Encounters in Publishing #14: A Word of Warning to Bookworms Thinking of Working in Book Publishing

Most book editors got into the industry because we’re readers at heart. Growing up, we preferred a good book over just about anything. We were socially awkward and weren’t the best at making friends. Our favorite friends were fellow bookworms, people we could talk to about books, and if we were really soul mates, we could hang out and simply read together, without the pressure of talking. We loved the library and our English teachers. In a word, we were nerds.

Fast forward to adulthood. When it comes time to choosing a career path, becoming a book editor sounds like a dream job for a book geek. You get to work with writers, read manuscripts, and help bring books into the world. What more could we want??? While those things are all true, I’ve found that editors have a few core job requirements that run counter to every bookworm’s basic framework. Not only are these tasks required, but your ability to excel at them means the difference between a successful editorial career and a career flipping burgers (at least, the first two here). So, bookworms, be warned. If you’re thinking of a career as an editor, you’ll have to do some uncomfortable things:

You’re forced to eat with strangers: This is one of the biggest things nobody tells you about being an editor. If you want to sign up books, you have to reach out to literary agents, introduce yourself, and then ask them to lunch. It’s hard enough for most bookworms to make friends at all, let alone gather the courage to regularly eat with strangers. Just the idea of it made me nauseous when I was starting out. I’d get nervous about an upcoming lunch days in advance, fretting over what I’d wear, what I’d talk about, and worry that they’d think I was way too young to be taken seriously. Ten years later, I’m happy to say I no longer vomit at the idea of breaking bread with colleagues. I actually look forward to it, and I’ve made some excellent friends over agent lunches. Just be warned, though. This is something you’ll have to do. It can be terrifying, and is certainly not in the job description when they first sell it to you.

They make you speak in public: Most publishers schedule their books into three seasons, and each season, the editors sit before a boardroom of sales, marketing, and publicity people to pitch the titles they’re working on. The first time I had to do this about a year into my job, I thought I’d simply die. My throat closed up whenever I even tried rehearsing my pitch. My fellow junior editors and I would sneak into conference rooms the morning of our big meeting the practice our presentations on each other. One time, we were so wound up with nerves that we decided we had to weave an inside joke into our pitches if we were ever going to get through them alive. The solution? We’d work a mention of Woody Harrelson into all of our presentations. Pitching a book by a famous yoga instructor? Woody Harrelson was a client. Presenting a cookbook about a new raw diet? Woody Harrelson fully endorsed the regimen. The inside joke took the edge off, because really, how can you take anything too seriously when Woody Harrelson is involved? I haven’t fretted over a launch presentation since.

Much of your time is spent reading things you’ll never publish: On average, an editor publishes about 5% of the submissions they receive. That means much of your time is spent reading submissions that don’t make the cut for publishing. When you’re just starting out, you’re also usually reading slush (unsolicited/unagented submissions), which is full of projects you’re even less likely to publish. The good news is that as time goes by, you get to know agents (over lunch!), and they get to know the kind of stuff you *do* want to publish. So your batting average improves. But still, if your dream of working in publishing includes visions of getting paid to curl up with a Great American Novel, that won’t happen very often. It will over time—and only sometimes—but that’s not daily life. You spend much of your early years reading things that won’t ever see the light of the bookstore shelf.

You’re too brain dead to ever get any of your own writing done: Let me guess: You’re a writer yourself, and now that it’s time to look for a job, you figure you might as well work with books and writers, so you’re among kindred spirits. A great idea in theory, but ask any editorial assistant/aspiring writer how much writing they’ve gotten done since they started their job. You’ll probably hear crickets. There’s something about reading submissions and working on manuscripts all day that leaves you little energy to write your own brilliant novel. There are plenty of book professionals who do moonlight as authors, but it’s a long road. If you figure out how to do it in your early years on the job, it’s probably because you’ve forfeited sleep altogether (if you hadn’t already done that to get through the day job).

On the bright side, if you’re willing to see these as opportunities to build new strengths, you could stand a chance. These days, I can talk to any stranger about anything, whether it’s one-on-one or in front of an audience. And I enjoy it. I’ve learned how to become a thoughtful yet efficient reader, freeing up a little more time for the good stuff. And in terms of being too brain dead to write anything…well…I got to the end of this post, right?


Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and co-publisher of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, Salon, and, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at