Career Authors

A Book Editor’s Work is Never Done

There’s still romance to be had in the job, but a book editor at one of the large publishing conglomerates does much more than study Modern Lit. Sharks must keep moving to stay alive; so it is with book editors in today’s ultra-competitive environment.

What have you done for me lately?

Editors at large commercial publishing houses cannot rest on their laurels. They are under constant pressure to acquire more books—brilliant and commercial, of course. Good relations with literary agents are sought by book editors, in order to be the first (or among the first) to see promising projects.

Piles to read

Of course, after a book editor schmoozes their way into an exclusive look at a hot manuscript, the next step is reading it, which takes considerable time. (Also, their exclusive look may be brief.) Is the book almost good enough, or is it fantastic? When making the case for a publishing house to put up the dough, “almost” is not good enough: it’s got to be great.

A job in which a person reads all day sounds swell, yes? Unfortunately, it generally doesn’t work that way. Most of a book editor’s reading takes place away from the office: at nights or on the weekends. Colleagues who have their own promising submissions may ask another book editor to look at one of them—in part, so they can get a second opinion, but they also hope to garner support for the project at the next editorial meeting.

Let’s talk

At the ed meeting, book editors present projects they’d like to buy, hoping for an enthusiastic response from colleagues and their boss. If the publishing house is interested, profit and loss statements must be generated. Contracts will need to be negotiated, terms settled, due dates set. Even before that, there may be a drawn-out book auction, requiring much scrambling about by a book editor to get more money from the highers-up. Quick meetings are had about how much is too much to pay.

The lives of almost everyone working at the big publishing houses include countless meetings. Book editors attend confabs about cover art, marketing plans, pre-sales launch—all of which require preparation and presentation skills. One place I worked even had meetings to work out ways to have less meetings. (Step One: cancel that meeting?)

Additionally, book editors must write expertly worded rejections and enthusiastic in-house title information sheets. They review catalog copy, and send proposed cover art to agents and authors. They receive innumerable emails, many of which must be responded to with intelligence and tact. There’s much to do, and little time to do it.

A happy ending?

And after they’ve fully reviewed an author’s contracted work, a book editor will carefully craft the famed editorial letter—full of praise, as well as diplomatically worded criticism. Naturally, the editor urges the author to get the requested work done ASAP, or they might lose their scheduled pub date. An editor can only hope that the authors who are unhappy about waiting for their editorial letter are pleased and encouraged when at last receiving the critique.

While I urge a contracted author to turn in their work on time, that’s so their book will be higher up in their editor’s queue. To many writers’ consternation, an on-time manuscript delivery does not necessarily mean a quick response from the publishing house … just that it will be less slow. “Waiting for Godot” becomes their life. I remember the wife of an author saying, “How is it possible you haven’t had time to read his book?”

It’s possible.

Try not to forget that a book editor is in the biz because they love books like yours. Be patient: the delay gives you time to focus on your next book.