The top 5 skills an editor needs


Sam Humphreys is Associate Publisher at Mantle, Pan Macmillan’s newest fiction imprint. She has previously worked at Picador, Profile Books and Penguin and, before that, was a primary school teacher. Here are her top five skills for editorial excellence.

1) Read

This applies to writers too, actually, and I think (though others may disagree!) being a reader is the main – perhaps only – skill you need to be a good editor, both in terms of words on the page but also acquiring. If you read a lot, you’ll know what works and (hopefully) why; you’ll be able to make meaningful comparisons; and you’ll have a clearer vision for the books you acquire. Which leads me onto…

2) Think

One of the best agents I know is very analytical: why did this book work? Why didn’t that one? How can I use that to guide my authors? It’s more difficult, perhaps, as an editor, since you’re not always involved at an early stage – but it’s still possible. It might sound obvious, but it’s not just about the books you publish, and I’m always most impressed by editors (and agents) who know who’s buying what; what’s working and why – and who can then apply that to their own lists. (I’m also very impressed by editors who know exactly what they’re looking for, because I never quite do – until I read it.)

3) Be ruthless

Again, this goes for editing and acquiring. My rule when acquiring is if I can’t think of anything I’d say about the book at our sales conference, then, much as I might love it, I shouldn’t acquire it. Ditto for having a vision for the book: if I don’t know how I’d publish it, I’m the wrong editor. (It’s never fun, as an editor, publishing a book where you’re making it up as you go along – but it can be disastrous for the author.) As for editing, my motto is that good writing doesn’t always make for good reading and, if there’s ever a conflict, the latter should always win out.

4) Connect

Publishing is a small world. Talk to scouts (who can be particularly helpful people to know), agents, other editors. Get yourself known. (Actually, I’m particularly rubbish at this, but see point #5 below…) Ask for help if you need. (I once published a book I should have cancelled – and, in the long run, I think not cancelling was worse for the author concerned.) But also: be concise where necessary. The editors who most impress me in meetings are those who are very clear about the book they’re talking about; who say what they need to say – and then stop.

5) Be yourself

During your career, you’ll have books that work, books that don’t; books where you get it wrong (and perhaps it works regardless); books where you get it right (and perhaps it still doesn’t work); books that surprise you. But all it takes is one book: the book that gets you noticed. Which will happen. Trust your judgement, and listen to your instinct. Oh, and a piece of advice I was given, very early on (along with the editor always buys lunch): never blame anyone else if you’re turning a book down…

Thanks to Norah Myers for sourcing this guest post.