Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Day in the Life of an editorial assitant, Part II

If you missed part one of this post, find it here. I am posting every Thursday about how to get a job in publishing, and since most people think they want to be an editor, here's the inside scoop!

So after months of the basics, while your colleagues and bosses find out your opinion on books and whether or not you’ve got your head screwed on straight, you’ll get your first crack at anything "editorial":
The Slush Pile

This is a sometimes well-managed, other times overgrown pile of unsolicited (unagented) manuscripts that have come through the mail unrequested. The vast majority of these books are never going to get published (sorry to authors out there but it’s true). They ought to be submitting to agents, not major publishers, plus it’s astonishing how many of them submit patently wrong books. A friend of mine worked at a house that only published children’s picture books and adult self-help. 80% of their slush pile was adult novels. If you have the time, you are probably welcome to look through the slush pile. But most of them are barely glanced at while their SASEs are stuffed with form letters (ours weren’t even signed. Other publishers have them signed with a made-up name.) Once in a blue moon something decent will come through the slush pile. Mostly though it’s just funny. Here was my personal favorite:
A proposed biography of JFK Jr., who the author knew personally from when JFK Jr. used to summer in Kentucky (!), and the author knew of JFK Jr.’s homosexuality personally (!) and knew where his illegitimate children are hidden (!). Oh, and the author was writing from prison (!!!). (This was after JFK Jr.’s death.)

You will be at the job 1-3 years before acquiring your own manuscripts. You will need meanwhile to be making agent contacts. Research which agents you want to meet. Start off with a list of books you wish you’d published and find out who agented those. Google is your friend. You will then need to cold-email agents and ask them out to lunch or drinks, then spend the hour talking about what kinds of books you hope to buy. Then you get to read those manuscripts when they start to come in, and reject them. In my experience, I rejected 95% of submissions, and 90% were unpublishable. That’s mostly what you read. Personally, that’s what did me in. I couldn’t keep reading all the bad books.

When you find a book you like, you’ll go tell your boss. They will ask a few other people to read it (maybe someone in Sales or Marketing). If those reports come back good, they will quiz you about a few things such as how to do think this will sell? How many would you print? You will have already told your boss if the author has a platform, an audience, a hook, media contacts. If you’re lucky then your boss will say, “Okay, you can buy this. Offer them $10,000.” You will then have the happiest and most nerve-wracking day of your life. In 2007 Jonathan Karp, Publisher of Twelve at Hachette said that publishing is a corporate form of legalized gambling. 7 out of 8 books fail in hardcover. You can’t be easily discouraged in this field.

Are you perhaps again wondering, where is all the editing? Mostly editors are busy doing other things at work, so all reading and editing is done at home, in your spare time. Being an editor means having a neverending pile of homework for the rest of your life. An editor isn’t looking for any issues with grammar or punctuation, that’s for the copyeditor. Editors should be looking for larger things: characterization, plot, tone, consistency, timing, pacing. It’s great to also be able to do a line-edit, where you do suggest alternate words or phrasings, but these days very few editors have the time to go to that level of editing.

An editor needs to be extremely diplomatic. As you gain experience, you boss will expect you to handle more situations on your own. That means that when your author calls to say their publicist isn’t returning their calls, you need to call the publicist and somehow convince them to do that. When the Art designer designs a jacket that (while beautiful) just isn’t right for the book, you need to explain that to them in a way that doesn’t cause them to go cry (they’re sensitive) and also doesn’t result in them purposefully designing a bad jacket to try to force you to accept the first jacket. Other times, everyone will love the jacket, from Marketing to Sales to your boss to his boss to his boss (publishing is still fairly sexist in the upper ranks and most of upper management is male). But your author will hate it. They will call you crying (they’re sensitive), swearing that this cover will ruin the book and they won’t be able to promote it in good conscience. You will have to convince them to do so, because that jacket isn’t getting redone. You will need to call Marketing and Sales and try to convince them to promote your books among the hundreds they are dealing with, although there’s no budget for it and no platform and no publicity. You will need to persuade your author (who got into this line of work because he/she isn’t a “people person” and likes to sit home alone) that they need to call local bookstores and set up events, call their alumni office, and will need to actually do readings (some might panic over this prospect.) And then of course you need to convince them to happily make the editorial changes you think are crucial. It’s better yet if you can convince them those changes are what they intended all along and are their ideas.

You must be very broadly read. While reading 1000 manuscript pages a week, you have to keep up reading published books from other houses. You need to know what’s going on in the marketplace (which sometimes means reading mega-bestsellers even though you know you won’t like them). Also, when you’ve read a bunch of horrible manuscripts, a mediocre one looks fantastic in comparison. So you need to keep up your outside reading in order to keep your standards up. You need a critical eye and the ability to trust your own judgment.

While all this is added to your plate, the previous duties from my first post are all still in effect. An editor spends most of his/her day on paperwork, meetings, and emails. After all reviews need to be sent out, books need to be submitted for appropriate awards, sales reports need to be run, print runs need to be ordered, books need to be scheduled, copyedits need to be reviewed. It's a tough, unglamorous job. Luckily for us readers, there are a lot of dedicated, talented editors out there. But being an Editor isn't for everyone. Most people who think they want to be an editor would be better off as an agent. More on that later...


Jeane said...

Wow, this really opens my eyes. I always thought I'd like to be an editor, because I love reading and I always spot the errors in books I read. But it sounds like it would just make reading feel like a huge chore of drudgery... at least for me.

Priya Parmar said...

wow. wow. wow. i am right now waiting for my cover to come through and hope none of that happens. my sister is at random house and told me how important it is to be easy to work with and now i really see why. luckily i have a super editor and the whole team is amazing. my book is an epistolary pastiche of primary 17th c documents and so was super design heavy and the design team was just so wonderful. i feel so lucky! i had no idea it was so crazy over there! thank you so much for this! it really helps me know what is happening!

Carin Siegfried said...

Jeane - that is exactly why I got out of editing! I really was starting to hate reading and that SO isn't an option! Priya - design can be very cool (did you see my first post in this publishing series about jacket design?) but yes, part of an editor's job (and an agent's) is to shield their authors from the shenanigans that go on behind closed doors. The good thing is that I do still like to read, even though I know how the sausage is made. But it definitely convinced me that I DO NOT want to write!

avisannschild said...

These posts are so interesting (and a bit disheartening too). I definitely would not have been cut out to be an editor! (I'm a translator and also fit into the slot of not a “people person” and likes to sit home alone!)

Kathleen said...

Wow this is definitely NOT For me. I don't want to waste my time reading bad books. I'd much rather stick with my "job" thanks.

Anonymous said...

I've just stumbled accross this blog...I'm a little late to the party...

These are all very interesting and helpful. I was wondering, though, if there would be any differences in the types of work done by editorial assistants and whatnot in the area of children's books?

I'm in college right now, and my goal is to go into editing and publishing, but I would like to work with children's books and juvenile fiction. Are jobs in these areas any different than working with "big people" books?


Carin Siegfried said...

Yes, children's books has all the same staffing as adult - I only have worked in adult myself which is why I didn't speak about children's specifically. All this applies to children's too! Good luck!