As some of you may already know, I am not a full-time blogger. I work in publishing as an editor, mainly for genre fiction. I’ve mentioned my work once or twice before but I haven’t really talked about it in detail, mainly because I’ve been too busy making fun of stuff. But not today! Whether you’re interested in becoming an author, an editor, or are just a bit curious about what working in publishing is actually like, here’s ten things I’ve learned from working as an editor.
- Books are a team effort
There are so many people involved in putting a book together. Aside from the author, you’ll also have an agent, an editor or two, a designer, a copyeditor, a typesetter, a proofreader, sales reps, marketing and publicity planners, rights salespeople, and production controllers working on the same book – and that’s all before it actually gets printed. It sounds daft saying it now but when I first started working in publishing I didn’t realise just how many people would be working on the same project. I guess that’s why acknowledgements get so long.
- The author has very little control over the process as a whole
When I first started working in publishing I had the idea that an author would have the final say on everything – they’d written the book, after all, so it seemed to make sense. In practice this isn’t really true unless you’re mega famous. An author might write the book but they have very little say on when the publication date will be, what the cover will look like, whether it’ll be hardback or paperback, whether it gets made into an audiobook or not – the list goes on.
This might seem unfair but most of the time this is because of the ‘team effort’ nature of publishing. When a designer draws up a cover, for instance, they do so with a cover brief written by the editor and with input from sales, marketing and publicity – this is to make sure that everyone working on the book has a rough idea of what other titles it’ll be competing against and to signal to readers what kind of book it’s going to be. The author has input at every stage of the process, but so does everyone else working on the book.
- Publishing houses run on tea
If you want to bring any given publisher to its knees, just steal their kettle. Editors must have constant access to hot drinks at all times and if we don’t, we turn into a gibbering mess.
- Multiple rounds of edits are normal…
Any given manuscript will probably go through four or five rounds of editing before the book gets sent off to press. First, the agent will go through it, making suggestions before sending it on submission to editors. Once it’s been acquired there’ll be a couple of edits from the editor – a structural edit (which looks at the book as a wider whole, working out if the plot makes sense, your characters’ motivations are consistent etc.) and a line edit (which looks at sentence and paragraph-level stuff and focuses more on use of language). Then you have the copyedit, which looks for technical flaws – so spelling, grammar, syntax, consistency, and fact-checking – and after that, the proofread, which focuses more on typos, layout issues etc. The author gets to see these at every stage of the process, but it’s always important to bear in mind that once a publisher agrees to take your manuscript your work is a long way from done.
- …but the best edits are the ones you don’t notice
Don’t let the fact that your manuscript is going to go through multiple rounds of editing alarm you. A good editor isn’t going to change what you’ve written – it’s more about bringing out what’s already there. A huge part of the editing process is assessing the author’s style and making sure the editor’s involvement fits with that. It’s like with sewing – the best stitches are the ones that are the hardest to see.
- There is always cake
I have never worked in a snackier industry.
- Editors have the creepiest search history
A large part of editing is fact-checking. Every detail gets checked to make sure that it holds up – either according to the internal logic of the manuscript or according to real-world facts. The form this takes varies wildly according to genre – editing fantasy often requires a worldbuilding doc so you can make sure the magical elements make sense, whereas sci-fi requires a lot of calls to your science-iest friends. Crime editors are definitely the worst offenders here.
You have to check all the forensic stuff to make sure it’s accurate, as well as the parts of the actual crime, alongside checking the investigative stuff – which means that your search history can get frankly disgusting.
- It’s never a nine to five job
In theory most publishing houses keep office hours. In practice, what constitutes ‘work’ in publishing is often a weird grey area that almost never fits into a nine to five day. Editors often don’t have time to read submissions at their desks, so they have to take them home, and sometimes this can bleed over into actual editing work as well. Reading stuff that other publishers put out also kind of counts as work, because if you’re acquiring stuff you have to be aware of the competition, and going to events and ‘making connections’ can count as work too, as it’s a very social industry and you’re likely to do better if people know who you are.
The downside to all of this is that yes, while reading and going to parties can technically count as work, it’s usually not work you get paid for. You can find yourself in work mode for very long periods of time and it’s quite difficult to properly switch off. At every single one of my publishing jobs, I’ve known multiple editors who take their work on holiday with them, and that’s not good for anybody long-term.
- Your friends and family will get used to hearing some very unsettling questions
The following is a condensed version of a real conversation I had with my dad, who works in medicine:
Me: So Dad…
Dad: Yes, love?
Me: Hypothetically, if I wanted to keep a grown man unconscious for eighteen hours, how would I do it?
Dad: [very long pause]
Me: It’s for work.
I have lost track of the amount of times I have bombarded my friends and family with incredibly specific questions, most of which are invariably disgusting. But when you’re editing a manuscript and need to check a fact, the Internet doesn’t always have the answers. The best place to go is to people with practical experience, which is why everyone who knows me is constantly prepared to receive a barrage of weird texts at all times.
- No two days are the same
Publishing is a very varied industry to work in. Some days you spend an entire eight hours on data entry, some days you spend working out if this murder makes sense, some days you try and get your head around the physics of space, and some days you will spend darting from one thing to the other like a literary butterfly. More than once I have had to fact-check a fight scene by going through the motions with a willing volunteer. You don’t really know what you’re going to get, but that’s all part of the fun.
And there you have it! That’s ten things I’ve learned from working in publishing. Hopefully that’ll give all you hopeful writers a peek behind the curtain and all you hopeful editors an idea of what you’re letting yourselves in for. Whichever one you are, make sure you bring tea. You’ll need it.