The (UN) Glamorous World of Publishing Revealed

For some reason, many people regard publishing as a glamorous industry. I suppose it’s because of all the media bigwigs, like Anna Wintour and Simon Newhouse who attend big media parties sponsored by Conde Nast or Bertelsmann.

Even getting PUBLISHED isn’t glamorous for most people. Believe me, I know. I’m a book editor. I work for a small house that is part of a big media group.

As with every business, there are grunts. And in publishing one synonym for a grunt is “editor.”

I became interested in becoming an editor the way most people do: I read books, I had a lot of ‘em on my shelves, and I didn’t know what else to do. (One difference: I didn’t start out as an English major.)

I got a job easily in educational publishing. You know, working on textbooks. But I had my eye on the kind of books I read, trade books (the books you see in bookstores). I wanted to work with, or maybe even discover, the next Anne McCaffrey or Stephen King.

So I took a job at a trade house that focuses on art books (not so much the coffee-table kind, but rather the cheap art instruction kind.)

The part of the job that makes me happy, as you can imagine, is working on the books. Coming up with the concept, talking to authors, agents, artists, designers, etc. And putting a fabulous book together. Personally, I also love attending trade shows, like Book Expo America, to see what the other publishers are doing and meet people who are interested in your books.

The hellish part of the job is the people you work with. Which reminds me of another reason why people become editors: because they like books, not people. A lot of people in publishing are just weird. If they didn’t have a job, they might be shut-ins. Unfortunately, you have to work with them.

There are clueless managers, egomaniacal marketing people, and bitter, underpaid passive-aggressive editors.

For years, my boss put me off of getting a raise and promotion by telling me every quarter “we don’t have the budget.” Meanwhile, they hired a consultant whose experience was not in books but in the fashion industry, who showed up two hours late for meetings and charged a bazillion an hour. (That’s the gig to have: be a “consultant.”)

The consultant’s job was to help us increase stagnant sales. Of course, it went nowhere. Except for the money, which went out the door.

You may also work with problem authors and agents. Our authors tend to be artists first, writers not-at-all. So in the past, the editors have had to practically rewrite the entire book. It would be easier to just write the book in the first place, and at least you’d get credit for it. However, those aren’t the problem authors. The problem authors are the ones who have enormous egos and demand that they look through every stage of proofs to examine them for the slightest imperfections, regardless of the deadlines; or any number of demands related to production, marketing, promotion.

Half the time you feel bad for the people in-house because of the demands of a screaming author. The other half of the time you feel bad for the author because of the incompetent handling of his or her book in-house. Eventually, the nightmare that is a book is published and makes its way to the remainder pile.

Book publishing is difficult because there is so much product out there. There are hundreds of thousands of books published a year from various sources, big houses, independents, foreign publishers, and out of all of those books only a couple dozen get on the New York Times Bestseller List (per category, eg. Hardcover Fiction.)