Monday, May 26, 2008

So you want to be an editor...?

Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to know who to ask.

For example,

Hi Neil.

How does one become a book editor? (I figure I'll ask you because
although you're not one, I'd be willing to bet you know quite a few.)
Having done some soul searching (brought on by a recent new job in
corporate America), I find that of all things in the world, my
favorite is reading, and if I can do that for a living instead of data
entry, that would be excellent.

How does a person get into the world of editing, if they don't really
know anyone in it to start with? I don't have a ton of editing
experience except for the semester I spent as an adjunct professor,
which isn't really the same thing at all, but it's the closest I've

Any suggestions on what to do/who to contact/anything else you might
believe to be useful?



I really didn't know. I've edited a few anthologies but I have never been an editor, so I asked editor and Boing Boing moderator Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who has answered editorial questions here in the past. And she was busy (probably moderating something) so she passed it on to her husband Patrick, who is Senior Editor and Manager of Science Fiction at TOR books (according to Wikipedia). And he said,

There are no credentialing bodies for book editors. Some houses require university degrees for editorial positions; some don't. (I'm a high-school dropout.) Interning with established publishers can get you noticed if you're brilliant. So can some kinds of editorial freelancing--first reading and copywriting, or even copyediting and proofreading, if the house is the kind where production and editorial talk to one another. There are a few college-level programs that specifically train for book-publishing jobs, although I've never noticed that their graduates are more successful in the business than anyone else. Fundamentally, a book editor at a publishing company is nothing more than a person the publisher trusts enough to rely on, and publishers, as a class, are notorious for making decisions for all kinds of reasons, some scrutable and some in-.

One thing most editors in New York publishing have in common, though, is that they live in or near New York, and the same tends to be true of people who get hired as beginning editors. Another thing they tend to have in common is that they were already hanging around with publishing people: authors, agents, other editors. Publishers aren't looking to hold a national competition for the most promising "born editors," they're looking for people who can do what they need right now: acquire good books and shepherd them to publication. Successful editors tend to be people who get this.

That said, although to be an editor you'd better enjoy reading, you'll find as an editor that there's never enough time to do all the reading you need to do. You'd better also enjoy writing copy, public advocacy, coordinating between multiple departments, and never quite knowing what the day's challenges are going to be. It's a lot more like running a small business than it is like reading all day.

For which my thanks. More Nielsen Hayden wisdom can be found at and, soon at

[edit to add: Sharyn November sent me -- a page of excellent advice from an award-winning editor.]

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