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Life in the Shoes of an Editorial Assistant

There is no original way to say, “Like everyone else who works in publishing, I fell in love with books at an early age. I discovered helping authors make them was actually a career, and now in addition to my novel I’m shopping around, I work in publishing.”  So let’s skip over that.

I attended my first Book Expo back when it was still Book Expo America—while I’m not attached to the name, I will admit saying “Bee-ee” instead of “Bee-ee-ae” is hilariously difficult.

Attending every day of that publishing industry conference on a ticket I bought myself, under the guise of being a “Freelance Editor” (which was true, but I was also 20 years old and very confident in my abilities working for a digital-first vanity press), was magical.  I scribbled notes until my hand shook.  I exchanged business cards with Chinese publishers.  I had galleys signed by my childhood heroes, then went through the bags of books on my train ride home (back when NJ Transit was reliable, RIP) and counted typos for funsies.

MW Edited professional photo

At that point, I already knew I was going to be an editor.  What I didn’t know was exactly how to get there, and it turns out it’s a bit more complicated than one might think.

It took a few Google searches (“How to be an editor” “How to be an editor now” “How to be an editor without being an editorial assistant”) to ascertain that there’s a step by step process to becoming an editor, and while it is sort of there to ensure someone is around to book conference rooms on short notice and forward author fan mail and send out review copies for… three… hours…

Being an editorial assistant is actually an amazing job.

You are surrounded by books and by people who love books all the time.  No one will ever roll their eyes when you talk about what you’re reading.  It’s heady.

You get a crash course on how to be an editor.

In this day and age, you will likely have two extraordinary bosses who specialize in very different areas, and you will get to work on all those books!  You will get to email authors good news, you will get to read your bosses’ edits and maybe even make a few of your own, you will get to research the market and understand that so much of this is a numbers game—

(You will be upset by this.  Very few people in publishing like numbers.  Perhaps you, like me, went into publishing to escape numbers that did not pertain to your own salary or the sure-to-skyrocket sales of whatever the first book you publish as an editor will be.  Get over it and accept that the numbers will always matter, that the next book is based on how much this similar-but-not-quite-the-same book sold, and work that eighth-grade math skillset to your advantage.)

You will learn how to politic, however much you resent it.  You will make friends.  You are unlikely to make enemies—book people are great people.  You will come to love all-company social events like HBG’s Third Thursday, with free pizza and beer and never enough garlic knots.  You will revise a P&L statement five times, you will make a passionate pitch for a book that the team ultimately decides to pass on, you will see your name in the acknowledgments section of a printed book for the first time.

(You will take a picture of it and send it to your mom and dad.  You think you won’t now, but trust me: you will.)

You will get to distill an entire book, hundreds of unedited pages, into less than 200 words of text.  It will be tweaked beyond recognition before it ends up on the book jacket, but you will drag your friends into bookstores, brandish the book, and whisper, “I wrote some of that!  And now people read that copy and decide if they want to buy this book!”  Then you’ll have to explain what copy is.

One day, you will get thrown a project that you actually know what to do with.  How to shape the text, how to write the jacket copy, how to collaborate with an author to ensure their vision is achieved.  And that will only be the beginning because you know once you are given one project, there will be others.

Being an editorial assistant isn’t just a holding pattern.  It’s a crash course on how to become the best editor you can possibly be.  It’s when you’ll figure out what books you’d like to acquire.  It’s when you go out with your other assistant friends and complain and celebrate and dream.  It’s a hell of a lot of work, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.