Book Editor: Job Profile

What They Do and How to Become One

Image by © The Balance 2018 

Book editors do a lot more than just read and edit raw manuscripts. They are a key part of the chain of command in publishing and have a lot of influence over which books get published and which ones don't.

If you love books and love to read, a job as an editor can be a dream come true. However, be advised that much of a book editor’s time is spent sifting through manuscripts that never will see the light of day. You have to be OK with reading a lot of bad writing in order to find the few gems.

Duties and Responsibilities

One of the most important things book editors do is acquire books for publication. Usually, they or editorial assistants read manuscripts submitted by writers (some solicited, most unsolicited) and, based on their knowledge of a genre and its potential market, determine which works are a good fit for their publishing house.

Although an editor’s fate isn’t entirely dependent on how many bestsellers are delivered, the people who get ahead in the book publishing field almost always have some popular books under their belts.

Relationships With Authors

Another important aspect of a book editor’s job is cultivating relationships with authors. Book editors often are looking to discover new talent, publish them as unknowns, and then continue working with them as they build bigger audiences.

For this reason, many authors often have only one editor for an entire career. Writers who have good relationships with their editors often follow the editors if they change publishing houses over the years. Editors who work with high-profile writers often are more valuable to publishers because they usually bring big clients with them.

Editors rarely get attention, but they often play a large role in the successes and career paths of popular authors. Sue Freestone, for example, worked as the book editor for humorist Douglas Adams, notorious for missing deadlines. Freestone had to keep him on task in addition to helping him get the most out of his prose.

Hiram Haydn is another book editor who had a profound impact on a popular writer. He worked as William Goldman's book editor until he died shortly after editing "The Princess Bride," published in 1973. After Haydn's death, Goldman's career shifted mostly toward screenplays and more commercially driven novels, such as "Marathon Man" and "Magic."

Specialization

Book publishing today is very specialized. There are imprints at all major publishing houses that focus on specific genres and subject matter—everything from science fiction to romance to cookbooks to literary fiction to health sciences. Keep this in mind when applying for jobs, highlighting your relevant experience in a given field or a hobby of yours that might make you a stronger candidate. For example, if you're interested in editing cookbooks, a culinary education or background as a chef would make you a more attractive job candidate.

Skills and Education Needed

Most editors have at least a bachelor's degree, usually in English, literature, or journalism. Some have graduate degrees, but it’s not a requirement. More important than the specifics of your education are a passion for reading and an aptitude for editing.

Experience, including internships at publishing houses and work in other media—such as newspaper or magazine editing—also is important for prospective book editors. Moreover, connections in the publishing world, whether to another editor or successful writer, also can help your chances of landing a job as a book editor. To grow your network, you can join professional organizations such as the Editorial Freelancers Association.