Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Day in the Life of an editorial assistant, Part I


Most people who want to get a job in publishing focus on Editorial. I did too. However, not everyone should be an editor (including me!) There are a ton of other publishing jobs, some better suited for different personalities. Also, Editorial isn’t quite what you think it is. I’ll go over other departments later, but I want to start with exactly what an Editor does and what the job entails.

In Editorial, you would start out as an editorial assistant, with an average starting salary of $31K to $36K depending on the size of the publishing house (and as those numbers are averages, yes that means some people make less.) According to a study published in July 2009 in Publishers Weekly, an editor with up to three years experience earns an average of $32K. Do those numbers sound scary? They should. And yes, you have to live in New York City on that. In 2000 I started at $22K, and I lived in a basement in Queens near Rikers Island with a mile walk to the subway.

You start as an editorial assistant. Then you’ll get promoted to Assistant Editor then Associate Editor (yes, editorial assistants don’t even get capitalized.) All three of these positions are pretty much the same. You don’t get an office or get out of answering someone else’s phone until you have been Associate Editor for a while, or even until you get promoted to Editor.

When starting as an assistant, who you report to is important. The higher up in the company they are, the more you’ll learn about the industry, but the less freedom you’ll have and the less editorial experience you'll be getting, as you’ll be more of a personal assistant. Younger editors, while less influential, remember better what it was like, can be better mentors, and you will likely be given more responsibility earlier. But fewer people at the company will know who you are.

An editorial assistant:
• Answers phones
• Opens and sorts mail
• Makes lunch reservations
• Waters plants
• Maintains your boss’s schedule
• Types your boss’s rejection letters
• Maintains and updates your boss’s submission database
• Types up deal sheets for your boss, make copies, send to Contracts
• Fills out check request forms, send to Contracts
• Sends Author Questionnaires to authors, ensure they are returned
• Attends Editorial, Art, and Launch meetings
• Makes copies of manuscripts, route them to readers
• Makes files for new books, be sure appropriate material is in the file

So far, probably not what you expected, is it? Sounds like a personal assistant, not a junior editor, right? Well, that is the bulk of the job. And it gets worse. I knew one assistant who had to get her boss’s furs out of storage every fall, and put them back in the spring. I had to make my boss’s personal bank deposits and reserve limos for him. Luckily the days of assistants having to do their boss’s expense reports are generally past, as expenses are online these days which mostly means bosses now do them themselves. That’s good because the first expense report I submitted after my boss spent three weeks in London was for $25,000. Yes, that was more than my annual salary, thanks for asking! I understand it, but for me it was really demoralizing. My favorite of the ridiculous tasks was the Meeting meeting. That's no typo. Three times a year there would be a meeting of all the department heads' assistants and we'd go through the master schedule for the upcoming season of publications, and we'd say things like, "No, I'm sorry my boss will be at the beach that week so can we move Launch to the week after?" We did get free donuts though.

You do get to work on some books, but not actual editing. The first books you’ll be assigned will be imports, foreign offsets, paperback reprints: books which require no editing. If you are assigned a domestic manuscript, your boss will be doing the editing, and you’ll be doing the gruntwork. That includes:
• Writing the flap or jacket copy
• Writing the catalog copy
• Writing the copy for the sales sheets
• Sending out authors’ contract copies of their finished book
• Mailing out copyedited manuscripts to authors, be sure they are returned on time, return them to Production
• Making sure your boss signs off on jacket mechanicals and they are returned to Art
• Mailing out galleys with letters for pre-pub blurbs

Oh, and you probably will be assigned books you’re not the least bit interested in. Initially I was assigned a 1000-page biography of Yeltsin, a British cozy mystery, a travel book about a remote Greek island, and a sweet historical novel about farm girls in England during WWII. Diverse, yes. My cup of tea, no.

So, that’s the first few years. No editing yet! I’ll get to that next week.

UPDATE: If you want more info on working in publishing, I have published a book, The Insider's Guide to a Career in Book Publishing, inspired by this blog post series. It's available for order at any bookstore or bookselling website.

26 comments:

Christina T said...

Wow. I remember my naive days as an English major when I thought I'd go into publishing after I graduated. All it took was one visit to Chicago (I don't like big cities) and learning about the cost of living, low salary, etc. for me to decide that I probably wouldn't have what it takes to make it.

I do have a friend in the publishing industry in Chicago and I did briefly work as a freelance copywriter so I did get to write copy for some book jackets and catalogs and I thought that was kind of neat (except for the really boring theology books anyway)

How long were you an editorial assistant?

Very interesting and enlightening post. I think all English majors considering a career in publishing should know this! I certainly had no idea of the realities. The Meeting meeting part made me smile but I'm sorry you had to go through all that. It sounds like it was worth it though in the end.

Carin said...

I was an editorial assistant for 1 year, as Assistant Editor for 3 years, and an Associate editor for 6 months before I finally decided I didnt like the whole thing. Luckily I got out before it ran me down! And also luckily, the Meeting meeting now makes me smile too.

Connie said...

I'm still jealous of you. :-P

Priya Parmar said...

wow! this is fascinating for me as this year i am going through the publishing process as an author and have no idea who is sending out the questionnaire, the manuscript, the checks, or how any of it works. i do not even think i met the editorial assistant who is working on my book when i went to simon and schuster. i met the head of publicity, the publisher, my editor, my editor's boss and people like that. i really wish i had met her now! do i ever meet her? thank you for this!

Carin said...

No, Priya, you won't ever meet her unless you make an effort to. But next time you call, before you ask for your editor, chat with the person answering the phone - that is the ea. It's funny that editorial assistants are so invisible because in some ways they're the most cruicial cog. My boss didn't know how to enter catalog copy in the system, didn't even have a login to check sales, etc. If your editor actually answers his/her own phone, ask them for the name/email of their assistant as you'd like to send them a thank you since you know they've been helpful along the process even though they don't get noticed, that sort of thing.

Carin said...

This post is interesting! I guess if that's what you really want in life you're willing to do the whole "labor of love" thing. Sounds like it could be a fun job right out of college though.

Usually it's the little people that make the wheels spin round. It's always nice when someone recognizes your hard work!

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Very interesting-- I alway enjoy reading about different professions. All the ea duties reminded me of movie The Devil Wears Prada ;o)

Lesa

christa @ mental foodie said...

Thanks for the post - it's very interesting to read about other occupations! Can't wait to read part 2 :) I was an assistant once (not EA) so I always remember to thank any assistants I work work with now :)

Priya Parmar said...

carin, my editor makes a point of answering her own phone--i really like that--but i am sending an email asking who the editorial assistant is. i just finished the pass pages and so the acknowledgments section is locked (is that right?) and galleys are arriving later this month or early next month. i feel terrible! this person who has done so much to literally make this book happen is not included! i want to call and apologize and maybe see if i can get her name added!

Carin said...

Good for your editor! There are second pass pages, though those aren't usually run past the author so you'd need to ask. If it's at the end of a section and so wouldn't really shift anything around, you can probably still add her, but if you've thanked your editorial people at the beginning of a 2-page acknowledgements or something, you might just want to send her chocolates. Your editor can let you know pretty easily.

Priya Parmar said...

thank you! after all the stuff you listed i want to add her name and send her chocolates!

cherzberger said...

Carin:

My name is Chris Herzberger -- I'm a writer/producer in LA (got my start as the 1st assistant to Gary Ross, who wrote Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, Big, & Dave) and I'm working on a project now that has a character who works in publishing as an editorial asst. I'd LOVE to chat with you, even for 15 minutes on the phone if you think you might have some time! I'm trying to capture a realistic portrayal of this particular character's job, but need a little more insight -- I was so happy to stumble upon your blog! Is there a way to get in touch with you directly?

Carin S. said...

Chris - you can emali me at cms1974 at earthlink.net. I'll see if I can be helpful!

Melissa Sammy said...

Hi. I'm an English major at TCNJ. From reading your account of being an editorial assistant, I'm starting to have major second thoughts. I do love editing and writing, though. Having been in this field for a while, do you have any advice as to what sort of jobs pay well for an English major? (I was considering teaching but I'm not sure...)

Anonymous said...

If I have to be honest.. the job as an editorial assistant sounds boring. You have to do a lot of things which have nothing to do with an editorial assistant. Why would an editorial assistant water the plants? That's just abuse. I do like the way you wright about it, but half way my attention got a bit away. That's because it's a lot of text to read. The whole 'how much you get paid thing' I didn't found so interesting. I did like the 'free donuts' part, I would love to have a donut right at this moment. All with all it was okay to read.

Nadia said...

Hi!

I’m in my first year for the study Editorial Assistant.
I really appreciate your blog!

First of all, I would have never thought that the job would be like that in the beginning! To be honest, it sounds terrible!

I think it is very frustrating that when you get higher up in the company, you get less freedom and less experiences.

It’s stupid that you have to do the gruntwork and have to make lunch reservations.

I think it is really cool you actually get to work with books, but I don’t really get why you can’t do the actual editing…

Thank you very much for sharing your experience!

Kind regards,

Nadia

Nadia said...

Hi!

I’m in my first year for the study Editorial Assistant.
I really appreciate your blog!

First of all, I would have never thought that the job would be like that in the beginning! To be honest, it sounds terrible!

I think it is very frustrating that when you get higher up in the company, you get less freedom and less experiences.

It’s stupid that you have to do the gruntwork and have to make lunch reservations.

I think it is really cool you actually get to work with books, but I don’t really get why you can’t do the actual editing…

Thank you very much for sharing your experience!

Kind regards,

Nadia

Anonymous said...

I think this post is really interesting. It shows us how the life of an editorial assistant really looks like. I never thought it would be like this. Mostly when I ask people they make it sound much better then it actually is. But this is way more realistic. But I do think everyone's experience is different. Some people's bosses answers the phone themselves. And some editorial assistants do have a lot more responsibility. It just is different with everyone I think. Some editorial assistants are really underestimated in what they can do. They should be more appreciated as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi!

This post is very interesting.
It is nice to read about experience at work.
It is interesting to know more about this job.
And honestly, I never knew that it would be like this.
It sounds difficult, and not fun at all.
But you need to start at the lowest point, before you are at the point where you wanna be.
So, you need to accept a lot of things.
But when you want to be good in your job you need to accept it.
It's nice that you share your experience.
It's nice for people to read this, when they are doing the study for this.

Thanks for sharing!

Boudewijn v. Wanrooy said...

This was a very informative and personal post about the starting years as an editorial assistant. Nothing they teach you in school can prepare you for working with a boss, who's agenda includes spending many days at the beach.
The summary of what an editorial assistant does is a neat list for people to read who don't know about the profession. Currently I am in my first year of studying to become an editorial assistant. Although watering the plants is not something what came to my mind when thinking about my future.
I would like to thank you for your entertaining and informative post. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Caroline,

I really liked this post. It was nice to read things from your point of view. It allowed us to learn a little bit about the life of an editorial assistant. In all honesty your job seems a little bit boring. Working with books sounds like a lot of fun though! I didn't knew that there came so much different things with editing. Also making lunch reservations is one of the last things I would ever think about when hearing about the job editorial assistant. The part where you wrote about getting higher up in the company meant less freedom and the less editorial experience you'll be getting was pretty sad though.

xoxo Gossip Girl

Anonymous said...

Hi Caroline,

My name is Eva, and i am in my first year of college - 'Editorial assistant'.

I really enjoyed your post about being an Editorial assistant, however it was not exactly what i expected it would be..

Your boss does not sound that nice, and it is a much harder world than i had in mind.

What i really liked about your post: you made it so personal. You are not making up stories or discribing it as a perfect world, because it is not.

Although i know i probably have to start at the bottom too, i still hope that i do not have to water my bosses plans ;)

Greats and goodluck!

Anonymous said...

Hi Caroline,

My name is Eva, and i am in my first year of college - 'Editorial assistant'.

I really enjoyed your post about being an Editorial assistant, however it was not exactly what i expected it would be..

Your boss does not sound that nice, and it is a much harder world than i had in mind.

What i really liked about your post: you made it so personal. You are not making up stories or discribing it as a perfect world, because it is not.

Although i know i probably have to start at the bottom too, i still hope that i do not have to water my bosses plans ;)

Greats and goodluck!

Suzanne said...

Hello Caroline,

My name is Suzanne and I am in my first year off Editorial Assistant and reading your blog scared me a little. I always thought that being a editorial assistant includes reading, writing and doing all the fun stuff. But your job doesn't sounds very entertaining. I know you need to start at the bottom and work your way up and I can see that you are getting there. I wish you all the luck in this job :)

Goodluck !

Suzanne said...

Hello Caroline,

My name is Suzanne and I am in my first year off Editorial Assistant and reading your blog scared me a little. I always thought that being a editorial assistant includes reading, writing and doing all the fun stuff. But your job doesn't sounds very entertaining. I know you need to start at the bottom and work your way up and I can see that you are getting there. I wish you all the luck in this job :)

Goodluck !

Benthe said...

Hi Caroline,

My name is Benthe and I am in the first year of college, Editorial Assistant.

I've read your post about your life as an editorial assistant and it wasn't really what I expected. I thought it would be all writing, doing interviews and all that cool stuff.
But you showed me that it can be tough as well. I never knew it would be like this. But I think you have to start at the lowest point, before you are at the point you want to be.

I wish you loads of luck in this job.

Kind regards,

Benthe