Do you want to be part of the team that decides which books are published? Are you skilled at deconstructing stories, knowing what’s missing, and how to make them better? Do you dream of being part of the process that shapes promising manuscripts into stellar, sellable books? If you want to be the one who gets quality books into the hands of readers, a career as an editor or publisher might be for you. Scroll down to read what it’s like to work at a well-known publishing house from an expert in the field, Eileen Robinson, publisher of Move Books, editorial and marketing for new imprint Reycraft Books, and one of the kindest, most inspirational people I’ve ever met.
How did you get started as an editor?
I fell into it. I was working as a temp at different companies and wanted desperately to get into magazine publishing. I had written a query for Better Homes and Gardens on College Kids and Credit Card Debt. I was in college at the time (in a magazine writing 101 class) and used to see all these banks with their offerings, as I entered the college. Our final assignment was to get something published. Of course the teacher didn’t expect anything grand. He was talking about publishing in the school newspaper – lol! But I didn’t know that. So I sent the query to the appropriate section of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. I got a letter saying they would either pay me $50 for the idea or $500 to write a 500-word article. My teacher was stunned–he had prepared me for rejection. Rejection has always had a strange effect on me — I wanted to prove the opposite. So I thought, I’m going to be a magazine editor, but that was not to be.
I was temping in a doctor’s office one day, and called the temp agency begging them to get me out. I just couldn’t read the scrawl. It was my first day on that particular job, and it was giving me a headache. I had been temping for a long while and loved it, but now I was at my wits end and asked her to please just find me something in publishing, anything. So she did. The next day I was magically at Scholastic in the marketing department, working for a fantastic woman, Marketing Director Pamela Crowley. I had a little marketing experience freelancing at Sony Music and working in marketing at Mercury Records, so it seemed a natural fit. Ms. Crowley gave me my start and later encouraged me to apply within the company. She said, “You want to be an editor, go be an editor. Go get the position that’s for you.” I took her advice, and I guess I must have had an impressive portfolio for a young person (and I smiled a lot and bored them with all my passions and dreams I’m sure), because suddenly I was an Associate Editor in the Education Group.
I worked for Stacy Cinder, Alice Dickstein, Gail Tuchman, Greg Worrell, Margery Mayer, Jackie Carter, Walter Kossman (Harcort), and many others as I moved around and up in publishing. In the Education Group, I started out with Adriana Dominguez, now an agent at Full Circle Literary, Editorial Director Wiley Blevins who took me under his wing – he still says, “I knew her when she was a baby editor” LOL – and who I now have the pleasure of working with side-by-side, building a new trade imprint at Reycraft Books. Don Curry (who had the most infectious laugh) kept me from shriveling up under pressure, as well as friends like Elizabeth Zapata, Cynthia Walker, and later other brilliant editors like Christine Florie, Wendy Mead, Carolina Conde, Simone Ribke, and the list goes on. Scholastic tested everything I had, and threw me in the fire. What a time! I evolved into an editor and, eventually, decided to step out and become a publisher.
What was/is a typical day like?
Mine was not a typical editorial job. I was able to experience more than most editors across many markets because Dick Robinson, owner of Scholastic, liked divisions working together to create the best product possible. I worked on parts of the core reading program and supplemental projects. Later I moved into school and library publishing for Scholastic and Harcourt, trade, book clubs, and magazines. A typical day was like any other job—you come in, work on the projects you need to work on, go to lunch (sometimes), go home, and then start all over the next day. However, there were always books at different stages in the editorial process so that kept it interesting—discovering new authors, contracting the manuscript, a thrill for both you and the author, developing, molding and shaping, fiction and nonfiction, working with design to choose the right illustrator and envisioning how art (or photos) and text meet—bringing a book to life. It felt like a living, breathing thing to me with so many pieces and parts. There were always meetings. The ones I cringed in the most were the production meetings where the managing editor went down the list of where each project was on the schedule. No one wanted to be behind or you better have a good excuse LOL!
As my positions became more complicated, I got more into writing marketing copy, doing P&Ls (Profit & Loss Statements), and learning about paper, printing and binding. I presented publishing plans to sales, the most fun group of people you’d ever want to meet, but that didn’t stop my palms from sweating, and attended education and trade shows. And now a typical day is so much more because business and creative must meet. I must see the whole, every day.
What training, education or preparation would help prepare someone for your job?
Many editors I know have a Liberal Arts Degree, or a Master’s in teaching. Today they have publishing programs in a lot of colleges which didn’t exist when I was coming up. Back then, you majored in English and wrote for your college paper. In my English classes, I discovered what I liked and disliked, and formed my own opinions which encouraged me to read more. I think I just had a passion for books and the authors who wrote them. I spent my time in libraries and bookstores (and less time on the computer, which at the time was a means to an end, not entertainment).
Internships in publishing have also become an integral part of college education today. I don’t think you need a specific degree to be an editor but you definitely should be a reader and get hands-on experience. Classrooms might give you a foundation, but there are so many variables in the process that you can only learn by doing. The best preparation is read, read, read and read some more. But it’s probably your natural inclination to do that anyway. You were doing it even before you discovered you wanted to be an editor (or a writer).
What skills do you think help you do your job well?
Staying open to others and admitting when I need help—if those count as skills…And learn a little bit about a lot. It takes a village to make a book–editorial, art and design, marketing, production, manufacturing, finance, sales. Find out where you fit in the process and how you can help others do their job better. Find out how the other parts of the process effect what you do. And you eventually have to be able to see past loving a manuscript. Do you and the author have a good vibe? Do you understand each others goals and needs? Is the author willing and open to revising? How does it stand up in the market next to other books like it? Is there a hole in the market that needs to be filled? What’s the financial investment needed to make this book work? Because guess what? The people who look at the bottom line care not only about your passion and the fact that you think this book is the most brilliant ever, they also want a return on their investment down the road.
What type of person would be a good fit to be an editor or publisher?
I’m sure it’s a combination of things: Someone who loves to read, is interested in how books get made, wants to see something he or she created out there in the world affecting people – informing and teaching them, entertaining them, giving them joy, helping them find and see themselves.
What are the downsides of your job?
I get overwhelmed because I take on too much. You have to be able to say NO. That’s hard for me. Even now, I sometimes underestimate the time it takes to complete a task because I’m so meticulous. And can I just say—get some sleep! You have to nourish your body just as much as you nourish those manuscripts and authors.
What are the upsides of your job?
Depending on your perspective, I guess this can be an upside and a downside – I’m one of a handful of people of color running a publishing company, and the industry has been slow to learn. I have often been one of few people of color at most industry events or in-house at my level. But I know my colleagues, white, black, all colors and backgrounds, the publishing world at large is mindful and working towards change in the diversity of the industry. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine what you can be if you haven’t seen it.
And it’s exciting and I am honored to be able to help get books into the hands of young people! I’m bringing them together through stories – a safe place to learn, grow, and be. I should know, I spent countless summers in the library hiding behind the stacks reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and many, many other books and authors that seemed to appear when I needed them. I’m getting books into the hands of young people! That’s it. At the end of the day, I hope some child or teenager is enjoying what we – the author, the team, and me – helped create for them. And I get to help authors achieve their dream as they help me achieve mine.
What resources, professional journals, organizations or social media sites keep you informed about your industry?
The SCBWI (Society of Book Writers and Illustrators), Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, The Horn Book, and social media such as Twitter.
Any words of advice for people interested in this job?
Get out there! Nothing beats relationships in the real world. And I’m talking about getting out there and talking to people who are doing what you want to do. Spend time getting to know people as individuals, not just slipping manuscripts under their bathroom stall (yes that really happened to me).
Read, read, read. Do internships at both big and small publishers. If you are not sure what kind of publishing you want to go into, look at different divisions – trade publishing, school and library, education etc. Explore if you can. Talk to editors. If you can’t get an internship, ask an editor if you can shadow him or her for a day. Find a mentor–someone who can help you explore the industry, give you some homework to do, get you entrenched in the life of an editor. You are the first step to making it happen!
Eileen Robinson has worked with children’s writers all over the world for over twenty years. Former Executive Editor at Scholastic and Editorial Director at Harcourt, she has acquired published works from the U.K. and Italy, and created original works for U.S. markets. Eileen teaches the art of revision with Harold Underdown at The Highlights Foundation and workshops/webinars through Kid’s Book Revisions. She is publisher for Move Books—getting middle-grade boys to read—and is helping to build a diverse imprint, Reycraft Books, with a special focus on “Own Voices”, acquiring original and licensed works from around the world. Find out more about Move Books at www.move-books.com, and about Reycraft Books at www.reycraftbooks.com.