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What does a book editor do?

Getting a book from an author’s imagination to the shelves of your local bookshop, supermarket, online retailer or library is a fascinating process.

We’ve already heard from book translator Neil Smith about his translator’s role and how novels are translated. In this feature, we ask editors Gillian Green from Ebury and Alison Hennessey from Harvill Secker to explain exactly what they do, which authors they work with and how book editing actually works. Together they explain and unpick one of most fascinating areas of the book publishing process.

Hi Alison and Gillian. Can you please tell us when you started editing books?

Alison: I started my career working briefly in foreign rights before I took up my first editorial job, a 6 month temporary role with Penguin Books. I ended up staying at Penguin for just over a year and half, working across their classics, reference and history books before I got my first permanent editorial job, as the assistant at Vintage Books. I devoured pretty much everything that Vintage published, discovering in the process how much I loved literary crime and thrillers. After gradually working my way up the ranks at Vintage, I was lucky enough to be offered the role as Harvill Secker’s inaugural Senior Crime Editor in January 2012, where I now commission and edit crime, thrillers and mysteries in the English language and in translation.

Gillian: I’m the Publishing Director for Fiction at Ebury. I started out as a women’s fiction editor and have over the years diversified into more and more genres. I ran the fiction side of the then independent publisher Piatkus for nine years, publishing women’s fiction writers like Trisha Ashley, the late, great Melissa Nathan, Dorothy Koomson and literary writers like Marge Piercy – as well as dabbling in crime! I joined Random House as an editorial director in 2008 with the remit of setting up a commercial fiction list for Ebury – which until then had been almost entirely non-fiction.

Which famous or memorable books have you worked on?

Alison: I have a very lovely list of authors that I work on here, including number one bestseller Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell, creator of Kurt Wallander, as well as exciting up and coming authors like the brilliant Stuart Neville. In 2013 I’m publishing several crime and thriller debuts which I can’t wait to see in the bookshops – I never get tired of seeing a finished copy of a book I first read in manuscript.

Gillian: I publish 30+ titles a year on the Ebury Press list including bestselling crime writers like Jane Casey, Katia Lief and Stephen Gallagher – and our new literary thriller writer P.D. Viner.

Here’s a great challenge for an editor… In one sentence, summarise what a good editor does or doesn’t do?

Gillian: We help make their good books better, but the editorial work we do shouldn’t ever compromise an author’s vision for a book.

So what does a book editor actually do?

Gillian: How I explain my job to elderly relatives is that I buy books, though that does mean that they think I spend most of my days just reading. The role is far more than just commissioning. I compared it recently to midwifery – we help authors deliver their ‘baby’, offering advice and support and suggestions along the way. (And sometimes – to varying degrees of author consternation – we get to name them!)

Editors should also be an author’s champion in house, from that first acquisition meeting where we discuss whether to buy a book through to meetings internally and externally up to publication and beyond.

I commission fiction across a wide range of genres, working with our authors on these books at all stages. I do structural and line editing. I’m responsible for shaping and developing our fiction lists, working closely with our entire fiction team on all aspects of our packaging and publishing campaigns. It’s a very exciting time at Ebury as we’ve been expanding our fiction lists rapidly, growing the number of titles we publish each year as well as diversifying into new areas. This year we also launched our new SF and Fantasy list, Del Rey, expertly acquired by our editorial director, Michael Rowley. We also relaunched the erotic romance and erotica list Black Lace last year, as well as a digital first romance list, Rouge. (What does a book editor do? We keep busy!)

Alison: I’m a commissioning editor so my job is to acquire and publish books for the Harvill Secker list. What this means in practice is that I am sent manuscripts to consider for publication by agents and foreign publishers. With English language books I am sent the entire manuscript, whereas with foreign submissions, I am often sent a synopsis of the book together with a sample translation which can range from a few pages to the first ten chapters. Several of my colleagues read other languages so can sometimes take a look at foreign submissions for me or, if I think it’s interesting, I can also commission a reader to write a report for me, detailing the plot and what they thought of the book.

If I like what I have read and think it has real potential, I will share the submission with my colleagues in sales and marketing, publicity and editorial, explaining why I love it, how I think we would publish the book, why I think the author is a good fit for our list and anything else of interest – I might mention, for example, that I think the author has prize-winning potential or has been extremely well reviewed in their native country if they are a translated author. My colleagues, especially those in sales, will be given books to read by all of the editors here, so it’s my job to make my pitch sound as enticing as possible to make sure they read mine first! If everyone agrees with me that this is someone we should be publishing, then we will put together an offer for the author and the agent and, hopefully, we will be lucky enough to acquire the book.

Once a book has actually been acquired, a whole team set to work on the publication process, with the editor at the centre. Whilst I am editing the book, I will also be briefing my designer on what I think the cover should look like, discussing marketing ideas with our team and publicity opportunities with our publicists, considering issues such as what might this author be able to write about and if they’re not in the UK, can they travel here?

Editing a book takes in three distinct stages – I will do a structural and line edit (see my next answer for a bit more detail about what this involves), then the book is sent to a copy-editor, who will correct any spelling and grammatical issues, mark up instructions for the typesetter i.e. set this part in italics and lastly, perform a basic fact check (was Weds, 11th November 1904 really a Wednesday?).

Once the book is copy-edited, and the author has answered any queries the copy-editor might have raised, it’s sent to be typeset, transforming it from a manuscript into a typescript. The first pages of this typescript are sent to the author to read and also to a proofreader, who will check the pages against the marked up manuscript, and make sure the typesetters have taken in all the markings. Any changes go back to the typesetter to be corrected, and I then check the revised pages until we have a completely clean set. At which point my production manager presses print and the typescript is transformed into a printed book!

What are the biggest myths related to editing a book?

Alison: That books aren’t edited anymore! People often tell me that editors don’t have time to edit any more, but I don’t think that’s true. We do have many other demands on our time – like most editors I tweet, and there are all kinds of systems and processes that may not have existed years before – but anyone who is in this job is passionate about editing and helping an author to get their book into the very best possible shape. One of my favourite books of this year went through five very significant edits before the author and I were both completely happy with it and I could hand it over to the copy-editor.

I think people are often confused about the different types of editing too – many readers think that editing tends to involve correcting spellings and grammar, but the kind of editing I do is a structural and line edit, where I look at how the book as a whole fits together. Does a key revelation come too early or too late in the book? Do we need to know more of a character’s back story before we can truly understand what motivates them? Does the author have certain words or phrases that they may perhaps over use, and are there alternatives that could work better? Does it seem odd that a young character may use fairly old-fashioned language or is that precisely the point?

Gillian: That editors don’t have time to edit any more. (Said to me by more than one agent too.)

For aspiring authors and people who haven’t been through the publishing process, could you tell us how book submissions work?

Gillian: Most of the submissions we receive come via agents or US publishers. We do accept unsolicited manuscripts direct – and we read everything though we always advise that if you can get an agent to represent you, you should.

If I like a book, I take it to an acquisition meeting where all our prospective titles are discussed. I usually try and get my cross-departmental fiction team (which includes sales/publicity/marketing) on side before I do this.

Are you often approached by self published authors or speculative manuscripts from people other than literary agents or translators?

Gillian: All the time – the occupational hazard of revealing to strangers that you’re an editor means you’re frequently pitched books by all manner of folk. (I sometimes think every cab driver in London is writing a novel!)

By the way my standard response to the old cliché about ‘Everyone having a book in them’ is usually – depending on how grumpy I’m feeling: a) It’s not always a good one – or b) Sometimes it ought to stay there

Does editing crime and thriller novels present any unique challenges? Do you have to have a particularly strong stomach?

Gillian: I have a strongish stomach (though I can’t watch Embarrassing Bodies without closing my eyes at key moments). I also run our Black Lace erotic fiction list so I think I’m fairly unshockable.

I do get to have fascinating conversations with crime authors about how one can get away with murder!

Any advice for aspiring editors about how to get into book publishing?

Alison: Although I didn’t do any work experience myself, many of my colleagues found their first jobs through this. I would recommend registering with all of the publishing recruitment agencies and keeping a very close eye on publishers’ websites for any entry level jobs. Go to any publishing events in your area and, if you’re on Twitter, follow publishing people to see what they talk about; everyone in publishing loves their jobs, and many will tweet tips or advice for aspiring writers and editors, as well as job openings.

Brush up on your office skills – any entry level job is bound to be incredibly busy, so you need to be ready to hit the ground running – and read as widely as you can. Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice I can give anyone is to be open to all areas. When I was at university, I had a vague idea that I wanted to work as an editor of children’s books, but I’ve ended up working on adult crime because once I started in publishing, I discovered that this was an area that really interested me.

Gillian: If you can afford to do a publishing course or undertake an internship then do. However, if that isn’t an option don’t just limit your applications to editorial assistant roles but look for other junior roles that will allow you to get that all important foot in the door.

And finally, some advice for aspiring or unpublished writers… How can they get their manuscript off an agent’s ‘slush pile’ and into your hands?

Gillian: Don’t write to the ‘next big thing’ trend – tell the story you’re dying to tell, not just what you think will sell.

Great tips, Alison and Gillian – thanks so much for your time and extremely helpful answers!

Further reading: Book translation: an insider’s perspective.


    wonderful write up. thank you. i find it very helpful as i want to pursue my career in editing. keep up the good work. thanks again.

    Just wish to say your article is as astounding. The clearness in
    your post is just great and i could assume you’re an expert
    on this subject. Well with your permission let me to grab your RSS feed to
    keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the gratifying work.

    Thank you. This was a very interesting article. I have written a couple of children’s books but don’t know how to get them published or even if they are good enough – so an insight into children’s publishing would be very helpful. I love a good crime thriller and get through at least two books a week – by reading when I go bed. Others get enjoyment out of the books I have read as I always take them to the charity shop.

    Than you, I enjoyed this and found it both interesting and useful. I have never published fiction, only academic books and the very different approach is telling.

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