– by Ash Goldberg
Love the written word? Considering entering the world of editing? Wondering what it takes to get your work published in a literary magazine? Or just looking for something to do with that 20,000 word manuscript propping up the short leg of the chair you’re sitting on?
Johannes Jakob (Jojo) , former editor of Voiceworks magazine and current fiction editor of The Lifted Brow, explores his editing experiences and talks about Express Media’s exciting new novella publishing imprint: Hologram.
How did you get started in editing?
I started out by volunteering on the editorial committee at Voiceworks. I was also lucky enough to get the chance to noodle around a bit at Sleepers Publishing and Farrago. I’ve learnt pretty much everything on the job and because people smarter than me have generously given me their time and expertise.
What was the most valuable thing you learnt as the editor of Voiceworks?
To be an optimistic and generous reader. When you’re dealing with submissions in isolation, sometimes it becomes too easy to magnify the little flaws in pieces. Some small thing is not quite to your liking and suddenly it seems impossible it could ever appear in the magazine. It’s too easy to start saying no to everything. As the editor, you’re always looking at the magazine as a whole and having that perspective helps. You look for reasons why something is great, not reasons it shouldn’t go in the magazine. Even when reading stories that don’t get up, it feels a lot healthier and fairer to make sure you start reading with enthusiasm.
The other thing is to not get derailed by problems, because there are going to be a lot of them. Things are going to go wrong – spectacularly and heartbreakingly at times – and the best editors (the best anyones) power through them. You learn not to dwell on what’s happened; instead you kick into action and start solving the problems, start tackling the challenges
How did Hologram get started?
The majority of Express Media’s offerings are for writers under twenty-five, but we just kept hearing about people that found out about us too late. We wanted something that would put a bigger spotlight on a couple of great young writers, help them take another step towards wherever they want to go. We wanted something that would get their work into a lot of readers’ hands. Hologram is that something.
You were previously the editor of Voiceworks magazine, The Victorian Writer and you are also currently the fiction editor of The Lifted Brow. What’s different about Hologram? What does it offer you?
Hologram gives me the chance to learn about making books rather than magazines and journals! Something that’s not cyclical and not made up of lots of little bits, where I don’t have to figure out how all these discrete pieces of content are going to come from and fit together. I get experience not just editing longform, but also everything that goes into producing and selling books, which is quite different from magazines where you have subscribers and a fixed format. For me, another key part of it is that there are mentorships involved, so I basically get the opportunity to go up to some people I really respect and ask: will you help me with this? That’s tremendous.
Are you looking for anything in particular from Hologram?
We want to put more great books into the world. Whether that’s fiction, nonfiction or something in between, I’m not too bothered. There’s definitely an emphasis on creating a space for unorthodox and weird writing, things that might be a difficult pitch to established publishers, but that’s not to the exclusion of anything else. We say on the website: we’re eager to be convinced. Great writing is hard to pass over, no matter what form it takes, we just want to make sure that writers understand that we’re pretty open about what great writing might look like. But if the most astounding piece we get is entirely in the tradition of realist fiction, we’ll be delighted to bring that to readers.
They’re a great length! When we thought about writers making the transition from short pieces to full-length manuscripts, novellas were a pretty clear choice as a step in-between. It’s great for authors to work on something more expansive but not overwhelming, and similarly makes it realistic for me to work on a couple of books simultaneously. I think that length is also a great proposition for readers, both as ebooks and as slightly cheaper print books. We’re excited to make a space for publishing a form of writing for which comparatively fewer avenues currently exist.
Do the rights to the novella stay with the author?
We’ll offer writers certain contracts, and of course they’ll be free to negotiate those if they want. Nothing’s totally locked in yet, but we want to be as nice to the writers as we can be. I imagine we’ll ask for exclusive Australian rights but allow authors to retain copyright for other territories.
How many pieces can a person submit?
As many as they like. If someone has written ten novellas and they think they’re all amazing, I’ll be very sceptical, but I suppose they can send them all if they want. We’d prefer it if writers just sent their best work though, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone has more than two novellas worth of truly their best work.
On your website you mention the hologram of Princess Leia in Star Wars, the hologram of Tupac at Coachella and Blade Runners’ replicants. Is there a story behind the name Hologram?
The story is that it’s very hard to come up with a name in a short period of time! It has grown on me since we decided on it, though. It captures a lot of the optimism, fun and forward-lookingness of the project. I guess I wanted something about ambitious communication – think about telegrams, instagrams – and hopefully holograms are evocative of that? I think holograms and convincing fakes do occupy a really interesting place in popular culture, the way they’re deployed, what they stand in for. They’re really obviously empty, they admit to being all surface and unreal, but they aspire to – and often do – signify like a real thing. Maybe books do that? It’s always nice to have writers think closely about how language works, but it’s not like we expect every submission to secretly be a treatise on semiotics or anything. It’s really just to give colour and shape to the project early on, something for us to write copy around and give the project an identity and some momentum before the books we choose to publish start doing that for us.
As you read all day for work, do you find yourself still reading for pleasure?
I wish it was just reading all the time! In fact it’s a lot of worrying about distribution, printing, design, marketing and lots more. There are full days of reading for work that are tiring, but it’s a far more interrogative mode of reading than when you’re just doing it for fun. So it’s nice to read in a way that doesn’t fully engage my editor brain, and that doesn’t involve me staring at a screen until my eyes ache.
Do you have any particular anecdotes about writers who do not like their work to be edited? And how do you handle such writers?
I’ve been quite fortunate with that. There have been situations where we’ve had to pull pieces because editing didn’t work out, but it’s been very rare. Like any editor, I try to help the writer bring the piece closer to what they envision it to be. I don’t really edit towards my preferences but instead try to improve on what they’ve attempted to do. If I didn’t like what they were working towards, I wouldn’t have chosen it in the first place. Even if they disagree with a particular change, it usually gives them enough of a new view on the piece for them to find their own way to improve what I was trying to fix in the first place. The vast majority of writers get that and are responsive to it. It’s never an adversarial relationship. The editor is always on the side of the writer.
Is it about story or form? Will a piece with poor grammar and construction but an excellent story be chosen over a poor story that is meticulously formed?
Of course the writing needs to show some basic competency and intentionality. Some sense that the writer knows what they’re doing makes it much easier to envision yourself working with them. But competency and nothing else doesn’t excite readers, and so it doesn’t excite editors either. Of course we want good stories most of all, but if the writing itself is bad, that can swallow the story. If something’s overwritten, clumsy or obtuse, that tends to make it impossible to tell whether what’s going on beneath is worth saving.