16 July 2008

What an Editor Really Does

This spring Neil Gaiman responded to a reader wondering about an editorial career by sharing advice from editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden. She concluded:

although to be an editor you'd better enjoy reading, you'll find as an editor that there's never enough time to do all the reading you need to do. You'd better also enjoy writing copy, public advocacy, coordinating between multiple departments, and never quite knowing what the day's challenges are going to be.
All that rings true to me. Many people think publishers produce the finished books. They don't; that's the job of the printer. Publishers produce photocopies (and, these days, PDFs). And Editorial Assistants do most of that work.

Many people also think editors spend all their time reading manuscripts. In fact, they spend more of their time writing about those manuscripts. They write letters, memos, marketing copy, jacket copy, and more memos.

Editors don't just acquire books. Sometimes they have to sell the house to an agent and author. Editors then have to sell the books they acquire at every stage of the process: to the Editorial board, to the Marketing Department's launch meeting, to the Sales Department at the sales conference, through catalogue copy, through the dust jacket, through more memos, and on and on.

Meanwhile, an editor is the publishing company's main voice to the author, and the author's main voice to the publishing company, translating for both. And, unless a book contains an "Acknowledgments" section, the editor's name rarely appears in the finished product.

The best tip I ever read about being an editor? Don't say, "This part is confusing." Especially don't say, "I was confused here." Always couch your feedback in terms of that elusive future audience: "I worry this passage will confuse readers."

(Thanks for Fairrosa for the pointer.)


Anonymous said...

Amusingly, in the early days of Amazon, the editor's name often turned up a joint author in the online listing. This was because the publisher's "feed" to Amazon came from internal listings tied to the book's acquisition (in which the editor was, naturally, the one who transacted the deal). I never figured out Ingram and Baker & Taylor avoided this glitch but it may have something to do with the fact that as wholesalers their database was less visible to the public and/or had more time to self-correct. However, Amazon believes (accurately, I think) that the earlier the information about the book is up on its site, the more books it can sell. Thus, sometimes the information went up before finalized/complete/double-checked, etc. (and is then filled out with content). B&N.com has never been able to provide comparable content so its browsing experience has never been as enjoyable for the reader/shopper (although particular subject areas such as history and current events have benefited from outstanding staff).

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, my name made it to Amazon on a few projects before my company figured out how to interact with its computers.

Since some books are credited to editors—i.e., anthologies, critical editions, etc.—how the “editor” box in the database is filled in can be significant.