Monday, 7 October 2013

Putting My Editorial Hat On: So, What Do I DO All Day?

I talk a lot on this blog about my author-life. Unsurprisingly! This is my writing blog. But, as some of you know, I lead a double existence. I have infiltrated the world of publishing, and I spend my days working as an editorial graduate trainee (which is sort of like an editorial assistant, but less so) for Orion Children's Books.

Apparently, this sort of thing is quite common. In fact, next month, as part of the SCBWI's Professionals series, I am joining the exceptionally talented Non Pratt and Phil Earle, two other authors who have secret publisher identities (or publishers who have secret writer identities, depending on how you want to look at it), on a panel about what it's like to see both sides of the industry. You should come! It'll be great.

This has made me think about my day job. Specifically: what do I DO all day? Whenever people ask me, I go a bit blank. I know I'm busy. When I think about my working day, I have a strong impression of busy-ness. But how, exactly, do I spend my time? What do I do before I come home, put on my mask and cape and write crime?

Well, it goes a bit like this ...

1. I Help Make Books

(Before we start, I've got to explain that what follows is just a very simplified norm. All of our books are different, and most don't happen exactly like this. Also, I've slightly fudged the order these steps go in, so that it's slightly less confusing. That said, onwards!)

Imagine that the editorial department have just bought a new book. Also imagine, for the sake of this post, that this book is the first in a new illustrated series for 7-9 year olds. (I also do a lot of work on YA books for our Indigo list, as well as our Early Readers for younger kids, and Asterix, which we have the licence to publish in the UK, but just go with me here.)

Now, there's a whole process to go through before an editor can buy a book. But this isn't something that I get involved with. As an editorial graduate trainee, I'll read new submissions as they come in from agents (more on this later), but I don't have the power to commission a book and I'm not involved in the buying process. I also don't help to negotiate terms when an offer is made - again, this is between the commissioning editor and the author's agent. The first time I'll come into contact with a new acquisition is once we've already bought it. I might help enter the terms of the agreed contract onto our system, or check the contract once it comes back from our legal department. I also help the editor fill out initial information forms for our sales, marketing and publicity teams, so they know what kind of thing they're going to be selling.

So we've got a new book! And now the real work begins. The editor will work with the author to reshape the book's story and characters, sometimes quite drastically. Again, though, this isn't something that I'm really involved in. I am not an editor, and so I absolutely do not structurally edit our books. The editor may ask me to read a draft, and give my comments on parts I think might not be working, but the final decision on what to go back to the author with will always be theirs. What I'm doing, while this is going on, is ... admin. I'll send out copies of the finalised contract to the author's agent for signing. As soon as the editor is happy with the state of the manuscript, I'll work to get the author's advance payment signed off. And so on! A lot of my job, you may not be surprised to discover, involves photocopying and/or scanning.

Once the book's text has been finalised, I may be asked to copyedit or proofread the manuscript. This still doesn't mean that I have the power to change anything major. A copyeditor looks for continuity errors (if Portia has green eyes on page 4 and red eyes on page 20, for example), factual errors (if the capital of England is Paris), missing words (like a sentence that reads 'I've got a lovely bunch of.') or missing punctuation (like a sentence that reads 'please dont say that she said sadly'). Proofreading is similar, but generally without the continuity or fact checking element - essentially, as a proofreader you're hoping that the copyeditor who went before you has already spotted these things, leaving you to catch tiny errors like dropped quotation marks and full stops.

OK, so we've got a great manuscript. Now we need some illustrations. The editor will usually have a very clear idea of the way they want these illustrations to look. Sometimes they'll already have an illustrator in mind, but sometimes I'll be asked to go and do some research. Then I take my suggestions to the editor, and they make the final decision about who to offer the gig to. Once an illustrator's been chosen, the editor may also ask me to help draft the artwork brief - to work out how many illustrations we want, of what size, and exactly what we want the illustrator to draw. Once the illustrator has submitted a first round of rough illustrations, I'll be asked to check that they've met the brief, and that what they've drawn matches what's described in the text (for example, if Mrs Tiggywinkle is a hedgehog in the text but a pig in the illustrations, we have a problem). The editor and the author will then have a look too, give their suggestions, and we'll go back to the artist with corrections. When we get final drawings, I'll check them one more time, as will the editor and author, and then the editor will sign off on them. And I'll have another invoice to process!

What we need now is a cover. Sometimes the illustrator will do the cover as well, although it's usually done by our art department. However it happens, though, it's the editor's job to come up with a cover design brief for the artist to use, and this is something else that I get to help with. Sometimes they'll come up with an idea and ask me to draft the brief, sometimes they'll ask me to research covers or cover directions. As always, the final decision isn't up to me - but often I get to make suggestions, and that's pretty cool.

Now we need to create the cover copy - the blurb on the back that tells readers what the book's about. I'm often asked to draft copy for editors, and it's one of my favourite parts of my job. I also help to draft copy for the in-house information forms we use for meetings and the out-of-house information that can be seen on Amazon and is sent to booksellers ... basically, I spend a lot of time helping the editors to fill in forms. Thank goodness I like to write.

Meanwhile, the manuscript and illustrations have been sent up to our production team to be turned into a book-shaped thing. We're sent the PDF back for checking (sometimes I'll help send this out to the author for final edits, although it's the editor who'll be in charge of noting down and adding in any corrections the author requests), and then once we've been through three rounds of checks, the files are sent away to the printers' to be turned into an actual book. When the finished book comes in, I'll send out copies to the author and their agent, and the illustrator and their agent.

And then the whole process starts again!

2. I Help Make Ebooks

So, that's the physical side of publishing. But I also work on the digital side of things. Interestingly, the children's ebook market is still very small - mainly because most kids don't have Kindles or iPads, and also because until recently colour ebooks tended to look ... not great. But now the technology's really beginning to be able to do what we need it to, and more and more kids are getting e-readers, and so I suspect that in the next few years things are going to really start to take off.

Anyway, ebooks. We are lucky in that we have an excellent digital team who (along with out-of-house designers) do the difficult work of actually creating the files. The first time I come across them is when I'm sent an ebook to check. I go through the book, making sure that the images and words are all there, that it looks good and handles well (this is actually really important - we're constantly using new programmes, in new ways, to create our ebooks, and so it's quite usual to come across an odd little glitch that hasn't happened before).

I love being involved with the ebook process, because everyone's working right at the edge of what's possible, constantly pushing to make things better, and that's amazing to be a part of. It proves to me that publishing really is keeping up with change in a very positive way, and I'm proud to be helping that happen. We've just been working on the ebook for Marcus Sedgwick's She Is Not Invisible, to make sure that its text-to-speech function makes it fully accessible to blind and partially sighted users. In fact, all of our ebooks are now being created with the text-to-speech function - which means that we're suddenly able to make our books available to a group of people that we could never have reached before, unless we decided to publish a separate braille edition. I think that's just brilliant.

3. I Help Find Books

I mentioned the submissions process before. Actually, I could (and probably will, one day) write an entire blog post about submissions - after all, I now have intimate personal knowledge of from both sides. I have been on submission, and I also come in to work every day to an inbox stuffed with other people's. Which is slightly bizarre!

When people imagine what editorial work is, they assume that we all just sit around all day reading books. When I hear this, I laugh a silent and bitter laugh, because I am the most junior person in our department, and I therefore have the least responsibility and the least work, and I still can only dream of a world where I would have time to read all the submissions we get in during the normal 9:30-5:30 working day. Editorial staff don't read submissions all day. We read submissions all evening, and all weekend, and all commute. When authors wonder why it's taking so long for an editor to get to their submitted book, it's because of this. We read as fast as we can, and the editors look at everything that is submitted, but editors are not super-beings, and so sometimes it has to take a long time.

Just to clarify, I don't get to make the final call on anything that comes in to the department. It's part of my job to take a look at submissions and feed back to the editors about them. They will then look at the manuscript themselves, and they make the final decision on whether or not they want to make an offer. Often, for various reasons, the submissions that come in just aren't right for our list. But sometimes there's something that totally clicks, and that's the greatest buzz feeling in the world. It's this heart-beating, panicky, acquisitive excitement that's a bit like an inanimate version of falling in love.

Of course, because I'm so junior, once I've found something it's all totally out of my hands. The most I can do is tell the editors how I feel, and then wait to see what they do. Will they agree with me? Will they decide they want it? If they want it, will we get it? I've heard an editor I know describing the process as a bit like gambling, and I think that's an amazing analogy. Publishing might seem kind of calm and staid, but there are moments where it's definitely a high-stakes business.


So, that's my job! Of course, I also do a lot of other things - essentially, I am there to help the editors in any way they need, from getting cakes and coffee for author meetings, to scanning in a book, to filling in submissions information, to researching a potential author ... and so on! I never know exactly what each day is going to look like, and I love that element of uncertainty. Publishing is a wonderful industry to be part of, and (from what I've seen of it so far) it just gets more interesting the more senior you get. I get to work with a lot of awesome people, and I know that I'm very lucky!

One final word: I love being part of an editorial team, but I hope I've made it as clear as can be that I'm extremely junior, and there are still a lot of things I don't know. So if I've made an error in this post, that's my personal mistake and I take full responsibility for it.

Oh, and if you want to find out more ... come along to the SCBWI panel on the 5th of November!


  1. Dream job. And great insight for a writer. Do you and the editor always agree on manuscripts? I mean it's a gamble but is it very obvious when a book is a winner?

    You also get to see a lot of those mysterious advances. I've read enough to know that there's no average advance. It's all pretty vague and unclear but could you give us an idea of what a pre-empt as opposed to an auction would go for as compared to a straight forward advance? Sorry for all the questions but I am interested!

    1. Most of the time the office will broadly agree about the potential of a MS - but on details we almost always vary, just like any reader! And sometimes someone will love something, while someone else will just not click with it. We try to be objective, but at the end of the day we all have personal preferences.

      And advances ... I could probably write a whole post about this too! Basically - in the short time I've been here I've seen figures from £1000 per book to £30000 per book. It all depends on how well the publisher thinks the book will do, whether the author's a big name or a debut, how well previous books have done if they're not a debut, whether other publishers are interested, what rights the publisher is trying to get (for example world rights, or just UK and Commonwealth) - and so on.

      I know that it's possible to go much higher than the top of that range I gave, but those fabled six figure sums are just vanishingly rare - and, as we all know, children's books (some YA excepted) are not usually where the big bucks are! My own advance was enough to make a nice difference to my life, but absolutely not nearly enough to live on if I wanted it to be my sole income.

      I would probably suggest that a figure of about £3000 per book is a good ballpark to expect for a children's author's first book deal. It might be more, but it certainly might be less, too - so it's best not to dream of pots of gold! It's definitely not a good idea to go into children's writing as a money-making venture!

    2. Brilliant scoop Robin. Thanks so much...actually come to think of it not so brilliant - how do I pay off the Mercedes now?