Holloway, a new digital publishing startup, makes comprehensive guides on how to navigate modern work. Courtney Nash is the Director of Editorial Development, overseeing the creation of the guides. She’s currently putting together a guide on remote work, navigating complex topics and recruiting experts to share knowledge with startups and high-growth companies. Now that they’ve produced a few guides, Holloway is also opening up its platform to independent authors, which Courtney described as “reverse Netflix”: they demonstrated the value of the in-house guides, and now they’re bringing in outside talent.
Was Holloway already focused on editorial development, or did that come in with you and other editorial hires?
What drew me to Holloway was that it isn’t just a technology company or just a publishing company. Pretty much everybody there is in some way a writer and an editor. Everybody is a huge fan of books and knowledge. Even on the engineering side, there has always been that focus. So it’s been a combination of a really strong editorial philosophy paired with a product development philosophy. They’re largely intertwined; everyone at that company is thinking about publishing as an entire value chain, instead of pieces of it, which is where places tend to spend more of their time.
We’ve been talking to a lot of editors at companies that are hiring people with journalism and other editorial experience to come in and do branded content properly. But with Holloway, the content is the entirety of what the company is doing.
The content is the product, and then the product is the product, and all the engineering, the tooling, and the platform that we provide to both authors and to readers is a part of the product as well.
What’s fascinating about that is I largely only played in that space, when you think about content marketing. Prior to working at Holloway, I worked at O’Reilly Media for almost nine years. We found amazing successes there using the content we had as the marketing. It’s really nice if you can use your product to market your product. What a magical world that is. It turns out people really appreciate that and engage with that in a really honest sort of way. So you have this really great relationship with customers when you can do that.
Speaking of customers and the feedback on the guides, how does measuring the success of the guides work?
We obviously look at how many people are buying our guides, and that’s one single big kind of metric. When I worked at O’Reilly, it was like, “Here’s the number of books you sell.” Now O’Reilly is building a platform similar to Holloway in some ways, where you can see how people are engaging with the content.
At Holloway, we’re thinking of knowledge not being trapped in books and sort of stuck where it’s hard to find. We’re essentially unbundling books so that every chapter or every section is a page on the internet that anybody can find and access. What’s really encouraging about those sort of unbundled webpage versions of our books is that we see people are spending a lot of time reading in those places.
So we do have a lot of analytics about everything we publish on our platform, not just did they buy the unit, but how are people coming to find this content from search or from looking for these things. Once they’re there, how much time are they spending looking at individual sections or entire guides? So it’s a mix of what I would consider to be traditional book publishing metrics and much more modern web-based analytics.
Does that make SEO a strong consideration in the writing of the guides?
I wouldn’t say we’re driven by that. We don’t decide what goes in because we just want to get great SEO results, but we are definitely aware of that, and we’re certainly not ignorant of it. From my perspective, from an editorial philosophy, we want our material to be helpful, accurate, rigorous. We want it to improve people’s lives at work. So that’s what we’re most focused on, but I often spend time editorially then looking at that content that we’ve already written, and thinking, okay, can we optimize this? Is there more that we can do? Are there ways to make sure that when people are searching for this, and these landing pages exist out there, that they’re most likely to find it?
Your editorial principles mention a lot of the points that you just said about the usefulness and the quality. As an editor on the team yourself, what are the qualities of writing that you’re looking for?
In particular for the guides that we produce, not necessarily for work that other people might publish on our platform, we really don’t want to focus on a single individual or company’s perspective. They’re very rigorously researched, and in that sense where we want that helpfulness to be that people understand the landscape of a problem, not just what so-and-so marketing genius thinks.
And we spend a lot of time on accuracy and rigor. I think people often, especially if you’re outside of the profession, think of editors as people who are just really “good with words.” And I don’t have a traditional literature background. I have a liberal arts and research science background. But I think for this kind of material, I’m not editing modern fiction. When we’re editing what we consider to be structured knowledge, what really matters is the ability to look at a topic, break that thing down, and figure out how to explain it.
I think that’s a really unique aspect of editorial at Holloway. Obviously we care about words, and how they’re presented and how we explain things to people. But there’s a focus on that rigor and structure side of things that I had some of in my role at O’Reilly as well. That’s what I’ve always been drawn to as an editor, understanding how people learn. Being able to figure that out in this kind of written form, I think that’s one of my favorite things about this kind of editorial work.
With the construction of the guides, is it a combination of subject matter experts and then the Holloway voice writing through it?
Pretty much, and that’s really where my role comes in the most. Ideally there might be people we will be able to work with more over time, who will build up that sense of that voice and what that should look like. But yeah, there’s a lot of smoothing and pulling that together.
It’s wonderful to watch though, again, one of those other things about being an editor, and Sean sort of talks about this, is that you’re hiding in the background, you’re not the one in front. It’s not your name, you’re helping these people realize something.
I love writing and working with professional writers, but I also love, and I did so much of this at O’Reilly, working with these kinds of subject matter experts and watching them learn this process and develop a set of skills. I would miss it a little bit, if there wasn’t some element of that in doing these guides as well.
Any final thoughts about editing and the future?
We talk a lot about 10-year careers at Holloway. And I think because I’ve been an itinerant career switcher, I’ve thought about that a lot more. But I think it’s worth knowing and viewing being an editor as not a static state in time, nor even to potentially the same thing, five, ten years from now. And that’s my only thought on editing, but I think it’s true of any career, is having that self awareness of: what do I like about what I’m doing right now? What’s challenging, what’s not working, what’s out there? And it’s so great that you all are doing a series like this so people can get a better view of the real landscape and just be introspective about that.
Absolutely. That can be exciting, that it can kind of take you to different places without sticking you on one exact career path for your whole life.
I think that’s why I left grad school. The notion of narrowly pursuing this one aspect of cognitive neuroscience for the rest of my life practically gave me panic attacks. And over the course of this particular year, I’ve already had to learn the ins and outs of venture capital legal term sheets, technical software job leveling, and now apparently I’m becoming an expert in international remote corporation law tax stuff. And if you like that, I think we’re modern day renaissance people. Being an editor means you don’t have to focus on this one narrow slice, and so embracing that I think is probably what is most exciting thing about this job. I couldn’t sit and write or think about the same things all the time.