Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, July 20, 2007

Summer Rerun: An Ex Publishing Insider Talks About What Editors Really Do

This week I'm mining the archives while the blog is on hiatus. I'll be back on July 23rd with query stats.

March 8, 2007 and March 12, 2007

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.


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.

11) For a few months nothing happens while Jane must tend to other books she needs to buy and the books she’s currently publishing. There are author parties to attend, marketing and publicity plans to approve, and various authors and agents that must be kept happy. Oh yes, and she has a husband and a family that she’s neglecting.

12) Then Jane edits Herbert’s book. She rips out the first two chapters that are dull and beside the point and suggests completely cutting “Sophie,” who is a sex maniac and two-dimensional, also known as Herbert’s favorite character. She suggests speeding up certain sections, and slowing down others. She hates the ending, and most importantly the title has to go. Herbert receives the news and calls his agent to complain. The agent works overtime to calm him down.

13) Over the next year, Herbert and Jane go through three drafts together. It’s practically not even the same book anymore. True, Herbert did all of the writing, but without Jane’s guidance…it would be half the book it is now. Herbert learns that writing is a much more collaborative process than he thought. And he’s even learning to love the new title that Jane came up with.

14) Jane announces she is finally happy with the book, but Herbert is a little confused, as he knows it is still rife with typos. This is when Jane explains that the book is about to be sent to the copyediting department.

15) Months later, Herbert gets a printed copy of his manuscript littered with tiny red marks. It turns out that copyeditors are grammar ninjas and even people who think they have flawless grammar are woefully mistaken.

16) For the next few months, Herbert is working with everyone at the publishing house BUT Jane. A publicist calls. The marketing team emails. The copyeditors are hounding him. But Jane is nowhere to be seen. What Herbert can’t see though is that Jane is in-house approving every single step made for the book. She is writing his cover copy, she is tweaking the marketing plan, she is throwing out cover art sketches and demanding new ones. She is talking it up at cocktail parties. Jane has her hands in every aspect of the book at this point, and the final approval on everything. It’s a good thing for Herbert that Jane knows what she is doing.

17) At long last, Herbert’s publication date is approaching. Most of the people in his family have forgiven him for being so moody for that past two years because they’re all hoping that they’re in the book. Jane sends him a congratulation and crosses her fingers that Publishers Weekly appreciates the book. Meanwhile, her new assistant (the last one left to go to law school) has just plunked down a huge stack of manuscripts on her desk and one has just caught her eye. Who knows why? Maybe it was something she ate.

(This is Nathan again: thanks very much to Ex Publishing Insider for taking the time to guest blog!)


astairesteps said...

I LOVED this post. Thanks to Nathan for having summer reruns and to the Ex Insider who dished.

rgraham666 said...


Very amusing and quite informative.

I think I'll stick to e-publishing though. The process is a lot simpler.

Anonymous said...

It's enough to make you give up.

Robin S. said...

I didn't see this the first time through. Thanks for posting again.

And thanks to the ex publisihng exec.

I'm almost finished with what I hope is the final draft of my novel - but the dance is just beginning.

Monoxter said...

Wow. There's a lot more to being an editor than I previously thought. Thank you so much for posting this. I'm thinking of becoming an editor so I've been doing a lot of research about what exactly an editor does and this is definitely the clearest answer.

Is it shocking to say that I still want to become an editor? Sounds fun, in a stressful, rather suicidal way.

LindaBudz said...

Excellent post. And (though I know Ex Insider didn't intend this and I know I shouldn't read so much into it), it gives me hope that response to my ms is taking so darn long because it has made it to Step 5!


Anonymous said...

I think I need to throw up. This is beyond depressing, and yes, only because I believe it's how it's done.

Anonymous said...

This is kinda related as I am in a situation with an agent who is taking agesss and I know it all takes a long time but then I have had conflicting reports..

I have an agent who is at a big agency. She is very friendly and nice when we do communicate - at first she was always prompt, very prompt with emails, would call when she said so.

So far, she asked for some writing, and I sent her this, and it took her 4 months to finally give some comments, and she apoligised for taking so long. To be honest, I thought she had lost interest. Instead she said it was good and there were some pointers to work on so she would call me on a specific day - she didn't - and that was 5 weeks ago. I sent her a nudge email, sort of, is everything ok, am I ok to show you some rewrites? But no response, which is odd, because she was so good in the beginning with correspondence.

Nathan - is this the norm? I've had other writers tell me it is normal for an agent to take 5 weeks to respond to a simple query. But it would just be nice to know where I stand, since we have some sort of verbal agreement, I wouldn't submit to other agents without discussing with the agent first....


getitwritten_guy said...

I've always suspected that once a writer has an acceptable manuscript and an agent agrees to representation the real work begins. Oddly, this doesn't disturb me in the least.

If an agent and an editor can help me work smarter to reach my goal with a particular work, then I can take care of the working hard part.

Grand said...


She/He forgot to mention that your literary agent is engaged in just about every aspect of this along the way.

I see she/he mentions the literary agent convincing the writer the changes are necessary.

But honestly an intelligent writer will be communicating with her or his agent on a constant continual basis.

And if you dont want to change something that is important to you. Like your favorite character for instance, YOU DON'T HAVE TO!

Editors only have as much control as you give them. Which will be stated in the contract that you pay your agent a percentage of your profit to negotiate. So be open, honest, specific and tell your agent everything you want before you sign anything or agree to anything.

If they have a problem with your wants and needs this isn't the person/people/company for you. Move on until you find what you are looking for, plenty more fish in the sea.

If you have a good agent they will be with you every step of the way.

If you have a great agent and you are competent things can become expedited to the Nth degree.

So don't let this get you down. It doesn't always take two years... Sometimes it takes longer!

All kidding aside, either your a writer and this doesn't bother you from the start, or your just a wannabe lookin' for a book deal tryin' to play the part...

Wannabe's dont get book deals, writers do.


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