October 2019 in-house editors networking event

by Susan Keogh DE

On 23 October 2019, a small but select audience came to hear Rebecca Kaiser, the Editorial Director of Allen & Unwin, speak on building a career in publishing.

Rebecca’s career began with a communications degree, where an encounter with an assignment to rewrite a set of badly written instructions for playing canasta proved to be a eureka moment for her, prompting a change of heart from a desire to be a journalists to instead be a person who straightened out other people’s words. She found a place as a trainee editor at Methuen, an educational publisher; reflecting on her time there, Rebecca said that being at an educational and legal publisher was the ideal place to learn. Working on textbooks gives you a good understanding of structure and the need for clarity of design, while it also hones skills in being precise with language. You ‘can’t be self-indulgent’ when publishing material for children. And while postgraduate courses in editing and publishing that we have these days are good, they cannot match the reality of the work environment; being thrown into the deep end is a very valuable way to learn. ‘The more mistakes you make, the better an editor you become.’

Rather reassuringly, Rebecca also observed there is going to be a way to resolve every editorial problem as generally, no one is going to die – with the caveat that technical editing does need to be right. She told of once misspelling the name of Australia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer on the back cover of his own book. The author’s response was ‘I think you owe me a glass of wine’.

After Methuen, Rebecca spent some time as a freelance editor, giving her valuable experience of the pressures of a freelancer’s life, and then worked at Powerhouse Museum, where she learned the demands and requirements of institutional and corporate publishing (and that paragraphs could have spaces between them).

Rebecca then went to Allen & Unwin on a six-month contract – and has been there ever since, where she has worked with authors such as Tom Keneally and Chris Masters. On the other side of the coin, she also once spent two-and-a-half hours in the witness box being cross-examined in a defamation trial.

Rebecca emphasised that her career plan wasn’t deliberate but a matter of serendipity, and about taking opportunities when they arose. She recommended working hard and always showing enthusiasm (even if you are not really feeling it). She also told us that is important to trust your instinct, although she acknowledged that it does take a long time in order to trust your instinct.

Finally, Rebecca shared her insights on what she looks for in editors she is hiring, either for in-house employment or as freelancers, and gave her thoughts on what made a good editor.