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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Casbourne

Should I be an Editor?

'Editor' is the most sought after role in publishing, but is it for everyone?

The short answer is: no! If that’s all you needed to know then my job here is done. But if you’re considering a role in publishing and you’re not sure whether working as an editor is right for you then scroll on. Like so many others wanting to work in books but having no experience in publishing I was only aware of this romantic vision of an Editor who toils away with a fancy pen marking up manuscripts surrounded by a library of old books and maybe a banker’s lamp for atmosphere. Little did I know publishing is supported by wildly diverse departments including Sales, Marketing, Publicity, Production, Rights, and Tech that offer a variety of roles and responsibilities suited to different personality types. But the draw of being an editor still captures the imagination of bookish folk, so if you’re thinking about applying to these roles here are the top skills you’ll need to succeed:

Relationship building

It’s not always the first thing people think of but editors in fact need to be really well networked. Most manuscripts come from literary agents and editors need to be in constant communication with them to ensure they get first crack at the hottest unpublished works. If you haven’t introduced yourself and stayed in touch with agents far and wide then they won’t think of you when they have a manuscript that might be perfect for your publishing house.

Another area where relationship building is essential is in working with authors. You’ll end up working closely with an author to shape their book into something people will want to read. That means you’ll need to review their manuscript and offer thorough editorial feedback on how to improve the structure, flow, language and points requiring more clarification. The editor/author connection is super important in getting a book right and sometimes if an editor moves to another publishing house the author will follow them because they have invested in that relationship and know what to expect from the writing process when working with that editor.

Negotiation and Diplomacy

An essential part of maintaining those relationships over time is managing them so they are personable and professional while still getting the best deal for the publisher. Negotiation skills will come in handy when coming to an agreement on book contracts. The agent will want X on advance, royalties and territorial rights, you’ll want Y and both parties will need to eventually compromise on Z. Sometimes you need to be prepared to walk away if you really can’t reach an agreement but do so in a way where feelings aren’t hurt or an agent becomes alienated because you might work together on a different book a few weeks later.

Once the contract is signed and you get to working on the changes you think will benefit the book you need to find a way to provide honest and useful feedback in a way that doesn’t undermine the confidence of the author. Yes, they are now working with you under contract but that doesn’t mean you can tell them ‘this part is terrible’ (if that’s how you really feel). You need to find diplomatic ways of offering constructive criticism to better the manuscript.

There will also be moments when the author absolutely disagrees with you, which is their right. But then you have a problem: how strongly do you feel this change they oppose needs to be made? What I try to do while editing is offer a rationale for why I’ve made a comment. Some of it can be self evident (that’s not how you spell ‘avocado’) but other decisions need explaining, such as when you’re making structural changes where swaths of text are being moved around or deleted altogether. The author might be very proud of a passage that you end up chucking in the bin so be sure to treat your feedback with care and respect for the author’s work. If they can understand your reasoning, they’re more likely to agree with you. If they still disagree, then that’s when they need to inform you of their rationale in which case you might just need to find a better way of communicating their ideas. There’s a lot of give and take and at the end of the day you’re both working together to make their book the best it can be.

Making strategic choices

You may think Sales and Marketing are their own departments separate from Editorial but you absolutely need to be a salesperson if you’re going to be an editor. Publishing is an industry that trades on passion. It starts with the editor making a strong case for signing up a book, then they need to translate that passion to Sales and Marketing colleagues who will become advocates to booksellers and consumers. Editors also write the synopsis of the book which not only needs to capture the essence of the story but the imaginations of readers. All of this relies on thinking about the book as a product you’re bringing to market from manuscript to printed pages.

At the end of the day the best editors are those who can craft a sellable product and find ways to market the book to everyone from colleagues, to booksellers and consumers. To do this successfully you need to pay close attention to the market knowing what’s trending in the charts and why. Publishing can be quite derivative so if you see that a doctor memoir has recently made it big, that demonstrates there’s probably an appetite for these kinds of books and that will inform your commissioning. If you know salespeople are trying to convince a bookseller to stock a book when they may not have time to read it, it’s helpful to refer to comparable bestselling titles so they quickly understand the target audience for the book.

Having 'the eye'

As pretty much everyone expects, you need excellent attention to detail to be an editor. Checking for spelling and grammar is helpful but there’s much more to it than that given copy editors and proofreaders will also be poring over the manuscript checking for these same things.

An editor’s value is in having an eagle eye for character development, structural flow and story arc, spotting where something that’s there isn’t working and even more challenging spotting what isn’t there. The difference between them is like walking into a room thinking that vase in the corner would look better on the mantle versus walking into a room and not just moving all the furniture around but buying an area rug and a new reading chair that tie the room together. Editors need to be just as visionary as their authors to improve a book.

Project managing

You need to be organised and understand the publishing process from commissioning to consumer marketing. It could be a year or more from when you get a book under contract to when it hits the shelves so you need to work to a schedule so it doesn't miss any crucial dates from structural editing, to line editing, to copy editing, typesetting, proofreading and printing. Not to mention cover briefings that require a lot of back and forth with designers, sales and marketing colleagues to get the look of the book just right.

Depending on the publisher, you might be working on 10-15 books per year with unique demands and levels of author care. You'll need to be practiced in prioritising which project receives your attention on any given day depending not just on how much work the book needs, but how strong of a lead it is on your list. Time is limited and the leads will always get the gold star treatment while other books might not get as much of your attention, so the challenge is about how you can do right by all the books you're editing at once.

What kind of person should work in Editorial?

  • Personable: a friendly editor with a large network of literary agents and authors to work with is always desirable. Make professional connections at every opportunity and get your name out there.

  • Focussed: you'll be spending long periods of time reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading a manuscript to ensure quality, consistency, etc. so the ability to sit and focus is essential. Grab a cup of tea (or wine if you're editing in the evening) and soldier through.

  • Organised: juggling several books at once and communicating with colleagues across departments means you'll need to be skilled at prioritising and project managing.

  • Well-read: this is less about having read the Classics and more about understanding what makes a book worth reading. You need to be well-read in the genre or subject matter that you're editing in so you can give helpful feedback.

  • Instinctive: listen to your gut. Too often we gloss over a sudden feeling when editing but that's the back of your brain saying 'this is great!' or 'this isn't working.' When you get this feeling learn to stop and ask why because very likely the reader will come to the same ideas. You want to anticipate the book's reception and that means first interrogating your own thoughts and feelings.

That's the work of an editor in a nutshell. If you can develop these skills then you'll be on your way to landing that much sought after editing role you've been eyeing. Good luck!

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