Thursday, December 15, 2005

Yes, you too can be an Editor!

“Your book has the wrong cover on Amazon? There are no copies at your local Barnes & Noble? Let me send an email to Sales about that.” Editors know little about the sales process (as an editor at the Berkley Publishing Group, I was instructed to never quote a number in a conversation with Sales unless I had that number on a piece of paper given to me by Sales). Editors know little, if anything, about production. When I was an editorial assistant, a set of galleys came back looking like hell. I told my boss that it was a driver issue with the laser printer they'd run the galleys from. He looked at me like I was nuts (though after two and a half years running my college yearbook, I probably knew more about electronic type and production than he did after ten years in the book business), then went to see the production manager and was told exactly what I told him. As an assistant at a very major publishing house, I happened to hear one side of a long conversation take place between a very senior editor and a party representing a major photographer. The editor was working on a book about a subject that had been photographed by the photographer. Somehow, a bunch of this photographer’s pictures had appeared in the book without her permission. Now, this is Publishing 101. You do not publish an award-winning, world-famous photographer’s pictures without permission. You do not publish my grandmother’s pictures of me in the bathtub without her permission. Yet, I swear to G-d this very senior editor was on the phone professing ignorance of that rule. A negotiation tactic to cover a blunder the author made? Perhaps. But how does the very senior editor let the book get printed without getting the permissions from the author? Was he covering up a blunder he, the editor, who didn’t usually do illustrated books, genuinely and stupidly made? Perhaps. Either way, it doesn’t look too good for the editor or publisher, does it?

Folks, editors are not these gods of the written word authors make them out to be. Nor are they the sticklers for detail that you think they are. They are not experts at grammar, punctuation, and style. They may not have been literature or English majors. They have likely received little or no “training” as editors. They are not required to take a course at NYU in editing, or to have attended a publishing course at Columbia. When I started in this business, we were required to take a typing test. Four years of college, over $100,000 of my dad’s money spent, and my ability to get a job at Random House depended on how many words a minute I could type...on a typewriter! Yes, in 1988, it all came down to words per minute on an IBM Selectric. Of course, I hadn’t typed on a typewriter since 1985, but that’s my fault, right? The HR woman actually said, “That’s the problem with you kids today. You’ve all been spoiled. Well, here in the real world, we still use typewriters.”

Here’s a dirty secret: Want to become an editor at a major publishing house? Get a job as an assistant for $21,000-$30,000 a year (good luck living in NYC on that salary, by the way) and keep your nose clean for as many years as it takes to get promoted very slowly up the ladder. Voila! You’re an editor. Doesn’t matter if you have a BA or a BS or a Masters. Doesn’t matter if you sold computers for five years or cars for that matter. Interview well, convince them you can do the job, you’re in. After all, you’re just a glorified secretary.

If your boss is kind, you in fact may get a lesson or two in how to edit. I got one from one of my two bosses at Warner Books once. It might have taken twenty or even thirty minutes. Otherwise, what I knew I learned from (a) being a yearbook editor or working on other publications in college; (b) reading editorial letters and looking at edited manuscripts from my bosses or other editors; (c) reading THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE and other books about style, punctuation, and production; (d) editing books my bosses didn’t want to edit. My sincere sympathies to Kevin Randall, a/k/a Cat Branigan, author of the WINGS OVER ‘NAM series, and Simon Hawke, author of the WIZARD OF 4TH STREET series. Also the real authors behind Donald N. Norman (yes, they were two guys named Donald ‘n Norman), authors of THUNDER STATION, for these were the first books I edited as a twenty-three-year-old assistant for Warner Books. To Jay Leno, all I can say is you’re a lucky bastard I was an anal-retentive assistant while clearing the permissions for all of the photos used in that first HEADLINES book. The guy who had the job before me had filled his drawer will copies of every piece of paper ever to cross his desk, so scared was he of screwing up or losing something. I can’t imagine what he’d have done trying to track down all those newspapers and photographers in the years before the Internet!

The editorial assistant willing to put in the years might ultimately be rewarded, but just barely. One editor I know, a very bright young woman, actually got herself promoted to Editor after about four years, I think. (For the record, I went from assistant to Editor in twenty-eight months, though I did move from Simon & Schuster [five months], to Warner Books [fourteen months], to Donald I. Fine [eight months], to the Berkley Publishing Group to do it.) The only problem for this bright young editor was that even though she was now an Editor, she was still acting as the assistant to an Executive Editor. Whereas, while some Editors do not have assistants, many do. (For those not in the know, the promotion track is usually Editorial Assistant, Assistant Editor, Associate Editor, Editor, Senior Editor, Executive Editor.) Can you imagine how humiliating it must be finally to get that big promotion, only to be told that you will still be doing the work of an Editorial Assistant for someone else? Lord knows it’s frustrating enough being an Editorial Assistant or Assistant Editor and have a boss yelling at you to get off the phone because she needs you to photocopy something. Now imagine being an Editor regularly acquiring hardcover and paperback titles and being in the position. Now imagine being an author acquired by that editor! Oy.

In today’s publishing world, an editor’s greatest strength may be the ability to tell an editor-in-chief what he or she wants to hear. There are editors who are clock-punchers. In at nine and gone by five. Their only goal throughout the day is to avoid headaches. They do not argue with their bosses on behalf of authors. They do not invest personally in their books. They do not send out manuscripts for quotes. They do the minimum required to get a book out the door.

Now why is that? Because when books fail (and most do; according to the CFO of one major publisher, the vast majority of books they publish do not earn out their advances), the editor-in-chief is going to be a lot more likely to scrutinize that thorn in her side than the guy who has always been a “company man.” And because books fail more often than not, is it really worth all the aggravation and heartache of arguing and fighting in the office to make them work? Or, given the shelf-life of a paperback book, is it really worth giving up evenings and weekends with your wife and kids to edit four drafts of a novel? Or would it be easier to just look for those books that require very little work in order to be published?

Ponder that one over dinner with the family.



Anonymous said...

One more part to the secret--it helps to know someone in the company.

I'm an assistant production editor at McGraw-Hill. Right now, that means I'm the tracker/logger--trying to make sense of all the paper and manuscripts that go in, out, and around here. I started working here in the summer of 2005, and hope to move up to proofreader, then actual editor.

We'll see how things go.

Andrew Zack said...

If I were you, I'd be looking for an editorial assistant job, assuming you want to be an acquiring editor and not just a production editor. The job titles may vary at some houses, but usually the production people have one track and the editorial people have another, and rarely does one transfer from the production track to the editorial track. And, if you do, that time in production will not get you promoted from Editorial Assistant to Assistant Editor any faster, I'd bet. You'll do as much time in that job as your boss can arrange. After all, the sooner you get promoted, the sooner she has to train a new assistant, and that's just a pain in the rear. Hence, it is in any boss's best interests to delay your promotion, not accelerate it.

Anonymous said...

I don't envy the job of editor or agent. I did (do) want to consider working for a publishing house, but in another capacity where I actually make money and can hobknob with the editors.

I call this the backend approach to publishing. Although realistically, it may never happen I can still dream. True?

Andrew Zack said...

"where I actually make money and can hobknob with the editors"

For starters, why do you want to "hobknob" with editors. They are the most over-worked people in the business. Their days are filled with meetings, email and phone calls, and their evenings are filled with slogging through manuscripts, most of which they will reject. Kind of like agents, but the manuscripts they are reading are generally a bit better, since they come from agents.

I don't know a job that meets your requirements really. Maybe Subsidiary Rights, but that's a house-by-house situation. There's always Sales. You wouldn't "hobknob" with editors, though. They'd just be those guys in the other department who get to expense more lunches than you.


Anonymous said...


I always suspected while line-editing this book for someone (soon to go to press) that I was doing a better job of it than the editor assigned to this person by their publisher. Sounds as though I may be right!

If nothing matters anyway and no one in the book business gives a ..., then why does anyone bother?

Perhaps we should all post our stories for free on the internet and bypass the publishing business altogether, since for what most writers make for their hard work, it's really just a hobby anyway.

Shadow said...

I can't begin to tell you how reassuring this post is. It reinforces my perception of how dysfunctional NY publishing is, and reassures me that I'm on to something. Having already successfully self-pubbed two books, I'm starting up my own publishing house, Nano Press ("a really, really small publishing house") which is NOT for self-publishing. Check out the site for full details, especially the About and FAQ pages. I'm soliciting manuscripts directly from authors (mainly at NaNoWriMo, but anyone is invited to submit), paying royalties PLUS making a donation to NaNoWriMo from the first book sold.

Obviously by keeping the operation small, I'm better able to keep my eye on the ball and put out quality books with as much chance of success as anyone else (if most books fail anyway.)

Andrew Zack said...

The definition of a book "failing" is highly subjective, of course. A book can earn a profit while not earning out, but earning out is often considered a sign of some success. That said, even books that earn out and perform well may not be worth a follow-up.

I have no doubt that smart self-publishing authors may have more success going that route than working with a mainstream publishers, but most self-published books just don't have a high-enough quality of editorial and production to really work. And the ones that do offer suffer from weakness in distribution. B&N and Amazon and other wholesalers (Ingram, Baker and Taylor, etc.), often have minimums in terms of sales or orders that a self-publishing author can't meet. Thus, if you want to "break out" into the mainstream, chances are you will have to find a major publisher to put your book out.

Shadow said...

Look again. I'm not talking about self-publishing. I'm talking about publishing books by OTHER WRITERS.

Because I'm not a burned out "editor", I believe I can do as good (or better) a job choosing and vetting a MS. And with professional typography software (not just word processing stuff) I can design and produce perfectly acceptable trade paperback books (because I already have.)

The distribution issue goes back to sales volume. I choose to target a specific market without going through national channels (which allows for considerably lower cover prices) and to define success as making a profit, as defined in almost every other business.

It seems like the rest of you are just chasing your tails trying to tell yourself that since you're the biggest, you must be the best.

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