An Editor Edits, and Other (Semi) Myths

When I applied to my first editorial position at a Big 5 publishing house, I was very green. I had experience writing, I was in graduate school working toward my writing MFA, and I was a dedicated, studious reader; my editorial experience was largely intuitive. To this day, I consider it an enormous blessing that the woman who hired me did so both because of my edit test, and the fact that we were kindred book spirits.

When I arrived for my first day of work, I had no idea what to expect. No clue what my workday would look like, or what my daily routine would consist of. All I really knew was that editors edited; I had a vague fantasy that I would spend most days reading with a latte in one hand and a red pen in the other—my hair done up in a haphazard bun, set in place by a pencil. Because that’s what editors looked like, right?


Not quite.

One of the most common questions authors ask about my experience as an in-house editor: what did I actually do? It’s a good question. Below is a brief overview of a house editor’s responsibilities:

  1. She acquires books. An editor is your in-house advocate from the very beginning. When an editor reads a book she likes, that’s just the first step. Many things factor into whether or not she can make you an offer. During my career at S&S, there were many manuscripts I loved and wanted to acquire but could not—for various reasons. Here are just a few factors an editor must take into consideration before proposing acquisition:
  • Does it fit into the imprint’s identity? (Is it commercial enough? Literary enough?)
  • Will it sell? Does it make fiscal sense for the publisher? How are comparable titles/genres/subject matters performing in the marketplace?
  • Is it unique, or is it too similar to another title on our list? (We don’t want our titles competing with one another for sales.)
  • Will the other editors like the manuscript, too? How about the marketing team and sales reps?


  1. She introduces your book to everyone else in-house. Once an editor gets the go-ahead from the rest of the editors in her imprint, she must bring the book to an acquisitions meeting. There, she presents her case for wanting to acquire your book—to a team of marketing and publicity people, sales reps, designers, and publishers. Presenting a book at an acquisitions meeting is a bit like a lawyer delivering opening arguments in court. The editor presents her case for wanting to buy the book, and answers any questions anyone at the meeting might have about her vision for it (content, sales projections, marketing ideas, etc.).


  1. She prepares financial documents. This one was kind of a shocker to me when I started at S&S. Math?! But, but—I’m an editor! Both before and after a book is approved at an acquisitions meeting, the editor must work up a P&L (profit and loss statement) which projects sales figures based on comparable titles (and, for authors who have previously published, sales track). This document needs to be signed off on by the house financial team and publishers—and becomes the basis upon which the editor is allowed to make your agent the official offer to buy your book.


  1. She negotiates contracts. From there, the editor will negotiate the terms of your contract (with your agent). It’s important to note here that these terms have very little to do with editor input—typically, editors are working off of boilerplate terms and any divergence from these terms must be signed off on in advance. The editor’s job here is to ensure she’s offering you a deal that will both appeal to you and to the publishing house. Once the terms have been agreed upon, the editor generates contract paperwork for the legal department.


  1. She edits your manuscript. Once you’ve signed your contract and the deal has been struck, your editor will finally get to EDIT your manuscript! For both you and your editor, this is the part of the process makes the waiting, paperwork, and red tape worth it. Typically, editors must edit on their own time because they are too busy with meetings, paperwork, and other house obligations while they’re in the office. Out of the thirty plus novels I acquired at S&S, I can count on one hand the times I was actually able to edit at my desk. Most often, editors do their editing during weekends and in the evenings, once they are home from work.


  1. And so much more. Editors write the jacket copy, cover copy, and catalogue copy for your novel. They come up with cover concepts for designers. They present your novel at librarian previews, sales, and launch meetings before the book comes out—pointing out selling points, marketing ideas, and discussing content.


I hope this helps to explain a little more about what a publishing house editor does. As a freelancer, I must admit that while I miss aspects of working in-house (the camaraderie with fellow editors, being able to help authors get their work out into the world), I love being able to focus so acutely on editing itself.

Being a house editor is hard work– these folks certainly earn their place in your acknowledgements.