Spotlights and Sound Bites: A Day in the Life of Managing Editorial

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This article was contributed by YPG member Tara Powers. If you are a YPG member and would like to contribute articles on publishing-related topics for our site, please contact Stephanie Bowen at sbowen@randomhouse.com.

Quick, name all of the departments that make up a publishing house. Okay, now check out your list. I’m sure you identified the big ones: editorial, publicity, sales, maybe art or graphic design. But did you remember to include the managing editorial department? Are you familiar with the managing editorial department or what it does? Well, if not, here’s a peek behind the scenes.

As an assistant project editor at W. W. Norton & Co., I often liken my department to a “communication bridge” between the editorial and production departments. The editorial department is concerned with the quality of the book’s content, whether that be the intricacies of a novel’s plot or the build-up of a scholarly argument. The production department focuses on aesthetics: What type of paper will be best for this book? How will the fonts and design layout complement and supplement the book’s content? Managing editorial seeks to ensure both sides are heard and to help create the best possible book out of this collaboration.

But then, you may wonder, why is a managing editorial department even necessary, since our work accompanies and expands upon what production and editorial are already doing? The key is in the first half of our name: managing. Project editors need to keep lots of balls in the air at once, all while keeping in mind the book’s overall schedule. We select appropriate freelancers for each book (some only like working on fiction, for instance) and make sure their work is completed in the time allotted by the production managers. Books also have a lot of moving parts, so to speak, and it’s often the project editor’s job to keep track of their progress. For example, does a particular title have photo credits outstanding? We follow up with the editorial assistant(s) to make sure these come through in a timely manner. Are there sections for the front or back matter that are still to come? We monitor their status and length, especially if they will need to be added to the table of contents or if their placement will affect pagination.

When we in managing editorial wear our production hats, we prioritize the appearance and layout of the physical page. Widows, orphans, stacks, ladders, bad breaks—all of these terms refer to textual display issues that arise when a manuscript is typeset. Although you might not consciously notice these, your eye will involuntarily stop if it perceives the same word repeated several times in a row along the right margin, or if the top line on a book page is the last short line of a paragraph followed by longer chunks of text. A project editor carefully checks every pass of a manuscript to find any such distractions and correct them before publication.

When we wear our editorial hats, we’re working with editors and authors to resolve content issues that our freelancers may discover. While we are not copyeditors or proofreaders ourselves (a common myth), it is our job to assess any suggestions a copyeditor or proofreader makes and create formal queries for the author. An important rule to remember: The book is the author’s baby. He or she is often pouring years of work and a significant amount of heart into this book, so it’s hugely important to be as respectful as possible when formulating queries. This might seem simplistic, but it’s good to keep in mind when deciding how to suggest delicately that something is incorrect or unclear! (Occasionally such detail and delicacy does prove frustrating. Once, for a memoir, I spent twenty minutes formulating a query about a brief mention of a specific car model, researching when each successive model of the car was released and trying to estimate which one could realistically have been on the lot when the author was there. The author then proceeded to cut the line altogether. Guess I can now add “classic car knowledge” to my cocktail party repertoire.)

This variety of roles is one of my favorite things about working in managing editorial. Whereas some of my coworkers lament that they only know the people within their departments, I’ve become friendly with peers in production, editorial, publicity, and art simply because my day-to-day duties—checking up on queries, legal permissions, even jacket layouts and cover copy—put me in touch with all of them. It’s also so rewarding to get query answers back from authors with comments such as, “Wow! Thanks for being so thorough!” Even though I may just be putting the proofreader’s findings into words, the fact that my efforts to communicate effectively with the author have put him or her at ease is paramount to me. I want them to feel like their books are in good hands.

Keeping the author’s comfort level in mind is particularly important in today’s industry, when every step of the publishing process is changing. You might be wondering how the rise of digitization and the e-book affects someone in managing editorial. I’m actually witnessing this change from an interesting vantage point, because Norton—like many publishing houses—has historically done most of its work by hand. Thus, my learning curve has been double—I can use long-hand copyediting marks that predate the technological revolution, but I’ve also noticed that more and more of our authors request electronic copyediting and submit their changes as PDFs. Because copyediting and updating can all be done in the same file, almost simultaneously, electronic copyediting streamlines the cleanup process immensely. But since there isn’t any publishing-specific copyediting software yet, we’re limited by the power of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes—and all those different comment bubbles can get pretty confusing when you’ve had four different people working on the same file. While some might scoff at the need to learn paper-based skills in our digital age, I think it’s aided my acclimation to the industry. Certainly, learning to navigate the digital process is increasingly valuable in a rapidly changing industry like publishing, but working with physical pages reminds me of the eventual product—a book—in a way that scrolling through a Word file just doesn’t. And it lets me develop a relationship with the book—its fonts, the way pages look—in a tactile way that’s much harder to do when viewed on a screen. (Getting to own pencils in every color of the rainbow is an added perk.)

Like any other department, I’m sure the years ahead will bring change for managing editorial. But in the meantime, when you next see your managing editor (or her assistant) in the hall, say hi. He or she will appreciate it.

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