FAQ #2: How do I become a book editor?

A lot of people on the podcast tour expressed an interest in publishing as a career, so I thought I'd make this the next of my extremely-infrequent FAQs. I decided I wanted to be an editor in high school, and this is more or less the program I followed—by accident far more than design, I assure you. But it served me well, so I hope it’s useful to any aspiring editors out there too.

In high school
Read. Passionately and widely: the newspaper, Jane Austen, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Crusie, Stephen King, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Heinlein, T. S. Eliot, Sophie Kinsella, Geoffrey Chaucer, Lewis Lapham, The New Yorker, A. A. Milne, Alan Moore, Larry McMurtry, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mark Twain; fiction and nonfiction, children’s books and adult books, across all genres and at every literary level. If you’re not sure where to begin, ask a reading adult you respect for advice. Then try a little bit of everything and read more of what you love. The point here is developing your taste: finding your literary passions, and getting familiar with everything else.

It is also important to note here that you will probably not be ready for some of the literature you’ll encounter—if you try Philip Roth, say, or A. S. Byatt, or Patrick O’Brian, you may not understand it or appreciate it quite yet, and that’s okay. I took A. S. Byatt’s Possession out of the library when I was in high school because I liked the cover and the sound of the story and I wanted to impress the adults around me; the book itself, however, bored me stiff, and I quit after probably twenty pages. But I picked it up again in college, when I was studying literature and could finally get all the literary references, and it’s now one of my favorite books in life. So if something doesn’t work for you, don’t dismiss it totally; put it away, try it again in a few years when you’re a different person, and see how you feel about it then.

Think about what you read. If you loved a book, what did you love about it? If you didn’t like it, what didn’t you like about it? This will help you both to refine your taste and to develop the practice of thinking critically about literature.

Begin studying argumentative structure and language—or in other words, writing. All writing is persuasion, even fiction writing: You’re persuading the reader to be drawn into your world, to love your characters, to feel the emotion you’re feeling. The five-paragraph essay structure you learn in Language Arts class may seem stupid and suffocating beyond endurance, but it teaches you to practice the most essential principle of good writing, which is show, don’t tell. You lay forth your thesis (“Jane was a beautiful cat.”), and you prove it by showing the reader the evidence (“Her thick coat was a rich, pearly white, her eyes the glassy green of spring leaves, and each foot was tipped in deep black, like a period on her elegant sentence.”). Do this over and over again, and you can write a paper, or a short story, or a whole book.

Of course, you also need to move forward beyond description, and that five-paragraph essay also teaches you to structure and advance an argument the same way you do a plot: This piece of information or section of the argument leads to this piece of information or section of the argument leads to this piece of information or section of the argument, and you couldn’t have that information in any other order (or any of that information missing) without the whole thing falling apart. I knew a computer-science major in college who said that he wrote all his papers like C++ programs: The thesis statement was like setting the main function of the program running, and then each paragraph below that was a subprogram that served the main program. I love this analogy, as good writing is indeed like a well-constructed computer program: Every word is essential, nothing forgotten or else it won’t function, nothing extraneous to bug it up. (Debate is also useful for instilling this argumentative structure in your brain.)

Finally, pay attention to all the boring stuff your English teacher and various style guides put forth about diagramming sentences, "apprise" vs. "appraise," the correct use of the ellipsis versus the dash and so on. These rules are the nuts and bolts of everyday English usage, spelling, and punctuation, and the sooner you have all the rules in your head, the more second nature they will become.

Work on your school’s literary magazine or newspaper. This will give you experience in multiple areas useful in publishing: making editorial judgments; putting a literary product together; collaborating with others to do so, and learning how to negotiate sometimes differing visions; and of course the editing itself.

In college
Continue to practice reading, writing, and literary magazine/newspaper work. People often ask, “Do I need to major in English?” The strict answer is “no,” because the most important things in college are learning to think and read and write, and you can learn all those things in any discipline with the right teachers and challenges. However, English will give you the most hands-on experience with analyzing how a piece of writing (particularly fiction) is constructed and functions, so it is probably the most useful field of study for an aspiring editor. Besides, if you love fiction and reading, being an English major is huge fun because you’re studying the things you love most; ignore your uncle’s jibes about “Fries with that?” and follow your heart.

Work in your college’s Writing Center. This will give you experience with communicating your ideas about what’s not working in a piece of writing to the person who created that writing—an act that requires not just good editorial skills but good interpersonal ones as well.

Read “Publishers Weekly” in your college library. This will teach you about trends in the industry, familiarize you with the personalities and books associated with various publishers, and show you what reviewers value in books--a useful tool in forming your own critical judgment. I recommend this particularly during your junior and senior years, when you’re thinking about getting an internship or getting a job after graduation. (For extra credit and information, check out PublishersLunch and the New York Times Book Review.)

Do an internship. Nearly every major New York publisher offers summer internships to college students, and many offer internships during the school year as well (though they’re often unpaid). Internships helps you make connections, establish a publishing resume, learn what editors look for in manuscripts, discover all the various processes that go into putting a book together. . . . There’s no better way to see the day-to-day life of a publishing house (and particularly of an editorial assistant). Also, fifty percent of publishers are based outside New York City; if there’s an interesting small press located in a city near you, ask if you can do a part-time internship, or even just come in for an informational interview (see below).

Remember that there are other jobs in publishing besides editing. Book publishers also need book designers; copyeditors; advertising designers; marketing strategists; subsidiary rights sellers; publicists; accountants; administrators, and many, many other people as well. If you love talking about books but you don’t really like the nitty-gritty manuscript work, you might make a wonderful publicist. Or if you think you’d enjoy translating a book’s ideas into visual form, maybe you’d be an excellent jacket designer. Follow your passion, and there’s probably a way that can fit into publishing.

After graduation
Consider a publishing course. A publishing course is a four- to eight-week summer course that introduces you to the industry and is usually taught by industry professionals (allowing you to make useful contacts for getting a job afterward). Most people who enroll in these courses have just graduated from college, but they also attract people looking to switch jobs or just interested in the industry.

The two best-established ones that I know of are the Columbia Publishing Course at Columbia University; and the Denver Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. (I thought NYU had one as well, but I can’t find a link to their summer program, only their Master’s degree in publishing.) The two programs differ in that the Columbia course is eight weeks long, covers magazine as well as book publishing, and, as it’s based in New York, is heavily New York publishing-centric, with a wide array of big-publishing luminaries. Denver is four weeks long, focuses exclusively on book publishing, and places its emphasis on small presses as well as big publishing. (I chose Denver because I knew I wanted to be in book publishing and I wasn’t sure I wanted to move to New York; I had a terrific experience there and recommend it highly.) If you’ve done a summer internship, you probably don’t need to attend one of these courses; but if you haven’t done an internship and you’re pretty sure you want to be in publishing, they’re a great way to learn the basics of the industry and make some connections.

N.B.: I do not recommend these courses for writers because you ought to be concentrating on the craft of your individual writing more than the overall business of publishing. Look into an M.F.A. instead.

Go on informational interviews. Editors love talking about their books and their jobs—at least I do—and as we were all editorial assistants once, we’re generally happy to speak with people who aspire to the position. Subjects covered usually include the day-to-day editorial life; how to begin and develop a publishing career; favorite books; and whatever else you’re interested in talking about that’s related to publishing. An intelligent informational interview also establishes you as a candidate for any future job openings with that editor. (For the record, it’s often useful to read one of the editor’s books before the interview; Rachel, our lovely assistant editor at AALB, came in for her job interview in fall 2003, sat down with me, said “I just read Millicent Min, Girl Genius and I loved it,” and instantly became my new best friend.) Editors can be very busy, and they’re doing this for you as a favor, so be considerate of their schedules and appreciative of any time they might grant.

Any other editors or publishing people who read this blog, please chime in with your own advice. And all aspiring editors -- good luck!

ETA, 10/15/09: This is the first entry that comes up on the Google search for "How to Become a Book Editor," so I frequently receive e-mails from people asking for further information or advice. I regret that I am unable to respond to these inquiries at this time. If you want to know more about the craft of editing, please click on the "Editing" and "Writing" tags at left.

ETA, 3/20/10: Two more excellent editorial takes on this topic: How to Get a Job in Publishing, by Margaret Maloney of Bloomsbury USA, and so you want to be an editor., by Sharyn November of Viking/Firebird.