Lately I've been getting emails like this one: I am considering potential careers, and I think I might like being a book editor. Can you give me some advice? Instead of typing the same thing over and over, I decided to put up this page. What follows are frequently asked questions and my very forthright answers.
I should add here that I, like just about all of my colleagues, started as an editorial assistant.
Where should I go to college? Wherever you want. It doesn't make a difference.
Should I major in English? Only if you want to. I know lots of editors with totally different backgrounds -- the sciences, economics, art history, religion, theater, and so forth. In fact, the more diverse your background is, the more choices you may have as an editor.
Should I do an internship at a publishing house? Absolutely. It's the only way you'll really know what goes on. Most of the major houses have internship programs -- not just in the summer, all year round. The trick is in applying early. For example, our summer internship deadline is late February. These programs pay a small wage, and often have some sort of HR-based support network built in (i.e., you meet other interns, attend lectures).
Should I take a publishing course? I'm assuming you mean something like the Columbia Publishing Course. Sure, if you can afford it -- but you really don't need to. Publishers do cherry-pick these programs for junior staff. On the other hand, what you experience there is (from what I can gather) not entirely accurate. Why? Because you will not start as an editor. You will start as an Editorial Assistant.
What does an Editorial Assistant do? An Editorial Assistant is, for all intents and purposes, a glorified secretary. You will be typing correspondence, filling out forms, going to meetings and taking notes, xeroxing, faxing, filing, mailing packages, answering the phone, getting supplies, and so on (and on). You will also usually be reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts), writing jacket and catalog copy, and information sheets for sales reps. A word of advice: do not have an attitude about the clerical aspects of your job. Consider it part of your apprenticeship.
Is there ever time to read in the office? No. We all read on the train, at home, on the weekends, after hours. As an assistant, you will have to work twice as hard to fit this in.
What is a typical starting salary? Last I checked, around $27,000-30,000/year. What does this mean? You're either doing it because you really, really want to (and making the necessary sacrifices), or else you're lucky enough to have another source of income.
What if I don't want to live in a big city? Then most likely you're not going to work for a big publisher. In this case I suggest university and small presses. Check Literary Market Place for what might be in your area.
What is a typical day like for you? All my days are different, but often it'll involve checking and answering email, ditto phone calls, a meeting or two, going over a copyedited manuscript or galleys, writing flaps/catalog copy/briefs for the sales reps/art forms/other forms, processing contracts and payments, talking to authors and agents, ordering and/or sending out books, asking questions of sales and marketing, talking to my bosses about books I want to buy, running numbers to see if said books are viable, checking sales figures, and drinking a lot of caffeine. Sometimes I'll have lunch with an author or an agent, but usually I'll eat at my desk. I tend to work well past 5 PM, and always have. Most of us do.
When did you decide you wanted to be an editor? The moment I saw a Help Wanted/Children's Books/Editorial Assistant ad in the New York Times. And no, I am not being disingenuous. I had been writing, playing in bands and working as a legal secretary to pay the bills; I was obscurely dissatisfied and wanted some kind of change. As soon as I saw the ad, I somehow knew that I had found what I was supposed to be doing -- even though I did not read more than the occasional nostalgic children's/YA book until I got that assistant job.
What else can you tell me? Well, I consider what I do a vocation (rather than a job or even a career), and I couldn't see myself doing anything else. I love my work. It's never boring. It's unusually rewarding.
Oh, and a warning: Publishing -- especially children's publishing -- is comprised mostly of straight women and gay men. Do not expect to find your Life Partner in the bookroom (unless you are a gay man, that is).
For a more idealistic and/or academic set of answers, go here.
Wait, you didn't answer my question! Okay, email me and I'll add your question and my answer.
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