Editors are craftsmen, ghosts, psychiatrists, bullies, sparring partners, experts, enablers, ignoramuses, translators, writers, goalies, friends, foremen, wimps, ditch diggers, mind readers, coaches, bomb throwers, muses and spittoons—sometimes all at the same time.’ Gary Kamiya, co-founder of the online magazine Salon.com may have been writing about magazine editors, but this description is just as valid when applied to book editors.
So what do book editors actually do and what can you as an author expect when working with an editor? The first thing we all hope for is that an author will feel a sense of collaboration, that they’ll know their editor is there to support them, negotiate a way through the challenges, joys and frustrations of making a book, that they’ll have an understanding ear and a relationship they can trust.
If all their various responsibilities of an editor can be summed up in a single idea, it is to work closely with the author to turn a final manuscript into a finished book. But no publishing house is the same when it comes to the editorial process. In some, editors sit down with the manuscript to look at structure and help the author to tease out ideas, character, tone and intent. They might also undertake the copy edit; that is, check for syntax, spelling, consistency and readability. In others those roles are freelanced out and the in-house editor’s job is primarily one of project manager and quality controller; that is, they brief freelance copy editors, proofreaders and indexers and work with the publisher, designers, typesetters and printers to make a book the author can be proud of.
And what skills do editors need? There are the craft skills, which are fairly obvious and easy to define: an outstanding command of English, a meticulous eye for details, the ability to keep to deadlines and juggle lots of balls without dropping them.
Then there are the less tangible skills, the personal qualities that make a truly outstanding editor. Great editors are clear thinkers. They are open and responsive communicators, ask questions, are flexible and diplomatic, have broad world views and have an engaged and engaging mind. They aren’t prima donnas and don’t take offence easily. They curse pedantry but love consistency. But above all, they genuinely want to work with authors to make the best book possible, no matter whether it is an academic text or a work of significant literary fiction. They want authors to open that advance copy when it finally arrives to celebrate an extraordinary achievement.
The job of an editor is one of great privilege. Every day offers something new and we know we’ll never stop learning. We’re allowed to work with amazing authors, people who want to share their world, tell their stories and those of others, to educate, to expand the world of their readers or simply make us laugh.
Rebecca Kaiser is Editorial Director at Allen & Unwin. She has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years as an editor and publisher. Her particular areas of interest are biography, history and current affairs. She considers herself very lucky to have worked with authors such as Chris Masters, David Marr, Michael Kirby, Tom Keneally and Paul Barry.