Burning Questions about Book Publishing: What does an editor do all day?

by Ruta Rimas

Book editors. Writers imagine them as elusive, mysterious creatures who hold in their hands the power to make writers’ dreams of publication come true (and also crush those dreams into oblivion).

Editor? Or Sasquatch? Both are equally mysterious.

Is it true?

As an editor myself, I’d like to dispel some of those myths and misconceptions about the daily work of a book editor right away.

  • Editors read all day at work.

Sadly, this is a big, terrible lie. Editors read on the train, after work, on the weekends, sometimes in bed before falling asleep. Very little reading happens at the office.

  • Editors love to reject manuscripts.

Passing on a project is actually the hardest part of the job. It doesn’t feel good to tell someone who bravely poured their heart onto the page that you aren’t interested in pursuing their work—even with a buffer (the writer’s agent) in place.

  • Editors hole-up in their offices, talking to nary a soul, while scribbling giant red x’s across manuscripts, laughing maniacally as they tear apart the books they’ve acquired.

Mostly untrue. But I can’t say I don’t find joy in slicing and dicing…

So what is it that a book editor does if they aren’t reading and/or destroying the hopes and dreams of writers all day?

It helps to think of an editor as a project manager. An editor is the point-person and in-house voice for the books on their list, whether those books are freshly acquired or a few years old. Publishing houses work years in advance, so right now, I’m working on projects that go on sale in the summer and fall of 2020, for example. At any given moment, I have my hands on 15-25 books, in varying stages of publication development.

Accurate depiction of the paper stack in my office.

That is, I may be hobbling together editorial notes for a novel that is 18 months out from publication or I may be reviewing copyedits for a novel that publishes in a year or rewriting back cover copy for a repackaged (meaning, new cover design) paperback edition or offering feedback to an artist on interior sketches of a picture book. All in the same day!

Throughout the book’s life in the publishing house, an editor presents it at various sales, marketing, design, and editorial meetings and is the primary liaison between departments throughout each stage of project development, as well as with agents, illustrators, and authors, and other industry professionals.

Contrary to popular belief, many book editors are not quiet, reserved, bookish recluses. They are highly social, sales-oriented people who are great at public speaking. They have to be, as they are required to talk about their projects in public on a frequent basis.

A typical day as an editor doesn’t exist, but there is one thing an editor can always count on: meetings (sales meetings, production meetings, cover design meetings, agent meetings, author meetings, marketing and publicity meetings). In between meetings, editors are generally putting out fires that are lit after a book has been developmentally edited and is already in its latter stages. Some of those fires include issues/questions about:

  • Marketing/publicity (some books have bigger budgets than others and part of an editor’s job is explaining those decisions to agents and authors and also brainstorming how to enact a grassroots effort).
  • Incorrect metadata feeding to online retailers (most publishers function with automated digital sweeps of metadata like book covers, descriptive copy, author names and bios, etc., and sometimes old data gets picked up).
  • Coordinating materials like advanced readers copies (ARCs) for delivery to conferences and festivals and figuring out a plan if those materials won’t be ready on time.
  • Talking through cover design/editorial notes/digital ideas with authors.
  • And more.

New and unusual questions, scenarios, situations, problems pop up ALL the time. It’s never a dull moment in editorial.