Monday, July 25, 2011

What to expect your first few years in editorial

It's summer intern season at work. Hachette Book Group has a great summer internship program (and yes, it's paid. If you're interested for next year, I would suggest checking the job listing website next February) for current college students and recent grads. As part of our interns' education, each week a different department gives a presentation about what they're all about. The presentation is open to the whole company, but we do focus on the type of things we think interns in particular will be interested in knowing. A few weeks ago, I gave the presentation for the Young Readers division, along with our Senior Art Director, Marketing Manager, and Publicist. One of the things we each talked about is what to expect in the first couple of years working in our respective departments.

I basically compared being an editorial assistant with the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Okay, it's not really like that. At least, I hope not.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, publishing, and editorial specifically is an apprenticeship. 99% of editors started as an editorial assistant, learned from their managers, and worked their way up.

The first couple of years are heavily administrative. You'll be answering phones, scheduling meetings, filling out forms, doing paperwork, photocopying, filing (although the latter two happen less and less as the job becomes more digital), mailing packages, doing expense reports, taking meeting minutes, ordering books, and basically doing any task your manager asks you to do. This can range from researching the perfect gift in the theme of an author's book, to tracking down a contract, to hand-delivering art to an agent's office, and more. Personally, I don't ask my assistant to do things like get me coffee or pick up lunch, etc, but other managers do.

In addition to all the administrative work, there's also a lot of editorial work to be done. You'll be writing jacket copy, catalog copy, researching competitive titles, and reading a ton of submissions and giving your recommendation as to whether your manager should acquire or decline something. You'll be drafting letters and other correspondences. You'll be attending our editorial meeting and reading books that other editors want to acquire and giving your thoughts. And yes, you'll be editing--first alongside your manager, and then (perhaps after a year or so of mastering all the admin stuff) more independently. After a year, you may be handling projects on your own--perhaps a paperback edition to start, or a buy in from the UK or Australia. Or maybe you'll take over editing a series once the first book has been edited. How much editorial work you take on, and how quickly, will depend mostly on how quickly you're able to master the other duties. There will be some editorial work right away, but much of it will wait until you've become more efficient with the other aspects of the job.

I think it's pretty safe to say that it will take you about six months before you feel comfortable in the job, and a year before you really master everything, mainly because it takes a minimum of year to follow the path of one book from start to finish.

Some administrative duties will get tiresome quickly, others you may never tire of. In general, though, the hope is that because you're working in an industry that you're passionate about, and working on books and project you love, you'll appreciate the value in the work you do, whether it's photocopying or editing. I know that I loved many of the administrative duties I had. For example, I loved answering the phone for my boss, getting to know the authors, illustrators, and agents she worked with. I still generally answer my own phone. I also loved making photocopies of original art, because I loved the opportunity to see it up close.

On average, expect to spend at least two years as an editorial assistant. The next step up is assistant editor, and for many people, this still means assisting your manager, while at the same time taking on some projects independently. At Little, Brown, our editorial assistants are allowed to acquire under the sponsorship of their managers, but it's not a focus of the job at all, and in fact is not really encouraged until you've been promoted to an assistant editor.

So, that's the first couple of years in children's editorial in a nutshell. Any questions?


Sangeeta said...

Excellent post!

emery said...

love this- publishing is such a passion-driven industry.

Lucy V Morgan said...

Thanks for this :)

I'm an intern at the moment--albeit online--and while my duties mostly consist of reviewing submissions, I'm still learning huge amounts. I agree about it taking a while to feel confortable; particularly where books are concerned, you start to learn to separate your own preferences and those of the market.

Naomi Canale said...

Great post Alvina! Now I'm curious as to how many applicants apply each year for the summer internship program? Is it competitive like in The Devil Wears Prada? :)

Anonymous said...

What educational background does one need to get started?

alvina said...

Hi Naomi,

I don't know the exact number, but it's huge, to be sure. It's competitive, but we have a lot of positions, so if you're a little open about which department you work in, there's a good chance you'll get placed.

Anon, read this post:

Shae said...

Thank you for taking the time to post this. Just having the nuts and bolts spelled out for me helps.

A question I've been pondering recently is what's a non-Yank to do to get into publishing? By Yank I mean New Yorker, just to be clear. I live in the South, while most publishing companies are very far north. From what I've seen, the best way to become an editorial assistant is to first start as an intern, but most internships are unpaid. New York is an expensive place, but it's even more expensive if the unpaid intern has to relocate just to work.

So are all of us in the other 49 states supposed to bite the bullet and apply for an internship? Or is there another way in?

Anonymous said...


I am a student very close to entering college. My goal is to get into the publishing industry and eventually become an editor. I'd greatly appreciate it if you could suggest any majors or minors aside from English that would help me along this career path.

Thank you.

alvina said...

Hi Shae,

Unfortunately, if you want to work in publishing on-site as an editorial assistant, you'll have to eventually move to where the industry is. There are a few publishing companies elsewhere, and you can also look into interning with literary agents, who are also occasionally outside of the Northeast, or working at bookstores or libraries in the meantime, as all of that experience is relevant. Many publishers (including mine) pay their interns, so it might be doable to live in NYC for a summer.

Anon, I was a Mass Communications major. Others in the industry are journalism majors. A former colleague was a biology major. It doesn't really matter what you major in as long as you have strong writing skills and read a ton/keep up on what's being published. Although English IS probably the most common major for editorial folk.