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Ever been curious about how to become a book editor? This is a question that I’ve gotten a number of times as I’ve gone through the process of editing three young adult anthologies. And while my own experience in how to become a book editor is one thing, it’s only my experience. There are so many different avenues of editing books that, in order to best answer the question, I turned to a handful of experts.
Editing books can come through a variety of means. There are opportunities to edit books on the side of developing an anthology (i.e. you work with a publisher or independently but aren’t an employee of the company for whom you’re editing); you can be a freelance book editor (i.e. you help other people edit books independent of or as a preferred partner of a publisher or other industry professional); and you can also be an editor who works as an employee of a publishing company.
Even within editing books itself, there are a number of avenues. There are content editors, copy editors, proofreaders, managing editors, and more. But because the question of how to become a book editor often comes from those who really want to know the nuts and bolts of how to edit books—as in putting eyes and pens to the product itself and offering guidance for how to make the book the best it can be content and storywise—this particular guide will focus on that.
The ins and outs of how to become a book editor is worthy of a book in and of itself, so take this as more of a field notes approach. It won’t answer every question and certainly will be limited. But it will help kickstart the interest in those just trying to figure out what they want to do in their lives, as well as those looking for a new or additional career path.
How To Become A Book Editor
The Editing Process
The structure of how books are edited changes with each person and each book. My own experience looks something like this: I develop a project proposal, which my agent and I polish. That proposal goes to my editor, who will either purchase the project, request a revision and resubmission, or decide it’s not something she’s interested in. In the case of the book being accepted, the editing process continues with soliciting contributors and working back-and-forth with them to shine up their writing to the best of our abilities.
For some contributors, this could mean a significant amount of back-and-forth consultation on organization, structure, or cohesiveness. My personal editing style is to look at pieces as a reader first and foremost. I know my intended audience for a book, as well as the goals I have for it, and I use those as tools for asking the contributor questions in places where I’m either confused, think they could dig deeper, or feel that they’re not getting their point across in the way they hope to. I’m quite hands-off, as I think approaching editing from the point of view of a reader and asking questions allows writers to shine more strongly in their early drafts. It also allows their own writing voices to really stand out, and it doesn’t encourage writers to fit into a certain mold or to worry about fitting my personal ideal for how they share their story.
For other contributors, editing might require nothing and the piece is in such strong shape that it’s ready to move on to my own editor.
Once my editing is complete, my books move on to my editor. Her reading is similar to mine in terms of ensuring that the book’s overall tone—as well as the individual pieces within it—fit with the goals as proposed. The most frequent edits I’ve seen include ensuring that threads in pieces come together at the end in as clear a way as possible, that the book really speaks to teens as opposed to being YA that speaks more to adults, and some more fine-tuned edits relating to language (which have, of course, become ingrained in my own brain and are things I look for now as well). Once those edits are back in my hands, my contributors go through another round of editing; my editor will make any additional suggestions; and then we’ll move the book forward.
At this point, my publisher hires a copy editor to look at the grammar, sentence-level structures, and other nitty-gritty parts of the book. Copy editors are vital in the process, and they’re exactly why when I have a contributor say they’re “bad at grammar and commas and stuff like that,” I always assure them there is someone specially trained to do that work. Copy edits come back to me, wherein I decide which edits to keep and which to dismiss, and often I consult with writers on those.
The managing editor (sometimes called the production editor), who I don’t tend to talk to until after copy edits, oversees the entire process of the book from start to finish and ensures deadlines are being met to keep the book on its intended schedule. In my own experience, they’re the person who’ll be communicating about page proofs for final reads—usually the last time that an editor will look at the book before it’s sent to print.
Each of the editors in the process of my own anthologies has a different specialty, different strengths, and different goals. In considering a career in editing, it can be worthwhile to know where yours are or what it is that intrigues you most about the process. Those who are more organized, thrive under multiple deadlines, and who are itching to oversee the bigger picture of things might thrive as a production editor, while those who just love catching grammatical challenges or fact-checking might find copy editing or proofreading an ideal fit.
Breaking Into the Field
I became a book editor because I love curating work that speaks to a specific theme and I have a gift for seeing the way a small piece of a puzzle can lead to something bigger. After working in libraries with teenagers, I could see where there were holes for great nonfiction that adults already have, and I suspected I could take the opportunity to fill in some of those gaps. I’d studied anthology creation in-depth in college, and that, along with my interest in work for teens, came together quite seamlessly.
My background in librarianship, along with my education and skills as a journalist and writer myself, were the foundation in how to become a book editor. But, as noted above, my experience is but one. Editing books is not my full-time job, but something I do in addition to my full-time job as an editor here at Book Riot. I reached out to several book editors to dig into how they came to editing books.
Jason Black, freelance editor for and owner of Plot to Punchline, said he gained his skills and knowledge through practice after earning a bachelor’s degree in technical writing and writing several books himself.
“I did pro-bono edits and critiques, and after enough people told me that my feedback would be worth paying for, I started charging for it. Improvement: Again, practice. *Every* book I work on has something new to teach me about the craft of writing. After 10 years of this, I’ve become very good at identifying issues, explaining the dynamics of the issues, and teaching clients how to spot and fix them,” said Black.
Mari Kesselring, Managing Editor of North Star Editions, said, “I started out an avid reader and fiction writer, which sparked my interest in publishing. In college, I worked on a literary journal and founded a club for creative writers. I had one writing internship and one editorial internship during college. Though I enjoyed both, I felt more drawn to editing as career and writing as a hobby.”
“In terms of the actual editing part of being an editor, it really comes from a lifetime of reading widely—learning how to both read quickly, and to also read carefully. I still take so much from my time as a bookseller, mainly in terms of knowing my way around the children’s section of the bookstore, and also in terms of seeing what types of books sold or were being requested. The rest I really learned on the job—publishing, especially editorial, is still considered an apprenticeship,” added Alvina Ling, VP/Editor-in-Chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Ling earned her bachelors in Mass Communication from University of California at Berkeley, noting that her career began because, “I was a life-long bookworm,” which led to becoming a “full-time bookseller at B&N for over a year, [an] editorial internship at Charlesbridge Publishing, [and an] internship at the Horn Book Guide.”
Educational requirements for a job in editing aren’t limited to communication, literature, or English, and while some editors do have masters degrees, it’s not a requirement. There are numerous publishing programs that confer certificates for those wanting a deep dive into the industry. Those who wish to edit technical books or educational books would do well studying in the fields that their background would be a boon to their editing jobs—in other words, math textbook editors who study math are going to be at an advantage in their job, just as those with a strong technology background would do well in editing highly technical books.
A Day In The Life of a Book Editor
Knowing what a typical day for an editor looks like can be useful for getting a sense of how to become a book editor. It also gives a great idea of how typical “typical” is, as well as how much work can be done in a given time frame—especially worthwhile in deciding whether or not it’s a full-time career path or a part-time opportunity.
“My role is mainly acquisitions, so a typical day could include reviewing solicited and unsolicited submissions, crafting feedback/revision notes, seeking out creators to solicit (by reading literary journals, blogs or social media, among other things), meeting with potential creators to talk about their ideas and what we’re looking for at Annick, meeting with colleagues to discuss projects in development, and assorted tasks for books already in the pipeline, such as writing back cover copy or consulting on illustrations with our art director,” said Claire Caldwell, Associate Editor at Annick Press.
A copy editor for a major comic book publisher said, “I mostly read superhero comics for spelling and grammar errors; sometimes I read marketing materials, collectibles packaging, blog posts, theme park signs, encyclopedia entries…but my entire day is spent reading for spelling/grammar.”
They noted their career began as a proofreader, moved to production editing, then to editorial editing before moving back to proofreading.
A freelance editor and company owner said their typical day involves being, “[a]t my desk before 8; work until 3 or 4. I eat breakfast and lunch at my desk ’cause I like to. And I spend that time on the editing business: editing, taking care of admin stuff; etc.”
Freelance editor Black noted a typical day includes, “Get up. Get kids off to school. Go to unrelated software industry day job. Dinner, read to kids, edit until bedtime.”
“A mix of project management, team leading, managing writers and translators (~3 hrs/day); meetings (for example with other editors, educators, designers, production, owners, stakeholders) (~1 hr/day); editorial work (substantive, line, copy editing, proofreading, photo research, permissions, writing, checking proofs, etc.) (~3 hrs/day),” said an editor for an educational book company.
Ling added, “There are no typical days! Different meetings on different days (probably 80–90 percent of each day), and then trying to do what email I can do in between, as well as reviewing materials that are routing (picture book mechanicals, jacket mechanicals, various kinds of copy (jacket copy, catalog copy, title fact sheets, etc.), and so on. On Fridays I work from home and either catch up on email, or try to get a head start on editing for the weekend (I generally do my editing on the weekends).”
The Challenges of Book Editing
Although becoming a book editor can sound glamorous, as seen from the typical day-in-the-life descriptions, it comes with its own challenges and aspects that are far less exciting.
The typical book editor job is not high paying and the salary range can be wide. Payscale cites $51,349 as the average U.S. salary for a book editor, which takes into account those who earn higher salaries based on their geographic location, years of experience, or job title, as well as those just starting out in the field. As the bulk of book editor jobs are located in the hub of American publishing—New York City—the median pay for a job as a book editor is meager.
Editing books is also a job that’s hard to come by. The number of jobs outpaces the number of those interested in breaking into publishing, though that leaves opportunities for those seeking freelance work or who are interested in building their own freelance book editing businesses.
There are other challenges as well.
“Amazon and self-publishing were a huge disruption to the field and we haven’t really recovered or found our feet in the new landscape yet. Publishers are struggling to compete and can’t pay more than pennies, but on the other hand many indie authors don’t want to (or can’t) invest in professional editing. Editors are caught in the middle, with both sides expecting us to do a full edit (which can take 50–60 hours) for a couple hundred dollars. For a highly specialized, educated field it’s discouraging,” said one freelance developmental and copy editor.
One educational editor noted, “[I]n previous jobs, [management] was dead set against change of any sort, including bringing in diverse authors, and positions being downsized with more and more admin work heaped on fewer and fewer shoulders.”
“The pay is absolutely unsustainable for a coastal and urban industry. Ditto expectations about working outside work hours. Publishing desperately needs labor unions,” said one copy editor.
Those, of course, all tie into what Ling notes as one of the biggest struggles as a book editor: “Workload and burnout have been the perennial challenge in the almost twenty years I’ve been in the industry.”
Advice for Becoming A Book Editor
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Book editors do their jobs because they love their jobs. They’re realistic and honest about the tougher parts of the career, but they’re also encouraging and enthusiastic about what the field will look like as the future unfolds.
“There are many ways to build your editing skills outside of publishing-specific academic programs. We all know jobs can be scarce, so if you can’t land that dream role right away, consider other avenues for honing your skills, like tutoring or freelance editing through online platforms. Also, read a lot! Read all the time! And really think about what you’re reading,” said Caldwell.
A self-published author and freelance editor said, “Read. Read some more. Read obscure old books that no one reads any more to see how they could be relevant and rewritten today. Learn another language and harness the power of translating words into words. Grow a thick skin with a compassionate communication style.”
Ling echoes the sentiments, “Read as much as you can, and read all categories and genres. Be familiar with the market. Reread. Read carefully. See what you notice the second or third time reading something that you may not have noticed the first time through.”
Same with Kesserling, “Read widely in your area of interest. You want to edit picture books? Read every picture book you can get your hands on.
Do internships! Pretty much everyone I know in publishing got their first job after an internship. Put yourself out there. If there’s something you’re interested in working on during an internship, offer to help. I started working in fiction because I volunteered to help a senior editor with a fiction project that she was struggling with.”
“I believe that editing is a skill you develop by doing it. That’s one reason why internships are so important—they are a training ground. You could memorize CMS, but it wouldn’t necessarily make you a better editor. You become an editor by editing (and looking up the “rules” in CMS if you have a question). Being a good editor is also about being a solid communicator. You need to understand an author’s goal and vision for a book before you can give feedback. You also have to be clear enough that the author understands what’s expected in an edit round, and keep the communication open to deal with any conflicts or challenges that arrive during the editing process and beyond,” she added.
Depending, too, on what path you choose, the reading you do might not always be the best reading in the world. As Black said of working as a freelance editor, “Recognize that you are signing up for many long hours of wading through a lot of very bad writing. That’s the gig. You’re there to help people who need help. Writers with mad skills don’t need you. If you’re going into editing because ‘it would be fun to read all these good books before they’re published,’ well, you’re in for a rude awakening.”
As one freelance editor said, “Find your niche: Will you do academic editing, corporate editing, legal or medical editing? Will you work in journalism? If you want to do books, will they be fiction or nonfiction, poetry, cookbooks, children’s, something else? Every field has its own style guide and conventions you need to be familiar with, you can’t be a jack-of-all-trades.”