Training opportunities for US editors
Harlequin executive senior editor Annabel Blay spent 10 weeks in New York City researching fiction editing in the US as part of her Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship. In this extract from her report, she examines the opportunities for training among US editors. Read her full report here.
US editors and agents have traditionally followed an informal ‘apprenticeship model’ to train up staff—which still exists, although seems to have become just that much more competitive and challenging.
Once an assistant role is secured—and assuming the person has the stamina to stick it out, since these jobs are overwhelmingly busy, poorly paid, and any editorial work or networking is done on your own time—there is a clear career path towards editing, and it’s often similar for agents. As assistant to one or, more usually these days, two or more editors, and after building a level of trust with them, the assistant will usually start reading and reporting on submissions, acting as a filter for the editor. For this reason, Emily Bestler, who has her own eponymous imprint at S&S, would ‘only hire someone who wants to be me some day’—that is, they really want to be an editor, can’t wait to start editing, and are prepared to do all the work required. Most importantly, they have a similar taste to her. In some cases, and especially when the editor still edits on paper—as a surprising number still prefer to—the assistant might have the opportunity to get very close to an edit as take in those edits to the digital file using track changes (in some cases interns are asked to this too).
Eventually, the editor will have the assistant work more closely with them on a specific edit—in some cases doing a ‘shadow edit’ where they both do an edit and compare notes, or even doing the second pass edit or final line edit. A trusted assistant can act as a valuable fresh eye at that second or third round of edit when fatigue sets in, or as Susanna Porter, executive editor of Ballantine (PRH), called it ‘the challenges of seeing the forest for the trees’, picking up continuity errors or just giving a new perspective.
It used to be that at this stage assistants were often given the chance to acquire a book or take on a client for themselves, to champion it through the entire publishing process—for example, agent Dan Lazar of Writers House describes how he found something he loved in the slush pile, and ‘left it on [his boss, Simon Lipskar’s] couch where it was ignored until Simon said “do it yourself, if you like it”.’ That author is still his client today. Esi Sogah, senior editor at Kensington, had an unusual first day as an assistant at Avon Books, when someone resigned suddenly and she was given her first three authors to manage—at that stage she hadn’t even written a readers’ report! She says she did ‘a ton of reading’ those first few months and acquired her own first book nine months later—after she had written a very positive readers’ report on it, her boss suggested she just, well, buy it.
But in many houses and agencies, the path has been formalised and ‘assistants don’t acquire’, I was told. One young editor told me there were certain advantages to this—they weren’t directly competing with other assistants to be the first to acquire or to acquire a big book, so they had a greater camaraderie, and had built a stronger support network, and so to this day feels like they’re ‘growing up in publishing together’.
A lot of this, of course, depends on the editor you work with—another young editor described working as assistant to an intensely competitive group of young editors who were extremely busy and focused on building their own lists, and not interested in encouraging others to develop their editing or acquisitions skills.
And even for an editor who is committed to mentoring, as staff numbers diminish and yet budget expectations still grow, the editor needs to find space in their workload to share their edits and give the assistant those opportunities. Harlequin editor Allison Carroll commented that she knows she was ‘incredibly fortunate to have had bosses who championed’ her. Several more senior editors and agents commented that they learned much more by osmosis, when as assistants in the days before email they had to type up letters for their bosses, including correspondence to authors, contract negotiations and edit letters. They recalled having to photocopy paper edits, laboriously removing the post-it notes and replacing them in the same spots, and to filing paperwork (while surreptitiously reading through the correspondence file). Now, editors work on email and with track changes—and take responsibility for their own email archiving. Offices are open plan so many negotiations take place via email or in small ‘phone rooms’ off the main floor of the office, or at agent’s offices instead of the editors’. Editors spoke of now having to consciously copy in their assistants on emails, and invite them to listen in on phone calls and meetings, in order to give their mentees the same opportunity to learn that they felt they had.
More than one editor commented that a key part of their training came as an offshoot of writing rejection letters. Sarah Cantin, senior editor at Atria, spent much of her time as an assistant crafting rejection letters that also gave really good, constructive reasons why the book wasn’t for her. She feels this taught her to really think about what was working in a book and what wasn’t, whether it was right for the market, what would need doing to bring it up to potential, whether it was one for her, and importantly why, and gaining the tools to ‘articulate’ that. Lauren Smulski, associate editor for Harlequin’s Teen and Mira imprints, adds that there is a value to ‘rejecting well and responding early’ because that agent will ‘look closely at your next offer’.
The next step in the career ladder is associate editor. This role usually combines the assistant role with an acquisitions load and can be hugely challenging—basically two jobs in one. As Judy Clain, VP and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown, says ‘it’s not the business for you if you expect weekends off’. That said, in many houses the role does not come with a specific budget or acquisitions target—so there’s no pressure financially. It’s more a personal challenge, to develop one’s own tastes, to grow a list, start to form relationships with agents and get some runs on the board. Of course you need to be able to do this while still working closely with the editors you report to, with a significant editorial load from them as well as administrative responsibilities.
From associate the next step is usually editor—but several interviewees commented on the obstacles in the way of making that step from the assistant role to a purely acquisitions one in the same house. This is often the point at which up-and-coming editors change houses in order to take that step up.
The limitation, of course, to the apprenticeship model is that you learn only how your boss edits—and, as Tara Singh, senior editor at Putman commented, ‘to a degree you already have to get it’. She sees another issue (for all of us) is that ‘you won’t know [if you’re any good at it] until you’ve been doing it for five years’ – that is, you’ve edited and seen several books published, and you know if they’ve worked. It also seems that you need to work your way up to a point where sales and marketing take you seriously and you start to get sufficient resources put behind the book to make it work.