Meet the ABIA Rising Stars: Lex Hirst
In recognition of the Australian Book Industry Awards’ (ABIA) inaugural Rising Star of the Year Award, Books+Publishing spoke to each of the five shortlisted nominees ahead of the winner’s announcement at the ABIA ceremony on 3 May.
In this final instalment, we speak to Lex Hirst, commissioning editor at Penguin Random House (PRH) and producer of arts events. ‘Lex has achieved much in her short time as a commissioning editor, with several award-winning titles to her repertoire,’ writes PRH group publishing director Nikki Christer in her nomination. ‘Lex is committed to publishing fantastic books and being part of the literary circuit in Australia, as well as supporting new and emerging writers via the National Young Writers’ Festival (NYWF), co-directing from 2014-15 [and curating] 80 events with more than 100 of Australia’s best young writers.’
What are the top three things you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
1. Work in a bookshop at some point in your career. This is some of the best advice I was given when I was first starting out and working part-time as an editorial assistant. Booksellers are on the front line, speaking to readers every day, and I think back to the lessons I learnt out on the shop floor of the wonderful Shearer’s Bookshop often.
2. Opportunities will come your way if you make it clear you’re open to them. Some of the most interesting moments in my career have come from directions I would never have expected. Showing a willingness to jump in enthusiastically, no matter the task, is always appreciated and often leads to more opportunities.
3. Get out there and talk to writers. Not only are they the future of our industry, but they’re also the most interesting, intelligent and downright talented people out there—and they know how to throw a party. We have an incredible wealth of writing and storytelling events in this country, and joining the literary community through NYWF has brought a real sense of joy to my work.
What has been your biggest achievement/proudest professional moment?
Watching a book you’ve uncovered being published is always an incredible moment, because you’ve been there at almost every step of its journey. I don’t think that’s an achievement that will ever become mundane to me, but I do think I’ll always hold dear the moment I saw my very first print book hit the shelves last year.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned on the job?
The power of listening. Although there’s a very public component to commissioning—a fair segment of every day involves speaking about your authors and the books on your list—the inverse is equally important. So much of this job is about listening—to authors, readers, trends and that little voice in your own head that pipes up when when you discover something really special.
I’m surrounded by some of the best editors and publishers in the industry at PRH, and listening to their advice over the years has shaped me into the editor I am today—and also kept me sane along the way. They’ve taught me that being a good editor is less about telling people what to do, and more about learning how to listen to what they want to say.
What do you think this industry could do better?
I think everyone in publishing is aware that we need more diversity in the voices we publish, as well as in our companies. The challenge is to break down the barriers that make entry to this industry hard for people from less privileged backgrounds, and I think we’re making steps in the right direction, but we have a fair way to go. It seems to me that there’s a growing thirst among Australian readers for stories that reflect the wider community—and for stories that challenge the status quo.
Where would you like to be in five (or 10, or 20) years’ time? And what do you hope the industry will look like then?
I’m a romantic when it comes to stories of writers and editors who have worked together through decades of literature, so I hope that one day I’ll have my own to add to the list. Publishing is a long game, so ideally five (or 10, or 20) years from now I’ll be somewhere pretty similar, publishing great books, but with a glorious array of Australian writers I’ve worked with on my bookshelf.
One of my driving forces is the wealth of storytellers we have in this country, and I’m passionate about ensuring we continue to tell our stories and that those voices are heard. What those books will look like, I’m not yet sure—we’re evolving culturally all the time, and new waves of creatives with challenging, beautiful ideas crash through every year. So I can’t wait to see (and find) the books that will capture Australian readers in the future.
To read all the interviews with the Australian Book Industry Awards’ (ABIA) Rising Star of the Year Award nominees, click here.