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Creatives Chat: Editing – Nan McNab

Nan McNab is a renowned editing professional and experienced wordsmith, who is able to see both wood and trees. She has been a freelance editor full-time since 1984 and has worked with most major publishers. Nan has worked alongside a truly phenomenal array of fine authors, many several times, including Errol Broome, Isobelle Carmody, Margaret Clark, Bryce Courtenay, Peter Goldsworthy, Richard Harland, Ian Irvine, Peter Jeans, Victor Kelleher, Cate Kennedy, Margo Lanagan, Margaret Mahy, Henning Mankell, David Martin, Maureen McCarthy, Martine Murray, Eleanor Spence, Liliana Stafford, Kate Thompson, Chris Wheat, Nadia Wheatley, Jan Bassett, Geoffrey Blainey, Wendy Cooper, Garry Disher, Conrad Hamann, John Lahey, Anne Marsh and J. Mary Taylor.

Nan McNab chats editing:

1. How long have you been involved in the creative industries, and how did you become a professional editor?

Born on a farm, I grew up by the sea and read, wrote and drew compulsively. I was not devoted to schoolwork, but somehow managed to be dux of my school. Then at seventeen I won the Sun Short Story Competition (a precursor to The Age competition), and English trumped Art.
But pure English honours – what use was that? Fretting about the future, my practical country grandmother sent me a clipping about a local farmer who published books in his shed. Perhaps I could work in publishing?
I wrote to him and asked for a job before I really knew what an editor was, and soon found myself editing…and proofreading and even illustrating.
One of the best things about small publishers is that you can do a bit of everything. My next job at The Hawthorn Press taught me the already obsolete arts of hot-metal typesetting and fine letterpress printing. I proofread numismatic and philatelic catalogues, which taught me to be meticulous. John Gartner allowed me to publish poetry and literature titles so long as I could fund them with an Australia Council grant (this was in the heady days when Australia was discovering – and supporting – its own writers). I was in my early twenties!
I moved to a larger company, Pitman Publishing, and became senior editor. Still interested in art and design, I learned all I could from their talented designer, and when I bought a run-down house I was able to take on extra design and illustration jobs after work to meet my mortgage payments. But a jack-of-all-trades really is master of none, so I’ve since concentrated on editing and writing.


At Oxford University Press I worked in educational publishing as a managing editor and freelanced in ‘academic and general’ books, as they were called. I became friends with renowned children’s publisher Rosalind Price, who ultimately lured me into freelancing and packaging when she set up her own business, and I’ve never looked back.

Working in-house helped me understand the different aspects of making a book, and the need to balance quality and cost. I also made many useful contacts in the industry. I think it would be difficult to begin a publishing career as a freelancer because making a book is a cooperative enterprise and it’s essential to understand the roles of other contributors: designers, illustrators, picture researchers, typesetters, production managers, marketing and promotions people, printers, distributors…
For a time I was a director of Collected Works Bookshop, a not-for-profit literary bookshop run by a collective but ultimately taken over in a bloodless coup by one of the members and his family (a common fate for many collectives I suspect). There’s nothing like spending time in a bookshop to teach you the realities of the market.

2. Do people offer you work, or do you have to chase it down yourself?

In my freelance career I have only had to ask for work twice. Most work comes from publishing staff for whom I’ve worked previously, but sometimes authors and publishers find me in the Freelance Register of the Society of Editors (Victoria).
I’ve written several series of educational books as well as various trade books on commission, often under pseudonyms; I’ve ghost written a few books and written a ‘novelisation’ (ugh, ugly word) of a film; and I’ve written my own books – mostly for children and young adults – which have been published in the UK, the US, France and Denmark.
Learning the typesetting and page-layout programs Quark and InDesign allowed me to package books for publishers earlier in my career, and I’m currently grappling with ebooks, to offer authors a more complete service.

3. Have you ever worked on a self-publishing project? What was the experience like – any traps or unexpected perks?

I’ve worked with a few authors who self-publish. In the past, promotion and distribution were their main problems. You need a lot of energy and a thick skin to hawk your books around. Ebooks and the internet offer new opportunities for self-publishers, but it’s still not easy.

4. How do you negotiate fees while freelancing for somebody?

I charge by the hour and I like to see the entire manuscript before I quote. Usually I do a sample edit and quote accordingly. I specify what services I’ll provide, so that if there are any unforeseen problems later in the book I can alert the publisher and see what they want me to do. I’ve rarely had a problem, although one inexperienced publisher increased the extent of the book by a third after I’d quoted then wanted me to stick to my original quote.

5. What single piece of advice did you wish you’d known when you were starting out in the industry?

I enjoy freelancing. As a single parent I could fit my work around my son’s needs, but it can be lonely, and it can take over your life. I’ve never managed a good work-life balance, but who has? I’m insatiably curious about the world, which has led me to edit all kinds of books: natural science, academic treatises, educational texts, art and architecture books, literature, popular fiction, fantasy, children’s and young adult books, trade books on all sorts of subjects…Occasionally I still marvel that I can charge for something I enjoy so much.

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