What Do Editors Really Do?Aug 29, 2021
From the Desk of Lily Lindon, Editor at The Novelry.
When I tell someone I’m a book editor, I can sometimes see their imagination bubble pop up: me, sitting alone in a dusty reading nook, wearing thick spectacles and a black polo neck, using angry, blood-red ink to scratch out split infinitives and misplaced semicolons.
Unfortunately, this is not quite true – not least because I don’t wear glasses.
Writers (understandably) spend a lot of time worrying about whether an editor will publish their book – but they don’t always know what that will entail at the other end. Like many creative industries, publishing can be impenetrable and opaque from the outside (and often from the inside, to be honest). I hope that giving you more information about what editors do will enlighten and empower you in the process of getting your book published – as well as humanise us editors a bit!
So what does an editor do?
One of the most common things for editors to say when asked is that it’s an incredibly varied job. ‘Every day is different.’ And, as with most careers, there is a huge amount of variety in what the title ‘editor’ means, influenced by job title and experience, the attitude of different companies and teams, the specific requirements of fiction, non-fiction, genres and formats, and of course, the individual editor’s skills.
But broadly, we can divide the role into ‘acquiring’ a book, ‘editing’ a book and ‘publishing’ a book.
To ‘acquire’ a book simply means to buy the rights to publish it. What this means for you, the writer, is that you have just been offered a book deal. (Hooray!) But what this means for the editor is that they will begin the whole process of project managing your book, all the way through from the legal contract to beyond its publication.
Most editors don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. This means they are only able to read books sent to them through literary agents. Some publishers will have a folder for unsolicited manuscripts (infamously nicknamed the ‘slush pile’) but due to demands on their time and the prioritising of manuscripts from relationships with agencies, they cannot guarantee reading these. This is why an agent is so vital for getting your manuscript into the right editors’ hands. A good agent will have close working relationships across publishing houses, and will know individual editors’ tastes. They might even have teased the editor with news of an upcoming submission they should be excited about…
Let’s play it out. Your agent sends an editor your manuscript, knowing that she’s interested in books like yours. The editor reads it, falls in love with it, and wants to publish it. But she can’t just decide that alone or pluck numbers out of thin air. She will have to go through a gruelling internal process: getting reader reports from other members of staff (both editorial and from across the other teams, like publicity, marketing, and sales); pitching the book in an acquisition meeting; making a case for how it's financially viable for the company; compiling comparison sales figures to estimate a competitive offer, and then making that offer to your agent.
Acquiring great books is how editors build their experience, expertise, relationships, and reputation. An editor knows that when she’s making an offer on your book, she’s committing to champion your book through thick and thin, and to work together closely for a very long time (sometimes for your whole career). It’s a collaborative and all-consuming process and will be made because someone really, really believes in your potential. Editors will often have a strict maximum of books that they are allowed to publish on a list per year and will be thinking about many factors including market forces, their other workloads, and target budgets. She may well be bidding on your book against colleagues and friends, and staking her reputation on the reception of your novel. Offers are not made lightly.
The takeaway? The submission process is a huge moment for the aspiring authors, but it’s an emotional rollercoaster for the editor too.
Hooray! You’ve accepted a book deal, you’ve signed the contract and your book is going to be published.
Your editor clearly thinks you’ve written a brilliant novel – but it could be even better.
This is where the red pen comes in.
At most trade publishers, your Editor will work with you on structural edits and line edits, but they will not be your copy editor or proofreader. But Lily, I hear you cry, what on earth is the difference between these seemingly synonymous terms?
Structural edits = how to improve the big picture of your story. This will be a collaborative process with your editor, discussing any major or foundational changes to be made. They will be different for every book, obviously, but will often be questions of whether they fulfil its promise for readers of the genre. Is the opening the most intriguing it can be? Is the ending satisfying? Are there any missing or extraneous scenes? Are there plot holes to fix? Are we interested in each of the characters? And so on.
Line edits = sentence-by-sentence improvements. Once the structure is all in place, the editor will zoom in. Are there words you use too much? Are there metaphors that don’t quite work? Jokes that don’t land? Your editor will make expert suggestions to polish every page until you’re both happy it’s the best it can be.
Copy-edits = fact-checking and sense checking. Now we’re at the nitty-gritty. And by the way, fact-checking is not just for non-fiction: your copy editor should ensure that real things you’ve referenced are accurate (e.g. if you have said your characters fly from the UK to the US in twenty minutes, they’ll flag that humans haven’t invented commercial flights that fast yet). They will also check for internal consistency (e.g. have you accidentally spelled the name of a magic spell differently). Copy editors will also be formatting your typed manuscript with instructions for the typesetter.
Proofreading = correcting typos. Checking the typeset manuscript against the copy-editor’s markings, to ensure that in the final printed text, there aren’t any ugly line breaks or errors. Proofreaders make sure that all of your is are dotted and ts are crossed, and that there aren’t any accidentally the other way round.
Copy-editing and proofreading are highly specialised and time-consuming processes that are usually performed by freelance experts or separate in-house teams. Any suggestions will then go back to the editor, who will share them with you, the author, to approve.
Now your book is ready to be read!
This is the part of the role which people tend to know the least about, but which actually takes up the majority of the editor’s time.
In trade publishers, editors are essentially project managers. They are the first point of contact for your book, fielding internal and external questions. They must be aware of all the comings and goings, give the relevant information to other teams, facilitate meetings, ensure that deadlines are met, and problem solve if things go awry. Editors must therefore not only be fantastic story-tweakers, but also excellent communicators.
As the expert and head cheerleader for your book, the editor is present at all the major meetings involving your book. They are there not only as a fact source but also a creative collaborator: briefing designers on directions for your book’s cover design; hearing campaign plans from the publicity and marketing teams; liaising with sales teams to ensure that your book is available with retailers; all the way to discussing the production of your book – would it be better blue endpapers or purple, embossing or sparkly foils? Your editor is there to weave all these strands together towards the deadline of your publication day when your book is officially launched into the world. And beyond!
Being an editor at The Novelry
The Novelry’s editorial team is made up of people with years of experience acquiring, editing, and publishing books at ‘Big Five’ Publishers. At The Novelry, our responsibilities focus on the ‘editing’ part – the hands-on creative feedback, where we collaborate with you to help make your manuscript the best version of itself. This is many editors’ favourite part of the job (including mine!) and it’s an honour to be an early reader of your work. The feeling of discovering a shiny new story never gets old.
But we editors also bring our experience of the ‘acquiring’ and ‘publishing’ processes to help you with pitching your book. Agents used to submit novels to us: now we’re helping to submit your novels to agents! And because we’ve been on the other side, we know exactly what editors are looking for.
When you sign up for one of our Book in a Year plans at The Novelry you'll enjoy our combined author and editor expertise to take your twinkling of an idea all the way through to the real deal.
I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have more questions, you might like to come along to our live Q&A with the editorial team (featuring Lizzy Goudsmit Kay, Tash Barsby and me) on Tuesday 31st August at 6 pm. All members are welcome. We look forward to seeing you there! I’ll have to dust off my black polo neck…
If you'd like to find out more about how we can help you with your novel, take a look at our editorial services page here.
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