I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, but like most people, I had no awareness of the publishing industry or an editor’s role in bringing a book to the world. The best reading experience is total immersion; who cares who brought the book to market?
In college, I pursued an English major with a minor in American Studies, and joined the school newspaper. I’d hoped that I would come up with a more impressive career track, but decided to stick to my strengths. As I advanced in my studies, I recognized that I wasn’t motivated to be an English teacher or journalist, and didn’t embrace the risk of pursuing writing; I certainly didn’t want to go to law school.
One day during my senior year, a professor handed me a pamphlet for summer school at NYU: a crash course in book and magazine publishing. While my business-savvy friends weighed job offers, and social-justice friends committed to volunteering for the next year, I applied for the Summer Publishing Institute. The week after graduation, I was off to New York City.
As promised, the six-week Summer Publishing Institute was an introduction to the industry, with expert speakers, case studies, and group projects. For a liberal arts major like myself, the biggest lesson was simply that publishing is a business—subject to trends, technology, and disruption. There was also the revelation that there are other jobs in the industry besides editing. (Regardless, I still wanted to be an editor.)
I dutifully went to the career fair at the end of the course and spoke to all the recruiters. Doubtful I’d get a job anytime soon in what I now knew to be a very competitive field, I still entertained thoughts of spending a year in a volunteer corps, or maybe moving home to find a waitressing job while I applied for work.
And that’s where luck came in: the day after I left NYC, I got a call from a recruiter at HarperCollins, looking to fill a temporary position. With little to no information about the job, I accepted—then scrambled. I had nowhere to live. In another stroke of luck, I found a friend living in a hotel in Brooklyn for her training at a financial services company. I moved my suitcase into her room, and on Monday reported to my new office.
My first task as a (temporary) editorial assistant, supporting two senior editors, was organizing over 1,000 home photos for a tribute collection called The Man Cave Book. Other tasks included learning to use a Xerox machine, fielding the all-caps tirades of a political pundit author, and turning on the light for my boss so that it looked like she was in her office. By the time I realized I could take my lunch hour, it turned out that the person whose role I was temporarily filling wouldn’t be back—I had the job.
I spent over five years at HarperCollins, ultimately supporting six different editors and working on all kinds of books, from pop culture to women’s fiction to mystery to celebrity memoirs. I worked my way up, building my own list of titles and authors along the way. Schooling, geography, and dumb luck aside, I became an editor by learning a few lessons, sometimes the hard way. Lessons like:
An editor is really just an expert reader. We have no advanced degree. We serve authors best when we read carefully and offer feedback, not dictums.
Always give feedback to authors in the format of a “praise sandwich.” It’s a great feeling when you point out something that could be stronger, and the author makes a fix better than you could have suggested.
Some books are important. Some are popular. A publisher should connect a book to its audience. And sometimes when you’re lucky—as I was to work on the book Hidden Figures—you witness the alchemy of an important story, wonderful author, and an enthusiastic audience. Plus movie magic!
Two years ago I became an editor here at Hachette Book Group, where I’ve worked for two years now with the innovative, prolific author James Patterson. And I continue to learn every day!