around us.’

She cites hugely successful novels (and their fan-faithful big-budget television adaptations) such as Game of Thrones, American Gods and The Handmaiden’s Tale as being exemplary genre-blurring tales. She even mentions the first author to introduce her to such works, Australia’s own, Isobelle Carmody. ‘She got me into spec-fic at the tender age of thirteen and I never thought of that as just science fiction.’

So that then brings to question what sets apart one manuscript from any of the many that come across her desk, Hirst explains that there are a great many factors that authors should be mindful of and work to hone. ‘Possibly a bit of an undesirable answer,’ she confides with a laugh. ‘But it really is a combination of things. The voice is often a really big one and knowing what the message of your book is, what you’re trying to say with it. What’s its large, underlying theme?’

Hirst also notices a recurring flaw prevalent in some of the titles that that can detract from her enjoyment. ‘The biggest issue I find with spec-fic books coming in, is that the world-building isn’t nuanced enough to allow for the narrative to push through enough.’ She stresses that this can be remedied through focusing instead on the characters and their own individual story, therefore allowing the world they inhabit to develop organically by having it in the background instead of at the centre.

She concludes with a final word of advice, regarding how best writers of the Spec-Fiction ilk, or any other Antipodean author for that matter, can put their best foot forward to be published and it is down to extensive research. ‘It’s always good to have an idea of what’s out there, have a look at who else is writing in your genre.’ That includes checking the acknowledgements of any title that you have loved, as that can provide valuable insight into the who’s who of the zoo within the publishing world and of course, to nourish a voracious reading appetite. ‘How can you ever go wrong with reading more?’

Thanks to Hirst’s efforts, Daniel Findlay has emerged to the forefront of the Australian literary industry as a representative of this new appreciation for Speculative Fiction. The huge success of Year Of The Orphan is both demonstrative of this changing zeitgeist and proof that major publishing houses are now actively seeking patently spec-fiction titles penned by Australian’s many own prolific authors of the genre. Hirst’s faith in the genre and solid track record of success, have translated as joyful tidings to any of you who identify as penning Spec-Fiction – so get writing and never give up.

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: 
www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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