question people

Ask an Editor: What Exactly Does an Editor Do?

What is an editor’s job?

Umm. Can you be more specific?

Seriously, what is an editor’s job? Besides developmental editing and revision and line-editing, how involved are you with researching, copyediting, fact-checking, proofreading, and marketing my books? And making sure the copy for online listings is correct? And making sure I’m a keynote speaker at conferences? You know, THAT job!

First I must say that every imprint is different and, for sure, every editor works differently. Editors have widely varying workloads from season to season. Many of us have workloads that regularly spill over into non-working hours, just so we can stay on top of our books’ schedules.

And I also must say that the opinions that follow are my own, and do not reflect any policies or mandates of the company I work for, nor are my comments intended to apply to the practices of my colleagues. Again, every editor works differently.

Following are what I consider to be essential to my work on each and every book I acquire and edit. Note that these apply to books I believe in strongly enough to acquire:

• I’m the book’s first advocate in-house. It’s my job to position the book for acquisition, which means I have to convince the Publisher to approve putting a project in the acquisition pipeline. I need to tell her why it works for our list, how many copies I believe we might sell and why, what the competition is, and anything about the author or subject matter that might be used to help market the book.


• I compile a boat-load of paperwork to share with our acquisition committee – the Publisher, President of the division, the CFO, the directors of sales, marketing, and publicity and their associates, and key sales reps.


• I negotiate the deal with the agent and/or author.


• Once the book is acquired, I compile and route the paperwork that details all the info for the contract. This paperwork is then signed off on by key members of the division’s team before it even gets to our Contracts department.


• Lots of other stuff happens at this point – scheduling, estimating the book specs, etc. – but it’s too much detail to go into here!


• Next comes the actual editing. My first line-edit may be the only one the book will need, or it may be one of several the book will need. This is hugely time-consuming for both editor and author. I’m looking at voice, plot, character. I’m not fact-checking, or researching a time period, etc. That is the author’s job, unless the book is a nonfiction project with the scope and budget that warrant our hiring a fact-checker.


• Editors get the final manuscript ready for copyediting, which means giving any special instructions about style, dialect, or any other facet of the book that we don’t want a copyeditor to “correct.” Copyeditors check spelling and grammar, but also continuity, flow, and so many other issues. And proofreaders check for typos as the book is going through production. The primary editor does not – we simply don’t have the time to re-read on those levels, after spending so much time developing and line-editing. Authors often proofread their work, too. I leave this up to each author.


• And then – the editor is a book’s advocate as marketing and publicity plans are developed. Every book gets different marketing, and a lot of decisions by a lot of different members of the publishing team determine this outcome. It isn’t your editor’s “fault” if a marketing plan isn’t what you expect it to be. Just saying.


• Editors write ARC copy, catalog copy, jacket copy, copy for in-house documents and databases, and more.

I’m getting overwhelmed thinking about everything else I do (and thinking about my deadlines and workload)! So now, onto what I don’t do:

• It isn’t my job to reject your manuscript with a long letter detailing why it isn’t working and how to fix it. I can’t spend that much time saying no. I’ve been told this is harsh (by agents and authors whose projects I’m rejecting) but I’m too busy working on the books already in the pipeline – books I believe in!


• Editors are not writing instructors or creativity therapists. They’re not ghostwriters (most of the time). If I tell you or your agent that a book needs “too much work” for me to take on, then it does.


• Editors listen to your ideas for cover art and design and we share your vision with our design, sales, and marketing groups, but the cover will be what will best sell your book, according to your publishing team.


• Editors cannot make reviewers “change” their reviews. As they say in preschool, you get what you get and you don’t get upset. Editors can, however, honor your request to not send you negative reviews. Your well-meaning friends and competitors, not so much.

This is a very trimmed down version of what an editor does, but as you can see there are a lot of different elements to editing, and different phases of editing with different people weighing in at each point. Each book is different, and as I said each editor is different and has a different approach to working with authors to help them make it the best book it can be.

This is why it is so important to find the right editor for you to make sure you work well together. It is a lot of work, and the author and editor need to be a team. Together their goal is the same: to deliver a great story.

Author spotlight

Liz S.

Hi, I'm the Editor-in-Chief at Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. I've worked in the book biz for over 30 years (let's just …

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