Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Guest Blogger: An Ex Publishing Insider Talks About What Editors Really Do (Part 1 of a 2 part series)

Are you excited by the very long title of this post? Well, you're in for a big ole treat, because an ex-editor at a big New York publishing house has been kind enough to give you the scoop on what editors really do. The long nights. The paper stock decisions. The coffee stains on manuscripts. Oh, what a glamorous life they live.

Please note that the views and opinions of Ex Publishing Insider are her own, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Nathan Bransford blog or its corporate partners. Ha, I've always wanted to say that.

Oh, and editors do a lot, and so this is going to be a two part series. You have Part 1 today, and then Part 2 on Monday. Enjoy!

What Does An Editor Do

By Ex Publishing Insider

Well the bar has been set awfully high by Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent, for a post that is both witty and informative. I’m excited to have this opportunity to guest blog, but also sort of chewing my nails down to the quick. Take it easy on me, Bran Fans!

After graduating from school, I got into my head the wacky idea that I might want to work in the New York book publishing world. Eventually I talked my way into a job in the editorial department at a big publishing company. I worked there for four years, and slowly became an editor who bought and edited her own books, thus learning the answer to at least one of life’s great questions: What do editors do?

Editors do edit. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Why don’t we follow one book through its entire publishing process to show what the editor does? And because editors seem to do an awful lot, this will be a two-part series.

1) Herbert Smith is an aspiring writer. It’s all he’s ever dreamed of doing, and if he does dream of something else at night, he promptly wakes up in the morning and chastises himself. He sweats blood and tears for many years and finally writes the great American novel. Somehow through a connection and prayers to a god no one has ever heard of, he finds a literary agent and at last the ball is moving. He will get an editor!

2) But wait, Herbert. Not so fast. First your literary agent is requesting significant changes to your manuscript. Herbert mutters something about “I thought this was the editor’s job” but makes the changes anyway. Finally, after an additional six months, the agent is sending out Herbert’s book!

3) Herbert’s book is sent out to a bunch of editors around the country that Herbert’s agent thinks might like the work. This critical step is probably the most important thing an editor does. An editor buys books. Let that sink in. An editor buys books. In any given day, a high-ranking editor will receive between 3 and 10 agented manuscripts (if she works in fiction) or 3 and 10 agented proposals and partial manuscripts (if in nonfiction). The editor then uses her assistant to screen out any obvious Nos, like a book outside of the editor’s specialty, a book that is positively crazy, a book that is unfortunately exactly like another book they just bought, etc. Meanwhile, Herbert waits and yells abusive things at his cat and thinks of firing his agent because this is just taking way too long.

4) Jane Bookworm is an editor at a big publishing house, and her assistant has just plopped today’s selection of agented manuscripts on her desk. Each one has a little slip of paper called a reader’s report, which the assistant may or may not have written from the agent’s letter, depending on if the assistant is loving this very underpaid job or just biding time until law school. Jane flips through the stack and something about Herbert’s novel catches her eye. Perhaps she’s been thinking that zombies are the next big thing, perhaps it was something she ate for breakfast, perhaps she’s crazy, but she takes a chunk home with her to Brooklyn that night. Meanwhile, people in Herbert’s family are thinking of staging an intervention.

5) Jane reads a chunk of the book that night and actually loves it. She’s surprised (as you always are) and makes a mental note to read more the following day. But then Jane’s week is taken up by a battery of very necessary meetings for the books she’s actually publishing at this very moment, and so she doesn’t get back to the book for a month.

6) Finally Herbert’s agent calls Jane and asks about her children and tells her he admires the latest book she edited and then asks how it’s going with Herbert’s manuscript. Jane says something vague, but she is reminded that she needs to finish it. She finishes the manuscript that day and is excited. She wants to make an offer. But back in Texas, Herbert vows never to write again and tries to take up a new hobby, like stamp collecting maybe.

7) The next day, Jane goes on the campaign trail for Herbert’s book. While buying a book is important, it also costs a lot of money and is a serious gamble for the company and thus a consensus must be reached among some of the editors that this book is “good.” She starts talking it up to editors within her division that she thinks will like it and passes out pieces of it.

8) A week later, several editors have said that they like the book at one of the board meetings. The Editor in Chief has given Jane permission to offer a small amount of money to the agent. Jane is excited.

9) When Herbert gets the call he at first believes it to be a prank from his ne’er-do-well nephew. But after a few weeks of back and forth, Jane and Herbert’s agent come to a deal, and Herbert is hospitalized for nearly dying of happiness.

10) Jane has her assistant begin drafting the contract and writes Herbert a warm note. Two years from now, he’ll be a publishing writer. Wait, what? Yes, two years.

(This is Nathan talking again): Will Herbert like the cover of his book? Will he be eviscerated by Kirkus? Will he be an old man by the time his book is published? Find out...... next week!!


Christopher M. Park said...

Great post! This was really wonderful and informative, and quite funny as well. One question, though: is Herbert in some sort of special genre or something? From what I've read elsewhere, I was under the impression that the time it took to go from a contract to a book on the shelves was only about 11 months. Two years? Augh!


ERozanski said...

Gosh, great reading. Humorous and informative all rolled into one wonderful post. Can't wait until part two!

Stargazer said...

That's right, finish on a cliff hanger, see if I care.

Ex Publishing Insider said...

Thanks so much for your kind words! Christopher, in my time at my company it took most books (of varying genres) about two years. But that time can be drastically shortened for current affairs nonfiction or a book that needs to capitalize on a specific event, like an election for instance, or a book that doesn't need much work. But most first books do.

And it can also be much longer than two years. Publishing companies are very superstitious about what time of year a book publishes and will often move a book two, three, or ever four times, trying to settle on just the right time of year. This can delay a book.

Also, especially in nonfiction when the book was bought on proposal, it will take much longer than two years because the author isn't able to write the project as quickly as suspected. Most seasoned editors have at least one book that they've had signed up for 5-9 years that continues to get moved farther and farther back by the writer.

So while some books definitely don't take two years. Two years is a decent rule of thumb for a first book.

dan said...

Two years is wonderful! It gives you a chance to start and finish your next book before the first is even out. There's got to be something to that.

Great post, Ex Publishing Insider!

Anonymous said...

Will Herbert Smith use a pen name?

Kim Stagliano said...

Same Bat Time! Same Bat Place! Fabulous! Thanks!

Bernita said...

Nathan, can we keep her?
Just for her voice alone?

Anonymous said...

Awesome post! I love these little insider bits. Plus, this may well be the best blog I've ever read.

Lauren said...

Yes, witty and informative! Just like Ted Koppel!


Thanks so much for this, Nathan and ex publishing insider! This blog has been so helpful to me as I start looking toward publication for my shy little novel. Cheers.

arjay said...

Good post! However, where is the "Marketing Department" that makes the final Yes/No decision?

Anonymous said...

Ex Publishing Insider here...

Aw shucks! Thanks guys!

Arjay, good question.

I am glossing over a bit what it's like for an editor to campaign for a book. It's very very hard to get a number of editors, the editor-in-chief, and often, the marketing/publicity staff to all agree on one book. Just think of your book group. How often does everyone love that month's pick? Same problem.

And so, more times than not the editor campaigns for a book, only to not get enough support in house and have to pass on it, against her will.

Certain legendary editors can buy anything they want, but the odds of your manuscript getting into their hands is slim to none, sadly.

In this case, we have just assumed that Herbert has been very, very lucky.

And don't let the dream die. There are Herbert stories out there.

jude calvert-toulmin said...

> This blog has been so helpful to me as I start looking toward publication for my shy little novel.

At first read I thought that said "shitty little novel" and I was about to claim my five dollars for guessing who herbert was based on.

Fantastic insider story, EPI, I am gripped. Thanks :)

Luc2 said...

Yes, great post. Thanks for the info, EPI.
And no, I wouldn't be more eloquent if my hangover was less severe.

Christopher M. Park said...

EPI, thanks so much for the clarification! Again, great to have you here!


Anonymous said...

Question for both the guest writer and Nathan. I have a freelance editor with a track record who has agreed to work with me on a novel I'm working on. Is it 'worth' it to pay a freelance editor to do some editing before going an agent? Does that bring something to the table when you trying to get an agent and later to sell the book to the publisher?

I'm looking forward to the next segment of this blog.

Demon Hunter said...

Great stuff, Nathan! It was interesting to hear the insider's scoop.

Nathan Bransford said...


Re: a freelance editor. My feeling is that someone you trust to give you honest feedback should read your manuscript before you try and get an agent, whether that is an honest friend who will not spare your feelings (rare), a critique group, an acquaintance with book experience... someone who can give you some good honest real feedback and won't just tell you how great they think it is. If you don't have a few people in your life who meet those qualifications then a paid editor might be a good thing to look into. It's not at all a selling point for an agent, and don't even mention that you secured a paid editor in a query letter, it's just a way of making sure your manuscript is as good as possible before you start querying.

bran fan said...

Ex publishing insider called us "Bran Fans."

I thought of that cute name first.

I win.

But if the whole tribe is gonna be called that now, I will have to get a new moniker for my comments.


Jennifer McK said...

Well, this "Bran Fan" (OMG I can't believe I actually wrote that) thinks you can quit biting your nails now.
I laughed my a** off at this rendition of an editors process. The Herbert character is a best seller.
I especially like the part about his family staging an intervention.
I know, I know. That wasn't your point. LOL.
I'm learning by slow degrees that "giving up" is easy. And yeah, I've been reading Anne Lamott.

Anonymous said...

It’s a miracle ANY book was ever published. We should all just quit. It’s not going to happen. All that and I can’t even get a stupid agent.

How does anything ever get published?

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