Why an Editor’s Job is Hard

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

What’s it really like to work as an editor at a publishing house? As is true for every job that’s complex and layered, until you experience it, you can’t really know.

But one aspect of being an editor that those looking at the position from the outside don’t tend to “get” is that an editor has considerable pressure to acquire only projects that make a profit. The higher the profit, the more secure the editor’s job–for that is what is at stake, the job.

Of course it’s silly to place the responsibility Overworked womanfor the success or failure of a project solely on an editor. So many hands are set to the task to produce a book, its accompanying marketing and publicity plans, and its buy-in with retailers of all sorts, that no one person makes or breaks the book. Not to mention that publishing is an exceedingly subjective business and–barring the assurance of publishing an author whose status is so established that one would have to work to create a dud–forecasting which book will turn a profit resembles dropping coins in slot machines.

Yet an acquisitions editor is tasked with finding the right manuscripts. Therefore, the decisions the editor makes regarding what the publishing committee sees determine, in many ways, the fate of the publishing house.

The questions an editor must weigh before taking a project to the committee are:

  • Does this match the “personality” of the publishing house? One of the odd things about publishing is that two houses can take the same manuscript, and it can succeed beautifully for one house and fail miserably for the other. It’s not that one publisher is more competent than the other, but rather each publisher can generally succeed with a book that has a certain “feel,” but the other publisher just can’t pull a profit with that kind of book. An editor needs to innately grasp what sort of book will work for this house. (I’m not, by the way, talking about genre or category when I say it takes a certain kind of book. This is a more ephemeral quality that goes beyond the neat boundaries of categories.)
  • What subjects work well for this publishing house? What writing styles? And what approaches to a topic? One publisher does well with more in-depth looks at a subject while another publisher creates lighter fare. One publisher just can’t get memoirs to work while another creates best-seller after best-seller. A publisher that doesn’t stay true to its identity in what it acquires has lost its focus. While that sounds easy to identify, an editor has to have good instincts to get it right.
  • Is the writing and structure of the book strong? If an editor can’t judge these core issues, he or she will acquire projects that either will end up as lesser offerings or require so much time to get them in shape that they are deemed wrong choices.
  • Does the book’s content provide readers some benefit, be that insight into life or just a good laugh? If the manuscript circles all around a subject, even if it’s charmingly written, but never lands on a reason to exist…well, the editor shouldn’t be wooed by writing alone.
  • Does the project appeal to an audience the publisher knows how to reach? The editor must select material that the marketing and sales staff can successfully deliver to the audience that wants it. It does no good to decide to publish a book that targets a homeschooling audience if the publisher has no idea where to find those book buyers or how to convince them to buy your book.
  • What marketing strategies and sensibilities does the author bring? In today’s publishing climate, it’s a rare manuscript that a publisher will even seriously look at if the author can’t show his or her ability to connect directly with a significant number of potential readers. Editors know a simple truth: If the answer to this question–out of all those the editor asks–isn’t impressive, the project won’t move forward.
  • Do I like this project? Do I have a vision for what it can be? This is the most elemental question for an editor, the reason the person took up the profession to begin with: For the love of a good book. And a good editor can recognize a good book when he or she sees it.

So there you have it. A quick survey of why an editor’s job is hard.

Which of the questions had you never considered before? What question do you wish an editor would ask that isn’t on the list?

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