What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing — A TEC Book Review

by Jonathan Adjemian

Published at 2023-02-08

When you’re an author looking for an editor, it can be difficult to gauge what, exactly, an editor does. After all, there are multiple types of editing and multiple types of editors! In this week's blog, we revisit former TEC editor Jonathan's review of What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, a book that can be helpful for editors and writers alike. Editors can glean valuable insight from the book’s many accomplished contributors, and authors can get an overview of what an editor does to get a book from draft to published. Enjoy!


What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, edited by Peter Ginna and published by U of Chicago Press (2017), takes on an ambitious task: it provides a comprehensive overview of the state of book editing today. Ginna, whose three decades of editorial experience include major positions at trade and academic presses, has assembled an impressively credentialed roster of editors, publishers, agents, and writers. The book’s twenty-six chapters offer a wide and representative overview of the many roles and tasks editors perform in bringing books from manuscript to readership.


Not Just Pencil-Work

Early on, Ginna tell us that “what the word editing connotes to most people—correcting and improving an author’s text—is only a part of what book editors do” (2). What Editors Do offers many lessons in manuscript editing, but gives as much attention to other tasks: acquisitions, budgeting, planning marketing; tracking and predicting reading and publishing trends; and networking—with agents, authors, booksellers, and social media content providers, among others. To Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group, the “intimate, careful, nourishing work of editing feels like a privilege that editors earn” (121) by providing the other services needed to bring a book to market.

Even when it comes to working with authors on their texts, What Editors Do presents editing as complex, personal, and varied. While working directly with authors, writes Nancy S. Miller, editorial director of Bloomsbury’s adult trade division, an editor can take on “the role of friend, adviser, confidant, parent, and therapist over the course of a manuscript’s journey to finished book” (63). Throughout the book, the personal relationships involved in the profession—reading is, after all, a technology of indirect social connection—receive key attention.


A Surprisingly Gripping Read

The book itself is, fittingly, very well edited. Chapters are short and to the point, with variety not just in content but in tone, structure, and approach. The result is an engaging and approachable volume, and one that holds up to cover-to-cover reading.

The chapters are grouped into five sections. The first covers book acquisitions, covering trade, academic, and textbook publishing. The section on the editing process (from proposal to book) introduces the institutional structure of mainstream publishing and the functions of developmental, line, and copy-editing. The third section focuses on the business side of the publishing process, with a focus on management and publicity, while the fourth offers practical advice on editing different types of books, with chapters on literary and genre fiction, scholarly work, general nonfiction, children’s books and more. The last section, on pursuing a publishing career, is a bit of a grab-bag that covers the jobs of editorial assistant and freelance editor along with thoughts on diversity and changes in the publishing world.

What Editors Do is addressed to editing professionals, and especially those aspiring to get into the field (with the exception of chapter 25, which introduces self-publishing authors to the editing services they might want to contract). As the subtitle states, the topic throughout is the editing of books, in print and digital format. But much in the discussions of the mechanics of editing and editor-author relations will be of use to editors working on other genres of text.


The Market and the Mission

In general, What Editors Do is about publishing as an industry, and the business-focused chapters contain plenty of “tough love” advice about how editors have to work within the limits of profitability and market trends. This can sit a bit awkwardly with the advice in the chapter by Chris Jackson, editor-in-chief of Penguin’s One World imprint, on “a thing that doesn’t actually exist: diversity in publishing” (223). Jackson outlines the processes that brought him, an African-American from a poor neighbourhood, into the overwhelmingly white world of publishing, and the risks editors and publishers need to take to diversify their staff and lists. It’s left to the reader to bring Jackson’s call to “widen the gates of literature and diversify the gatekeepers” (229) into conversation with the nostalgia elsewhere for an age of “three-martini lunches” when Maxwell Perkins edited Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Tom Wolfe.

The two chapters written from the perspective of independent presses—by Jeff Shotts, executive editor at Graywolf Press, and Erika Goldman, publisher of Bellevue Literary Press—share Jackson’s view that editors can and should make choices towards their relation to the market. Independent publishers, including feminist presses, progressive publishing houses, and other “mission-driven publishers” (as Goldman’s BLP describes itself), often open spaces for topics and authors that larger presses will move into only after a public has been found and primed. For Shotts, today the “vast and fertile grounds that commercial publishing has largely ceded to independent publishers” include much of what makes up “the literature of our time,” including poetry, essays, criticism, and experimental fiction (142). Readers will likely know where in this field their own proclivities lie.


An Empowering Read

What Editors Do introduces readers to what it takes to successfully navigate the world of publishing today. A reader can gain a sense not just of the industry but of where in the industry they might fit best, and of the many possible career paths within it. Any aspiring or beginning editor will certainly want to read this, and experienced editors will also find much to learn. Despite the book’s commitment to describing the field as it is, this reviewer at least can hope that What Editors Do will empower a new and diverse generation of editors to not only succeed but to transform the world of publishing.



For more about what editors do, see our blog “Ask the Editor: Some Common Myths about What We Do.”