Anne Perry is a commissioning editor at Hodder & Stoughton. She spends her spare time thinking about monster movies.
Unmasking the Editor
The best known job in publishing is also the one most shrouded in mystery. Why might an author need an editor, really? What does the editor at the publishing house that buys the book actually bring to the table? What does an editor really do?
First and foremost, the editor is the book’s biggest advocate at the publishing house. Reading a really exciting manuscript for the first time is a bit like falling in love, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in the publishing of a book from the very start. So the editor falls in love with a manuscript: great! But the fun’s only just starting. It’s then her job to get everyone else at her company as excited about it as she is: she runs around the floor of her publishing house telling people how fantastic the manuscript and getting second reads to support her when she takes the manuscript to acquisitions. The editor pitches the book to the company, to bookstores and booksellers and to readers. I, for example, include personal letters with proofs that I send out to booksellers, reviewers and bloggers. The editor will spend the months and sometimes even years in the run-up to publication managing the project of publishing the book as well as possible.
Which brings me to my next point: editors are project managers. We work with a team in marketing, sales and publicity from the very beginning of the acquisitions process on developing a coherent vision for the book and how we’ll publish it. We strategize with our colleagues about everything from positioning and copy to covers and proofs. We all work together to find the best way to talk about the book: every title has an elevator pitch that we use to convey as much information about it as efficiently as possible whenever we need to. (And the need will inevitably arise at strange, unexpected moments!)
All the departments work together to ensure that the book’s package works – that the cover is a good fit for the content so that, for example, readers won’t buy a book expecting an historical romance and discover they’re reading contemporary non-fiction. Sometimes we get to create extra material to go with the book, like point-of-sale items to give to bookstores to hand out with the book, or to leave by the till for customers to pick up. We can work with bookstores to create window displays to help advertise the book; we create images and videos that are easily sharable on social media, we record podcasts and write blog posts and put the book forward for promotions. It’s all very much a team effort, and the editor is there to help steer the team and keep everything on track.
No one knows a book better than the acquiring editor; it’s her vision that steers these efforts from the beginning. Editors have specialties (I’m an SFF editor, for example) because, while it’s nearly impossible to have real insight into the entire bookbuying market, it is possible to have a pretty good understanding of particular segments of it. As an SFF editor I’m expected to be conversant in the classics of my field, to keep up with current publications by other SFF publishers, and generally to understand the modern UK readers of science fiction and fantasy: what they want, what they like, and what they’re likely to buy. I visit bookstores to see how booksellers are positioning SFF, attend signings and conventions, meet bloggers and reviewers and booksellers, and basically keep my nose to the ground. All of this helps my team work up exactly the right package for each of our books.
This knowledge of the market is equally important when it comes to working with the author. We find ourselves in kind of a peculiar position in commercial publishing – we’re taking art, the effort and devotion of a single person to create something wholly new, and commodifying it for mass consumption. We have to do this in such a way that we realize a nice profit on the book, but that the author doesn’t feel that her work is being cheapened and that her vision is being realised. So, in addition to structural edits and line edits, we editors also work with our authors in coming up with ideas for the next project and for her career years down the line, and for positing the author herself as a brand.
And what about the actual editing part of being an editor? That’s still the beating heart of an editor’s job. That’s where we apply all that knowledge of our genre to ensure that the book itself ultimately reads the right way. A good editor has a clear eye and suggests edits that are good for the book, regardless of the author’s ego (though a better editor will suggest these changes gently). Editing is, at the end of the day, the most difficult and the most rewarding part of the entire process. And if the editor feels that way, imagine how the author must feel!
As an editor, I spend all day engaged with publishing on every level, from the most basic (reading manuscripts) to the most abstract (designing long-term publishing strategies). It can be granular, time-consuming, painstaking and yes, occasionally, very boring. But it’s also the best and most rewarding job I could ever imagine. Like I said at the beginning: reading an exciting manuscript for the first time is like falling in love. And I get to fall in love over and over again.