Well . . . not exactly. If ever you find the magical job that involves just spending whole days sitting around reading books, please let me know. I doubt it exists — but I find people do make that assumption about editors surprisingly often. (It’s either that or nervous jokes about needing to watch their grammar.)
So without further ado, here’s a bit of myth-busting about what an editor’s job actually looks like.
Reading books is a big part of my job, of course. But reading books as an editor is very different from reading them for fun. Every book I work on I’ll read ten, twenty, thirty times between the first day the manuscript comes in and the day the final copy lands on my desk.
And I can’t read them just to get lost in the story. Every project is different, and every book demands different sorts of read-throughs — to evaluate plot or character, to weed out digressions, to check historical accuracy, to strengthen transitions, to smooth and clarify language, and to make sure every last comma is neatly in place.
The end goal of all of that reading is to help craft the best book possible by standing in for the reader, making sure that the story the author (and sometimes the illustrator) wants to share is as clear and seamless as it can be, and making sure there is nothing to distract the reader away from that story.
Those hours when I’m in my office reading and editing can be glorious and frustrating and satisfying all at once. The reality, though, is that for every hour I spend reading and editing, I spend at least as much time doing myriad other things — sorting out and managing all the many details that go into creating a book. And given how long the process of publishing a book is (for picture books it usually takes years to go from manuscript to warehouse), I’m always juggling dozens of books, in various stages, that will be published sometime in the next five years or so.
There are contracts to negotiate and new projects to discuss with agents and marketing copy to craft and catalogs to proof and translators to hire and comments to send to authors and research to be done to ensure that books are accurate. There are covers to be decided on and illustration sketches to be reviewed to make certain that the text will fit with the vision an artist brings to a picture book.
Then there are meetings to attend with sales and marketing and acquisitions. And there are emails, of course — emails as endless as they are in every corner of the modern work world. But maybe, just maybe, when I get through all of that, I’ll have time to read through a few submissions.
Occasionally, too, the outside world calls, and I’ll be away from my desk at a conference or other event. Earlier this year I was invited to speak on a panel at the Fay Kaigler Book Festival with Chris Barton and Don Tate (you can check out a bit of the talk I gave here). And those of you bound for ALA at the end of this month will be able to find me at our booth in the exhibit hall — talking about the books I’ve worked on, hearing from the people who use them, and doing my best impression of an extrovert.
So if you come to my office, you might find me reading — though there’s a good chance you might not. The life of an editor is a busy one, and definitely varied. But those times when I do get to really dig deeply into a book and feel at the end that I’ve really helped an author achieve what they wanted — those make all the other times worthwhile.
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.