In a short blurb? We talk books.

The Silent Heroes of Literature // So you want to be an editor?

When people ask me what I do, I usually tell them that I work in book publishing. I’ve gotten many different responses to this:

“Wait… you want to be a writer?” Umm… not really.

“So what do you do, read books all day?” Oh, I wish, honey.

“So, you’re an editor?” Well, not exactly.

After being a little obsessed with this industry for years, sometimes it surprises me that many people don’t know much about the book publishing process. And based on all your wonderful comments on How Covers and Jackets are Made, some of you would really like to know more! So I will try to share as much as possible with you all, in a mini-blog series I’m calling “The Silent Heroes of Literature,” per my boyfriend’s suggestion. Hope you enjoy!

Part 1 // So, you want to be an editor?

I came into book publishing completely disillusioned. Somehow I got it in my head that I could totally be a book editor (I think Jane might have suggested it, actually…). I was a sophomore in college, and, like most sophomores, had no idea what I was going to do with my life. All I knew was that I was doomed to major in English, as the only things I were good at were reading, writing essays, and editing other people’s essays. I especially loved the editing part, and I thought… “hey… I could probably do this for a living!” When my dean gave me the tip that our University Press was looking for interns, I jumped on the opportunity.

When my interview was coming to a close, my soon-to-be boss asked me… so what department do you want to work in?

I probably said something like “ummm… editorial?” And she asked me the question I believe shaped my entire career… “Acquisitions Editorial or Production Editorial?”

Wait… there’s more than one type of editor? She explained to me the difference, I made my choice on the spot, and I never looked back. (OK… I did briefly, in the magazine industry, but that’s a story for another time.) So for all you hopefuls out there that think you want to be an editor, let me start by explaining the first, so you’re not so baffled on your first interview:

Acquisitions Editors are the people we generally think of when we think “book editor.” They’re the Sandra Bullocks in The Proposal, the Lindsays in “One Tree Hill.” They work closely with the authors to solidify the story, catch problems with plot and character development, and perfect the flow and tone. But before they even get to that point, they have to buy the book. The outside agent that discovered the author will submit a book proposal along with a full manuscript (usually necessary for fiction submissions) or an outline of the book. If the editor likes it, they then have to go through committee after committee, presenting the book, convincing the rest of the team that we should buy this book. After they get the “OK,” the sales and financial teams get together to determine a budget for the book, while the rights and contracts teams get to work detailing the terms of the purchase, what rights we will hold to the content (the right to publish an ebook of it, for example, or translations rights, or whether another publisher can also publish the content), what the bonus or royalties will be for the author, and loads of other legal matter. If the book is in high demand (usually a celebrity’s book), the editor has to brush off their auction skills and get to work bidding on the book. This is the real work of the editor; this is why we call them “acquisition editors.” They go through manuscript after manuscript until they finally find one they fall in love with, and then they put all their energy into acquiring the book, getting it into the company’s hands so that we can make it into a book. They then, of course, after fine-tuning the plot and language, stay involved in the rest of the process, guiding the promotions, looking over the advertising copy, giving advice to the cover and interior art departments, because they, second to the author, are the people most intimate with the book at this point. Throughout the process, you may find that instead of calling a book “Author X’s book”, we may say “Editor Y’s book,” because these guys get so attached to the book they acquire that they get as fussy as the author when it comes to things like choosing fonts, and images, and advertising media. It’s nice.

An editor once told me that some of the most successful editors (success, of course, measured by the amount of bestsellers they have acquired) are actually math people. Those who can crunch the numbers, understand the market for the book and what they market will be willing to pay for a books of x quality in x genre, budget appropriately, cue the sales, advertising, marketing and publicity teams to create the perfect selling strategies, and find bestsellers in a very analytical way. But as us booklovers know, the best books aren’t always the best known; our favorite editors, then, would be the ones that fight to convince committee after committee for a book they’re extremely passionate about, even when they know it won’t make money, even when there’s not even the vaguest hope that it will be the next Harry Potter. We get variety in our selection of books because of these editors, and because we have tons of publishing houses with many different imprints and hundreds of editors with many different tastes.

Want to be one of them? It’s a hard position to get, in a hard industry to break into, but it’s certainly not impossible!  Your best bet is to network, network, network. Go to the big book fairs, find the editor during a book signing, and stalk every publisher’s websites, bookjobs.com, mediabistro.com, and publisher’s marketplace for job openings. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to start at the bottom; it’ll pay off.

In case you were wondering… I did not choose to go into acquisitions, mainly because though I was a good editor for grammar, spelling, punctuation, verb tense, word flow, and the like… I never thought I was the best arbiter of taste. I never thought I’d be able to judge a piece of art and say… “this one should be published, this one shouldn’t. End of story.” And the thought of writing rejection letters kind of broke my heart. (Note: all the authors out there, if your manuscript gets rejected, don’t lose heart. It doesn’t mean that it is no good, it just means that it wasn’t right for that publisher. Keep your head up, make sure you have a good agent, and keep working on your writing.)

So, instead I went the path of the Production Editor. What do those guys do? Stay tuned to find out!

– Carin


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This entry was posted on September 14, 2011 by in Carin, Insiders and tagged , , , , , .

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Words We Like

“I think it makes more sense to write what you don’t know. To write what makes you uneasy, what you wonder about, what keeps you awake at night."

— Lois Lowry, at the BEA Children’s Book and Author Breakfast

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