An ex-editor at a big New York publishing house has been kind enough to give you the scoop on what editors at traditional publishers 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, former 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.
From novel to book deal
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!
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!
The submission process
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.
How an editor decides to acquire a book
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.
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.
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.
How an editor makes an offer
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.
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.
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.
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.
What happens on the road to publication
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Publicity and marketing
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.
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…
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Art: La Sibilla Persica by Guercino