Sunday, November 9, 2008

RichWriters Interview with Penguin Books Editor, Vanessa Mobley



Vanessa Mobley took the time to speak with RichWriters about her rise to the top as an editor at one of the largest publishing houses in the country. 


Jeff Rivera:                              So what is your official title?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I am a senior editor.


Jeff Rivera:                              Senior editor and which house?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I am at the Penguin Press.


Jeff Rivera:                              So now how did this all begin?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I did not start in book publishing until I was in my late 20s. I was one of those college graduates who really had no idea what to do after college, so I chose a very predictable route which is I just stayed in school. I entered a master's program in American Literature at UC Berkeley and when I left that program, I decided that I still did not know what I wanted to do and did not really know how do to get a job in book publishing. So I spent most of my 20s doing this job and that job so I did various clerical and administrative jobs.


                                                Some of them at really great places like the ACLU and The Nation magazine and others that is not such a great place and then I decided…


Jeff Rivera:                              But still in the publishing?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I did. I wanted to work in publishing but I really did not know how to get started in publishing. I did not know how to find a job frankly, and then in my late 20s, I realized that I needed to make a decision about what kind of career I wanted to choose for myself because I knew that it would take a long time to get into a position of any autonomy, I wanted start before I was like say 30 years old. Do you know what I mean?


Jeff Rivera:                              Right.


Vanessa Mobley:                      I do not want to be 40 until I have a job. You know what I mean?


Jeff Rivera:                              And you cannot blame school all the time.


Vanessa Mobley:                      Yes. So in my late 20s, I moved back to New York City where I had lived at some point in my 20s. I moved back to New York City and I found a job in the want ads of the New York Times. And that was my first job in book publishing.


Jeff Rivera:                              And how did you go from there to where you are now?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I took the tried-and-true route of just…I was an editorial assistant before and then I became an assistant editor and then associate editor when I worked at Basic Books, which was my first job and I did that. I was at that publishing house for four years and then I was promoted to editor so in the space of one publishing house, I had every single job from editorial assistant to editor and I stayed there for 4-1/2 years and then I very much wanted to expand my horizons and start publishing books that were more for a more popular audience  and less a strictly academic audience, and so I made a move to another publishing house, Henry Holt, and I worked at Henry Holt for 3-1/2 years and I worked there as an editor and then as a senior editor and I came to Penguin Press as a senior editor two years ago.


Jeff Rivera:                              Great. Now, when you began and you are doing all these kind of little buzzes and like that, what kept you going when maybe you could have given up?


Vanessa Mobley:                      That is a good question. I think it was the contrast between having worked at jobs where I had no intrinsic interest in the material that I was working on and no connection to what I was doing, beyond wanting to do a good job and needing a paycheck to working in publishing where I felt a natural affinity and grew to have a sort of a sense of confidence about what the job entails. So I think it was just because I found something I like to do and could see myself settling down and doing it for long periods of time.


Jeff Rivera:                              Were there ever any time when you kind of doubted and maybe felt like giving up?


Vanessa Mobley:                      Oh, sure because it is not a well-paid industry and I think that when you are in your 20s and you are starting to accrue credit card debt into your 30s and you see other people buying apartments and cars and taking trips, you cannot help but be like, "When will my ship come in?" I mean not to be melodramatic about it but it is not a well-paid business and I think that the rewards in this business are meted out randomly because it is very, very hard to predict which book will be a bestseller, and the business of working with first time or relatively novice writers is the helping them shape their books and then wanting so much for their books to succeed can be a very tough thing to spend your days doing because more often than not as we all know, most books if they succeed at all…


Jeff Rivera:                              So you would say that because of your love and passion for doing it that is really what kept you going?


Vanessa Mobley:                      There is a lot of pleasure to this job because it is incredibly multifaceted. There is the work of finding writers you want to publish. There is the work of helping the writer complete the manuscripts, there is the work of editing the manuscript then there is all the work inside the publishing house the way that you speak to your publisher about what this book will be and your decision when to publish it, discussions with the art department about what jacket to put on it, negotiations with the production department about how to get the book made in time for it to arrive in the bookstore, discussions with the publicity department about how to get the word out about the book and how to make a book really make a splash so it is a job that has many moving parts and therefore it is very satisfying.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right. Vanessa, can I ask you speak up just a little bit only because…


Vanessa Mobley:                      Absolutely. I am going to close my door so I can do that. Hold on one second.


Jeff Rivera:                              Okay, yes. No problem.


Vanessa Mobley:                      Sorry about that. Okay, can you hear me now?


Jeff Rivera:                              Yes, much better.


Vanessa Mobley:                      Okay, good.


Jeff Rivera:                              Now, what is your ethnic background like where are your parents from?


Vanessa Mobley:                      My mother is from Puerto Rico.



Jeff Rivera:                              What type of books are you looking for in particular?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I publish all nonfiction with very few exceptions.


Jeff Rivera:                              I am sorry. Say it again.


Vanessa Mobley:                      I publish nonfiction.  I am interested in acquiring history. I am interested in acquiring books by journalists. I am interested in learning something new in a book. I am interested in news. I am interested in new ideas. It sounds very vague and big picture but that is what I am interested in. I publish nonfiction.


Jeff Rivera:                              Okay.


Vanessa Mobley:                      I am interested in anyone who has a new story to tell, a writer who goes out and reports and finds a new way of understanding and telling the story about the way we live our lives today.


Jeff Rivera:                              You come from a very interesting background in terms of what type of books you acquire because there is fiction which is a totally different ballgame from what you acquire like when people approach you whether it is an agent or it is a writer like what really grabs you and what turns you off?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I would say that what grabs me is anyone who feels…it always grabs me when someone says to me, "Here is this writer, here is a journalist who spent 3, 5, 7 years reporting this story.


Jeff Rivera:                              So you obviously do not just do things about Latinos, you do generally nonfiction.


Vanessa Mobley:                      Yes. I would say this sadly, I rarely do things about Latinos to my regret.


Jeff Rivera:                              Is that because you are not seeing the quality that you would like to see or is it the Latino or what do you think?


Vanessa Mobley:                      Because we do not see the proposals For instance, I am from Miami. There have been two wonderful books written about Miami, neither of them by Latino writers. Joan Didion wrote a book about Miami and a writer name David Rieff wrote a book about Miami, but why has not there yet been a book… Well, Miami does not just have Cubans; it does not just have Puerto Ricans as you know, right?


Miami is full of people from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and all over the world. Miami is like the 21st century city. So why has no one written, maybe not written a book just about Miami, but written about this reality of a mixed race, mixed-ethnicity 21st century city. The world is becoming mixed. That is the reality but no one has written a book about that.


Jeff Rivera:                              And that would interest you if someone came up with a book from that background.


Vanessa Mobley:                      Sure, absolutely. I think that there is a story to tell there. I think that there is story to tell even when you look at Barack Obama. Why has not Barack Obama gone to a mosque? Why does Barack Obama say, "I am not a Muslim." Is there something wrong with being a Muslim?


Jeff Rivera:                              Right.


Vanessa Mobley:                      No, I do not think so. And I am proud like half of America is, I mean I'm  practically in love with Barack Obama, do not get me wrong. Even he is not like totally with the program, you know what I mean? I think we live in a culture that is intensely multicultural and yet we do not really reflect on it very much maybe we are not at that point yet.


Jeff Rivera:                              Vanessa, how much of your decision is on what you like and what will sell?


Vanessa Mobley:                      It is a good question. As an editor and not a publisher, so I work for a publisher and the publisher at the Penguin Press is an incredible woman named Ann Godoff and I have to make my case to her about what I want to publish and I ask her what she thinks if we should publish a book, so the way that it works is I make the best case that I can make to the publisher and along with the publisher, I make the decision about whether or not I buy a book and decide to work on it. And I think that because I know that Ann is, you could say, I mean this is just accrued estimate, but maybe half her mind is editorially driven and half her mind is business driven. We cannot merely publish list of books that are worthy books that are interesting. The person I work for sort of has half an editorial mind and half business mind.? We cannot just publish books that are worthy books from the point of view of being editorially worthy but we do think people will read because what is the point of publishing books that no one reads? There is no point to it. So I think that is a combination. I have to think it is good but I also have to know that we can find people to read the book and that it will be reviewed and that people will invite that writer to appear on the radio, etc.. And that writer can use the incredible opportunity that they to make a career for themselves.


Jeff Rivera:                              What factors when you are presenting something to Ann, what factors do you present to her to convince her that this is definitely something that she should publish?


Vanessa Mobley:                      Very good question. I think that partly you can make because we publish nonfiction, some of the argument is "This is the right book for this time. This book needs to be published now." Sometimes it is that. Sometimes it is, "This story is remarkable. No one has ever told this story. This has to be done now." Those are usually the two arguments that it is timely or that the writer and the ideas are so good that will make an opportunity for the book.


Jeff Rivera:                              So when someone presents a proposal to you or what not, those are the two things that they need to be in order to convince you in order to convince Ann you would say?


Vanessa Mobley:                      Yes. You have to say, "Why now? Why bother?" And when I say why now and why bother, this is what I mean. We no longer live in a culture where books are particularly privileged as cultural artifacts. Most people would be just as happy to watch a DVD at night or to watch cable television or to go to the movies or just surf the internet or to read the morning newspaper at night as they would be to read the book.


                                                Books are no longer special. Maybe book publishers have always cried about this, I am not sure because I only know the reality of life today, but I think there is a feeling that books are not necessarily like big game in terms of attracting people's attention. So the reality is that we have to really always…every single thing we publish has to be the right way to tell the story because there is little room for error and there is another reason for that as well, which is that because newspapers especially have reduced the size of the book reviews and newspaper book reviews which were some of the principal ways that we get the word out that we have published a book. We have to make sure that every book we publish is good enough that if it gets a review that the review is good. Because it is such a pity to get that attention but it has to be ideal attention.


Jeff Rivera:                              What would you say being some of the loose Latina or half Latina, whatever, what responsibility do you find in terms of not only being just a great senior editor in general but maybe do you feel like any type of responsibility and maybe helping others who also are with the same background?


Vanessa Mobley:                      That is another good question. I would say that I am very interested in helping people who think they want to work in publishing but do not know how to get into it because for the age-old reason because I was that person myself who wanted to work at publishing and do not know how to get into it. I do not yet have a mechanism by which I can narrow that group of people down to other people who are Latina or half Latina and helping them specifically although I would welcome that as well. You know what I mean? I think it is more that I am interested in finding a way for people to know about this job and to know about how this industry works who may feel that they just do not happen to have a family member or a neighbor who works in business, and I think that anyone who did not grew up in New York probably does not know how many people work in book publishing and to the world.


Jeff Rivera:                              So how do you do that Vanessa with your time being consumed as I can just imagine being a senior editor in your own personal life or what not, like how are you able to do that and what ways are you looking to be able to do that?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I mean, really, the standard way that I do it is through the alumni organization of the college that I went to. I am always interested in talking to young people who went to…I went to Williams College which is in Massachusetts. I am always interested to talking to people who went to Williams and who are either on their spring break looking to talk to someone about the job after they graduate or people who have graduated who are interested in talking about jobs. But that is I acknowledge but that is a very small group of people. Williams College graduates 2000 people every year, but so far that is the way that I have been doing it.


Jeff Rivera:                              How does it feel though to be named a Latino hero to be one of the select few who are in the position that you are in now. Does that mean anything to you like with a big impact?


Vanessa Mobley:                      I very much appreciate that. Personally and this is like I say much more about my own outlook on life, how do I say this, I am very grateful for the job of working with writers and being an editor. I do not honestly know personally how much I have taken on board the idea that this job that I have is even rarer and more unique because I happen to be…my mom is Puerto Rican that I am Puerto Rican, I do not know that really soaped to the bedrock as they say.


Jeff Rivera:                              Well, I think it is something that you can be proud of to first of all being in a position where you are no matter what color you are and then you kind of like, "Wait a minute, wow, there is not too many that are like me from my cultural background that are in the position." Thank you so much, Vanessa.