What Life as an Editor Entails, Series Two

Continuing the series on the role of an editor, Simon Winder, Publishing Director of Penguin Press and author of the forthcoming THE MAN WHO SAVED BRITAIN (UK: Picador/US: FSG), explains his editorial responsibilities.

Editors oddly do very little editing at their desks - editing has to be done on the Tube or at home or generally between times. In the office editors are responsible for a huge range of tasks and every day throws up some new combination. We are responsible for working with colleagues to decide on new projects to buy, negotiating advances with agents, working with authors during the often protracted process of writing the books, editing the final result, scheduling the book, ensuring the project’s financial soundness and, once the book is in production, acting as an overall booster - endlessly talking about each book to colleagues in sales, jacket design, marketing, rights, publicity and turning out all kinds of material (jacket copy, information sheets, sales conference presentations and so on) to condense the book into forms which allow a wide spread of enthusiasm.

The process of buying a project in the first place is collaborative. Most material offered to editors is turned down on the basis of its simply not fitting the current needs of that editor’s list - it is not good enough, it is too tangential to what the editor does well, it cuts across projects already under contract. Most editors will be aware before rejecting something of what might work well on somebody else’s list and will consult with other editors before saying no. Once an editor has decided an outline really does fit the publisher’s needs then his or her job is to persuade sales, marketing, rights and publicity (with different projects reliant more or less on different elements in these four groups) and other editors that this is a good idea - and, if it is, what the publisher could afford to offer the agent. This process can go well - or the editor can be overruled for all kinds of reasons.

Sometimes it feels like being trapped in a mad machine with dozens of levers to pull in quite random combinations - at others it is hard to imagine a more enjoyable and curious job. The personal responsibility for choosing the right books can be almost unbearable, but there are a lot of publishers and generally most books worth publishing will find a home. And if an editor cannot persuade his colleagues of a specific project’s merits, he or she can always just buy copies for themselves from a shop when they are eventually published elsewhere.