Abaddon Books. Mr Moore was recently promoted to commissioning editor, and as a hazing ritual his bosses made him write a this guest post for us. All I had to do was to choose a subject for the post, and after some consideration I asked Mr Moore to explain what an editor does. To me, editors appears as mythical beings wielding great power and influence within publishing. The power of an editor can usually be told by the size of his tea mug...
Over to you Mr Moore!
Whaddup Erik (and Erik’s readers at I Will Read Books)...
So now I’m a commissioning editor. It’s a big damned change for me, and a pants-wettingly terrifying opportunity (in particular since, in the interests of making an early start on my first nervous breakdown, I’m having a baby and buying a house in the same month...).
But as I’ve discovered, a lot of people don’t actually know what a commissioning editor is – or, for that matter, what any sort of editor actually does! So I’m taking the opportunity to tell you a little bit about it now: what I used to do as an original-recipe editor, what I do now as a commissioning editor, and how I got this gig.
So, basically – and as with a number of industries – the higher up the ladder you go, the earlier in the publishing process you do much of your work. When you start out in the publishing world, you’re likely to be proof-reading: you’re given a largely finished book, written, edited, copy-edited, typeset and looking more or less as it will when it gets to the printers. You pick over it with your pen, reading closely and looking for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors and generally making sure it’s perfect, before it’s sent off. What you aren’t expected to do is have any say over style or language; the book’s ready to go, pending any problems you find, and the last thing you want to do at this stage is add any new errors or make any changes the author wouldn’t like. Proof-reading is most often done by freelance proof-readers, although it’s sometimes work for editorial assistants.
Your next job is probably going to be copy-editing. Now you get your mitts on the book at its last stage before typesetting, after it’s been written and rewritten. As a copy-editor, while you’re certainly interested in simple errors when you find them, your main interest is in style; picking out word-repetition, regulating pace, giving suggestions on word-choice, polishing the story as much as possible. A copy-editor takes a bolder approach than a proof-reader, since he’ll be sending the copy-edited manuscript back to the author to look over and approve his changes. Copy-editing is the job of freelance copy-editors or staff editors, depending on the way your company is structured; at Rebellion, we do most copy-editing in-house.
The next step up is the structural edit. The editor reads the finished, unedited manuscript (what we usually call the “first draft,” regardless of how many drafts the author has gone through before sending it in), and makes broad-strokes decisions about the book: narrative structure, story logic, character development, that sort of thing. This stage – the first editorial stage – is a dialogue, more than anything; the editor and the author exchange thoughts, toing and froing for as long as needed, until they’ve settled on a final version of the story and the author produces the “second draft,” ready for copy-editing. Structural edits are always conducted in-house, usually by an editor or desk editor (which are more or less the same thing).
Finally, the top of the ladder is commissioning. This is where an editor reads a submission (either a whole manuscript or a sample and synopsis), which may be unsolicited (sent directly by the author unprompted, also called “slush”), solicited (sent by an author in response to a specific invitation or offer) or agented (sent by an agent), and makes a call about whether he (or she, very often) would like to publish the book (perhaps, again, after a certain amount of to-and-fro with the author or agent about the story), then takes it to his boss (or, especially in the bigger publishing houses, a committee) to sign off, and finally negotiates the contract with the author. Commissioning is the work of a commissioning editor.
So this is basically what I’ve done. I was a desk editor, chiefly working on copy-edits, with some proof-reading and some structural editing, and I have gradually shifted in emphasis until, at the beginning of the year, I was doing very little proof-reading and about as much structural editing as copy-editing, and already responsible for a certain amount of commissioning (for instance, I created and commissioned both the Malory’s Knights of Albion series and the upcoming Hunter of Sherwood series, and ran the open-submissions month last year single-handedly). Then, with Jon starting up a new imprint this year (Ravenstone, launching this year with John Carter Cash’s Lupus Rex) to add to the Solaris imprint, it was suggested that I take the Abaddon imprint off his hands altogether; now, my responsibilities include not only reading and commissioning for Abaddon, but actually managing the imprint from a strategic point of view. I’m already planning the entire 2014 season right now!
Did I mention my impending nervous breakdown?
So you asked how someone could get into the game? Basically, a commissioning editor is an experienced editor. Get in on the ground floor as an editorial assistant (or as an editor, if you’re lucky) and put in time, getting experience at every stage in the editorial process and getting a feel for the industry and the market. To that end:
1. Get an English degree. You don’t need one (in the way, for instance, you need an MD to practise medicine, or an LLB to practise law), but everyone going for the job’s gonna have one.
2. Read! Read all the time. Read the genre you’re keen to work in to death, then read outside the genre as much as you can stand. A cook that doesn’t eat is a crappy cook.
3. Brace yourself for a life of mediocre earning power. I’m sorry about this, but at entry-level you’ll barely scrape along, and a few years in when you’re earned your stripes, you’ll be just about comfortable. But hey, we’re doing this for the love of it, right?
4. Once you’re in the industry, keep in mind that commissioning means understanding what will sell well and what’s in demand, so keep an eye open! Go to book shops all the time, look at what’s on the shelves and what they’re put up front. Read the Bookseller, watch the industry. Go to cons, meet people.
And that’s it! Good luck. It’s the best job in the world.
Thank you Mr Moore, and congratulations to your promotion :)