I interviewed 15 editors whose work I admire for my new podcast, What Editors Want, to find out what they look for in a book and what tips they have for other editors.
Here’s some of what I learnt along the way:
There is no one path: I met editors who had risen through the ranks from editorial assistant all the way to publisher, but I met many too who had entered commissioning roles later in their career, transitioning from other departments, bookselling, literary agencies and even other industries.
Non-publishing experience counts: In fact, experience outside of publishing was a recurring theme, especially early in the editor’s careers, in various branches of academia and industries like music or advertising. Often this non-book experience had greatly informed their editorial career.
Show initiative: For anyone hoping one day to work in a commissioning role, it’s important to always be on the lookout for a book you believe in, even if reading manuscripts doesn’t fall into your current job. Many of the editors cited a particular book or author who was crucial to their breaking into commissioning that they spotted or championed. Some aspiring editors had volunteered to read the slush pile, others had discovered promising writers in magazines, story competitions and live readings. At least two interviewees had represented authors as agents before going on to publish them as editors.
Look for a mentor: An important mentor was common to many editors, someone who showed them the ropes, and eventually believed in them. The good news is we work in an astonishingly friendly and approachable industry. Responses to my interview request for editors’ precious time was overwhelmingly positive, as was their continuing support. If you are looking for a mentor or some advice from someone you admire – ask!
Understand what your list needs: Editors need to know their own taste of course, but it’s equally important to know the publisher you work for and what will fit on their list. Many spoke about how their commissioning had adapted to fit different jobs, and how it was important for young editors to understand this dual requirement of the role. Meanwhile for the editors who had founded their own press defining their taste was especially important, and went on to inform the ethos of the company.
Understand what success looks like: An editor’s job is to facilitate someone else’s greatness, and our achievements will always be dependent on the authors we can recruit. Since an editor’s work is by definition invisible, how do you measure success? Ultimately books need to be successful in commercial or critical terms, editors continually reminded me, or else neither the publisher or editor will last long.
Above all, be a champion for your books: There will never be a shortage of books in the world, so how do you get your colleagues and the wider world interested in what you’re publishing? It goes right back to what you commission: books you think are good and can sell, of course, but books you are excited and passionate about too, because it will be an editor’s initial championing of a book that can start everything, or not.
Luck plays a part: Publishing will forever be unpredictable. For the books that worked, editors spoke about how the stars aligned – review coverage, cover quotes, publicity – but only a small part of this is in a publisher’s control. The truth of this job is that for every book that works there will be many that don’t. Whether a book is a hit or not is down to a magic not even the best in the business can summon at will.
There are many ways to be an editor: Finally, I was deeply encouraged for the for the future of publishing by the range and brilliance of the editors I met. While some are carving out their own niche in traditional spaces, others are forging new ways. I met editors who had decided at least half the books they publish will be from BAME authors, editors creating audio-first projects to take advantage of the boom in audiobooks, and editors who, rather than specific books, publish authors and hope to work with them for their whole writing career.
What Editors Want is available from iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. A list of the editors interviewed so far:
Louisa Joyner – Faber & Faber
Scott Pack – Eye & Lightning Books
Anne Meadows – Granta
Emma Herdman – Hodder & Stoughton/Sceptre
Kit Caless – Influx Press
Susannah Otter – Quadrille
Mark Richards – John Murray
Alex Christofi – Oneworld
Jacques Testard – Fitzcarraldo Editions
Alexa Von Hirschberg – Bloomsbury
Tony White – Piece of Paper Press
Hannah Westland – Serpent’s Tail
James Roxburgh– Atlantic
Željka Marosevic – Daunt Books
Jenny Lord – W&N
Philip Connor was the inaugural winner of the Faber & Faber scholarship to UCL and now works in the editorial department at Unbound. Follow Philip on Twitter at @philipconnor42.