The Editor Behind the Curtain: Inside the Publishing Process

For first-time authors, the publishing process is often shrouded in mystery. Alex Field shares an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes—and how to leverage it for future success.
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For first-time authors, the publishing process is often shrouded in mystery. Alex Field shares an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes—and how to leverage it for future success.

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Whether you’re currently writing a book, querying agents or on submission to publishers, allow me to share this small-but-important truth: There’s an editor out there right now—sorting stacks of pitch letters, book proposals and manuscripts, thumbing through literary agent submissions, reading selections of the manuscripts she requested from authors directly—who is seeking to buy a book similar to yours.

So, in a sense, your future editor is out there thinking about you.

Picture this person for a moment: Perhaps she’s an associate editor for a mid-level imprint, working her way up at a growing publishing company. She majored in creative writing or English literature or journalism in college, where she developed a passion for Jane Austen or Jack Kerouac, Joan Didion or Anne Lamott. Whoever her muse, she knows good writing when she sees it. She wrote articles for the school newspaper or poems for the literary journal, nabbed a good internship after college and she’s worked hard ever since to finally land her dream job—acquiring and editing books full time and getting paid for it!

Now she fills the role of champion for her authors and books. She pitches the books she discovers to her own internal publishing team, during which she makes a case for both the editorial and business side for acquiring said manuscripts.

Her boss expects her to acquire a handful of new books every year, and though she’s still learning and growing into the job, in part, her performance is tied to the performance of her selections. If she acquires and takes a huge financial risk on a book and it bombs a year later, it reflects on her directly. Of course, like anyone in a new position, she needs time to grow and, sure, she might have more seasoned editors guiding her through this journey. But eventually, given a couple of years, her acquisitions become hers to own.

Does all of this create a little pressure on our friendly associate editor? You bet.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Novelists (According to Editors)

Every editor’s list of acquisitions is viewed (especially by management) as their own personal business within the greater publishing company, complete with its own profit and loss statement (P and L). As a result, each individual book might get more or less scrutiny depending on how it fits into the greater scheme. The worse the editor’s books perform, the harder time she’ll have convincing her team to take risks on her projects in the future.

When you’re writing a book, preparing a proposal or query (for publishers or literary agents, because agents make decisions based on whether they think a publisher will be interested), it’s important to think about your future editor. He is a human being, just like you, and every day he is facing the very real difficulties of the changing market, the shifting retail landscape and his own internal company pressures. He, like many editors in this business, hopes to come across something special—a work of unique power or appeal or finesse or authority—that makes him feel like he did in college when he read Jack Kerouac.

As someone who once sat in the editor’s chair at publishers large and small, I know those simultaneous pressures and hopes firsthand. My first publishing job was as a junior editor acquiring and editing 10–12 books a year for a small, family-owned press. To be honest, for a long time I had no idea what I was doing—but I worked hard and soaked up every lesson I could. Despite my inexperience, over the course of several fairly successful years, I found myself the publisher of that small imprint: hustling to make budgets; publishing competitive, influential books; learning the fast-changing worlds of marketing and publicity; and managing a team that shared my goals.

1. Do Your Homework

Every category and genre of publishing is governed by unspoken rules. In the world of traditional trade book publishing, fiction and nonfiction aren’t the same. For instance, most editors sign nonfiction book deals based on one to two chapters. But for fiction, and especially with first-time novelists, editors typically need to read the full manuscript before a deal is done.

If you’re submitting the next high-concept business book to an experienced agent, or an editor at a business imprint, make sure you’ve done your research. Do you know what other books the literary agent has represented, or the editor has acquired in the recent past? Has that press recently published a book like yours?

Immerse yourself in books similar to your own. Read in the category, but also study the jacket, the acknowledgements page, the author’s blog and their previous books. Conduct industry research on publishing houses, editors and literary agents through sites like Publishers Weekly. Attend a conference, watch lectures on YouTube. Read relevant articles, essays and blog posts.

To know a category is to know the world in which your future editor lives every day.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Editors (According to Novelists)

2. Use Concise Communication

The volume of reading material that accrues on the desks of editors and literary agents is immense. These folks read mountains of content every day, sifting through stacks of submissions for eye-catching queries.

Which is why yours should get right to the point—in such a way that compels them to read more. Don’t belabor your initial synopsis or write a three-page email. If in doubt, the fewer words the better. Share a little about yourself, but only the most relevant points.

Most important: Any sample writing you include should read fast and clean. Editors aren’t looking for reasons to reject, per se, but when inundated, it’s far too easy to dismiss a submission for little things like spelling errors, awkward phrasing or poor formatting.

3. Sign With an Agent

Inking a contract with a good literary agent can help avoid some of the above issues. When on submission to publishers, agents almost always get a faster read than unsolicited queries—especially in certain categories. There are several reasons why this is the case. First, most literary agents take the time to build relationships (and a level of trust) with acquisition editors in the genres they work within. Second, because publishing professionals have such limited time, agents effectively serve as a filter, siphoning in projects with higher-caliber content. Plus, most have also taken the time to work with their authors to develop and shape their book concepts, which adds additional value for the publisher.

I’ve also had countless conversations with authors who published their books agentless, and suddenly found themselves in a strange new world with no idea how to navigate it. Their books released to the world and their lofty publishing dreams slowly wilted as they made mistakes, agreed to bad contractual terms, blindly trusted editors, or neglected their marketing and publicity campaigns. The best literary agents act as a trusted guide, thinking through these details long before a deal ever comes to fruition.

4. Grow Your Platform

Here’s a fact of life in modern publishing: Attracting (and holding) attention is difficult in any medium, especially in a world of social media, streaming television and unlimited self-publishing. As a result, presses look for projects with a built-in audience. It’s thus through a platform that authors can do just that.

I define platform as any outward-facing method a writer uses to attract a readership prior to publishing—which will, in theory, translate to that readership purchasing the writer’s book. It can manifest as anything from a YouTube channel, podcast, blog or Twitter following to an email newsletter or college classroom.

Think of your writing as a business, and take the initiative to build your influence via a robust platform, which will only increase your chances of publishing.

5. Forge a Relationship

Once you sign a book deal, you’ll be assigned a “champion.” More often than not, that person is an acquisitions editor or developmental editor, but it may also be the marketing manager or the publisher herself. While every press is different, often that person is your point of contact throughout the publishing process—from beginning to end.

Whoever your point person, be intentional in building that relationship. If possible, meet your champion face-to-face, or at least set up regular phone calls. Get to know her. This small investment of time and effort on your part can pay off big in the long run.

I’ve seen authors send a nice handwritten note after a meeting or a phone call, thanking the participants for their time. And sometimes I’ve seen those simple thank yous tacked to the wall of an editor’s office years later. A small, kind act goes a long way, and when you need a favor down the road, your champion will remember you.

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6. Remember to Engage

Shift your thinking about the publishing process: Turning in your manuscript is not the end, but the beginning. The more engaged you are at each subsequent stage, the better chance your book has of making an impact in the market. Writing a terrific manuscript is step one, but you must also help to market, publicize and sell.

Seek to be included in the key publishing decisions along the way, including the final title, cover design, marketing and publicity strategy and so on. Believe it or not, each of these things is regularly decided without the author’s input—but by becoming a part of these decisions, you can bring your vision to the table.

7. Be Your Book’s CMO

Remember: You are your book’s Chief Marketing Officer. You are its first and last advocate. Be clear that this book is still your baby, while remaining cordial and professional.

Consider setting aside some of your advance (if you received one) to help market your book when the time comes. Thinking that far ahead is tough, but every bit of marketing is important: strong Book 1 sales pave the way for Book 2.

If you know your publisher’s marketing strategy (presuming you’ve stayed engaged in the process), then you can supplement it. For example, if the publisher focuses on store placement, ads in industry magazines, focused banner ads and a book tour, then perhaps you invest in hiring a freelance publicist to line up TV, radio or print interviews.

Once you’ve garnered a book deal, it’s easy to sit back and let the professionals handle everything for you. But resist, for your own sake (and the sake of your book). Your book is your baby. When it gets out into the world, you’re the best one to teach it how to walk.

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