What is your name, age, and location?
Lexa Hillyer, 31, Brooklyn NY – United States.
What is your profession?
I’m the cofounder of Paper Lantern Lit, a boutique literary development company. We come up with story ideas or “sparks,” plot them extensively, then match them with aspiring and talented writers. We support the writers and the books through the entire publishing process.
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
What was your first job?
My first real job must have been camp counseling when I was in high school—I lead arts & crafts, made up skits and dances, and basically ran all of the non-sporty activities.
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
I had a poetry teacher at Vassar who told me that it was very hard for poets to get an agent. So my goal graduating was to become an agent who would represent the obscure, the experimental, the newest voices… of course, that didn’t end up happening. After a brief internship at what used to be the Burnes & Clegg agency (before Sarah Burnes and Bill Clegg went their separate ways), I landed a full time job at HarperCollins editing books for teens, and have been committed to the category ever since! Starting my own business 7 years later, though, was not something I had ever imagined doing. But sometimes you get to a point in life where you realize if you’re passionate about getting something accomplished, you’ve got to do it on your own terms. So after over four years at Harper and three more at Penguin, I partnered with my friend, author Lauren Oliver, and started our current venture, Paper Lantern Lit.
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
I would say starting the company in the first place has been the most rewarding thing. All of our projects have unique challenges and rewards attached, and I am loving the results of all of them. Each book is different—each voice unique—and that’s very important to us. But proving that we could even accomplish this, and showing the world that we’re a dynamic and evolving company in addition to a successful one, has been the thrill of a lifetime!
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
Some may not agree, but I often think women have a stronger ability than men to form relationships that are more than merely transactional. So I’d say that being a woman has immensely helped my career because my ties to those I work with are very strong. It has only been through the incredible support of friends, mentors and colleagues that I was ever able to branch out on my own and trust that I could succeed.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
I have been incredibly lucky because the publishing industry, and particularly the children and teen book world, is very female-dominant. The majority of my previous bosses have been women, and I have had incredible female role models throughout my career. I have butted heads with one or two men in the industry on my path toward going independent, but whether those power struggles were aggravated or enhanced by our gender differences is hard to say.
Please say a few words about your experience with the work-life balance.
I find it interesting whether this is an inherently “female” question, and whether by “life” we mean “men and babies.” But one of the fundamental values we hold at Paper Lantern Lit is that we have flexible and independent schedules, and that there’s constant fluidity between the business and the rest of our lives. Literary development is creative by nature, and we thrive on spontaneity and inspiration, which often comes from living life, not from sitting in an office. So we define work a little differently than others do.
All of that said, working for myself was definitely not easy at first. Precisely because of this fluid definition of work, I started out with constant insecurity about how to quantify my productivity. I’d stay up nights slaving away on a proposal. Then there were mornings where I found it hard to motivate myself to get out of bed. But it didn’t take too long to get used to the fact that each day is going to be a little different. I can take vacations almost any time I want, but I can’t go anywhere without my laptop. I consider this a perfectly wonderful trade-off. And at PLL, we tend to focus more on project deadlines, less on tracking hours spent at a computer. We understand that everyone occasionally needs a few hours to go off the grid, too. If the work gets done and continues to be exciting, then we’re doing our jobs well, and that’s what matters.
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
My maternal grandmother has always been a major role model for me, and I’m realizing this more and more as I get older. She is strong, independent, and obsessed with books. I sometimes think she has read every novel in the English language. Her passion for literature, ideas and life has always inspired me.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
Be very smart and very strategic, but don’t be scared! When stuck or uncertain about how to move forward, always go back to the heart of why you do what you do, and stay open to the fact that your business model may evolve or change in accordance with that.
– Interview by Elena Rossini
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