I was eager to grab a front row seat for “From Passion to Pages: The Editor’s Job,” an NYU Summer Publishing Institute panel where editors gave us an inside look at their backgrounds and experiences. Their message: everyone’s journey is unique and personal, and with hard work, we have the potential to achieve our lofty career goals.
Chris Jackson, Executive Editor of Spiegel and Grau/Random House, moderated the discussion, and the panel included Mauro DiPreta, Associate Publisher of IT Books; Brenda Copeland, Executive Editor of Hyperion; Will Balliett, President and Publisher of Thames & Hudson; Eamon Dolan, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Penguin Press; and Beth de Guzman, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Grand Central Publishing.
The moderator began the discussion by explaining to us that acquiring submissions, editing, and overseeing the publication process all constitute an editor’s job. The editor acts as a guardian and holds the author’s hand every step of the way; editors have to believe in their ability to judge a piece from its first draft. We learned that nearly all editors are unsure of themselves at times, and it was comforting to see that even the “best” have doubts.
Jackson elicited fascinating responses from his questions on a variety of topics. When asked how she entered the editing world, Copeland sent a sigh of relief through the audience by explaining that she got into publishing in her late thirties. She calmed some of our built-up tension by stressing that it’s never too late to do what you want to do. DiPreta offered comfort when he explained that he didn’t experience a pivotal, career-defining moment magically resulting in obtaining a dream-come-true job. “I was born in a shed in North Dakota…” he joked. DiPreta then got serious and revealed his habit of reading submissions at 2:00 a.m., as he did with the manuscript of Marley and Me. His wife woke up and found him teary-eyed, surrounded by loose pages. The next morning, DiPreta put in a bid on the book, which went on to become a massive bestseller (and a film). “If you cry, you must buy,” he told the amused audience.
Dolan shared the important notion that at the heart of any editing task, “structure is destiny.” He explained how we need to bring it back to the basics when it comes time to criticize a piece of writing. When the conversation then moved to how an editor can possibly estimate if a book will sell, Balliett explained that anticipating a book’s potential audience is something you have to keep in mind constantly, yet not live by. Simply loving a book is not enough for an editor.
For Dolan, there is a secret question he asks himself before bidding on a manuscript: “Would I actually pay $30 of my own money to read this?” If the answer is no, then an editor should pass on a book. De Guzman reiterated a key point that there’s a reader for every single book out there, but the question remains, “How big is that audience?”
The ability to hone in on one thing that makes a book special and unique is at the heart of publishing. As Jackson advised, “You have to be able to articulate that [special something].” Editors also have to refrain from underestimating authors and realize and appreciate the amount of work and passion that goes into writing a novel. And remember, they cautioned, most books are not bestsellers. Still, whether or not a book becomes a hit with readers, our panel agrees that seeing a book they’ve worked on change the way people think and live their lives is the greatest reward.
by Stacy Matusik