Originally written for SYP Scotland | When you consider a career in publishing, working in the editorial department is usually at the top of your list, so for our October event we wanted to offer a crash course into what the roles entail and how to prepare for a potential career in the field.
Meet the panel:
Chaired by Rosie Howie, Publishing Manager of Bright Red, we were joined by freelancer Camilla Rockwood, Jo Dingley of Canongate Books and Robbie Guillory of Freight Books for an hour and a half that got into the nitty-gritty of editing.
First, their backgrounds. Rosie is the only one to have undertaken a Masters in Publishing. Camilla studied drama, worked in pubs and bars for years and then decided to make a move for a career: she became the PA for a commissioning editor as Elsevier. From there, she found herself working in several areas of the field, and in turn decided to go freelance, working around her family life.
Jo studied English at St Andrews before undertaking internships at publishers including Penguin Press and Luath before starting as an Editorial Assistant at Canongate and working her way up to Editor across seven years.
Robbie studied European Literature at Glasgow and whilst there got involved with the creative writing scene, which was thriving. Alongside non-publishing jobs, he started a small literary journal and began freelancing for HarperCollins before landing the job as Publishing Assistant at Freight, moving up to Assistant Publisher in his few years with the company.
Editing: It’s like solving a problem together.
So why editorial? They all concede their reasons sound somewhat cliché. “I wanted to be the person who finds new talent,” says Jo, who noted she was fascinated by Max Perkins. Camilla points out that she was never against other roles, but found herself a natural fit for editing. Robbie agrees – you’ll often have a mish-mash of roles, skills feel interchangeable between departments, but for him it’s about the discovery of talent and watching books grow that really stands out.
Everyone brings different skills to editing. One proofreader can become consumed with dashes, another can read the same text and focus on the flow and style of it. Others are just so infuriated by things being wrong they want to stop it happening (though, actually, that won’t make a good editor in itself, it’s a far bigger (less angry!) picture).
Author care is a key part of the role, and one they all enjoy. It’s lovely working on a manuscript with them, like solving a problem together. It’s nice to know that you’ve helped someone make their book better, that there’s a bit of you in a book – it feels special.
So what’s the common process? Submissions come from agents and open submissions. Particularly with agented submissions, you want to read fast as other publishers will be doing the same, and share good ones with colleagues as soon as possible. Once it passes the editorial test at Canongate, it goes to an acquisition meeting with more departments where they pitch for the book. After that they put together an offer and terms for the agent and author, which can either result in a deal or an auction situation.
For Freight it’s largely similar, though they can’t compete on auctions with large publishers. They look around the fringes, for books not necessarily immediately desirable to larger publishers, but that brilliant nonetheless. Scottish fiction is one London largely have no interest in, though Graeme Macrae Burnet’s recent Man Booker shortlisting is likely to change that.
A lot of the job is about how you work with others: agents, authors, other members of the team. You need to work successfully with your authors, have agents interested in you publishing their own authors and forge a keen working relationship, and have the ability to pitch to your colleagues and have them trust your judgement.
House styles: a guide, not the law
House styles aren’t as rigid as you’d expect. “It’s very much a guide rather than the law,” notes Robbie. Even in freelancing, Camilla finds that no client strictly imposes the style. There’s a flexibility – it very much depends on the author. With magazines like Gutter, however, a guide is needed for consistency across several pieces.
There are always debates to have: a Scottish publisher with a first-person American narrative. Do you keep UK or US spelling? These are things you need to find a line on, but as long as it’s consistent and the author’s reasoning for throwing punctuation out the window is understandable, for example, then there’s always scope to ignore house style for creative reasons.
They meet their authors far before this point in the process, and resort to Skype if need be. It’s usually as soon as possible after signing the contract. They gauge what their authors are needing and expecting, and work out how best to work for all involved. There’s no one set way to do everything. Edits can take one round, and the most any can recall undertaking is six full rounds for one title. As the publishing journey continues, the editor can largely remain a key point of contact.
Experience: Retail counts more than you think
So you want to work in editorial – but how do you get your foot in the door? There’s obviously the Masters publishing courses, but you can also get involved in University societies like PublishEd – who partnered with SYP Scotland for the event. Put yourself out there for the kind of opportunities that allow you to source content, edit, promote, market. There’s also work experience and internships to consider.
“Retail counts more than you think,” notes Camilla. You’re working with books and readers every day, seeing what works, getting early copies. Know the lists you’re hoping to work with too – it makes a difference and shows that you’re interested. It’s all about the get up and go – show initiative.
The unpaid internship debate comes up – Robbie didn’t undertake any as he simply couldn’t afford to, but others do choose to do them. They are valuable, but make sure you’re not being exploited – be sure you’re not just doing someone’s job. If they can’t function without it, they should generally be paying for it.
Freelancing is another tricky one – editorial-wise, most would give work to someone who has worked in-house as they have a track record, so it’s hard to break into without previous experience but that’s a topic for another time. (Wouldn’t it be great if we were having an event on how to crack into freelancing? Oh, wait! RSVP for the latest updates for November’s event on Facebook.)
There are other ways to get editorial experience – find some online courses, learn how to use programs like InDesign or how to proofread on Acrobat. Be aware of the software, stay informed. The knowledge in itself may not directly be a practical skill, but again it comes back to initiative and that will go a long way.
They all agree that editorial is the most competitive area of publishing, but an incredibly rewarding one to be part of, academic to trade and beyond. We looked at the process as a whole down to the nitty-gritty of commas, and had a thoroughly interesting night putting editorial under the microscope.