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How to Become a DE

Once every few months, I’m asked to conduct an informational interview with
a person considering a career as a book editor. We meet off-site at a nearby cof-
feehouse, and over my hazelnut Italian soda I break the bad news gently. It is
this: the supply of qualified English majors is much greater than the demand
for them in publishing, and applicants with book experience are favored over
those without, no matter how many advanced degrees or decades of accom-
plishment in another field. Thus, the only way to become a book editor is to
start at the bottom and apprentice your way up.
There are two career ladders, each with the same number of rungs. The in-
house track has the obvious advantage of a steady salary with benefits. But it can
be harder to rise in-house because of low turnover in the senior positions, and
the in-house track involves much mind-numbing administrative work, even
on the upper rungs. The freelance track requires entrepreneurial pluck; but once
editors have impressed a key client or two, they never lack for work. Freelancers
can move more quickly upward toward substantive editing, and most report
greater job satisfaction because they spend all of their working hours actually
engaged with text.
Here are the rungs.
learn to proofread. Memorize the list of standard marks found un-
der “proofreading” in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and bone up on
grammar and bookmaking style by reviewing the resources listed in “Further
Reading.” Then take a proofreading test at a local publishing house. If you fail,
ask to see the test so you’ll know what you did wrong. Starting locally allows
you to take the test on site or deliver it by hand, and publishers are more likely
to engage the services of people whom they’ve met. If you’re in an entry-level
position in-house, you’ll still be required to take the house test. Once you’ve
passed it, you may be given some proofreading work during the day, but you’ll
mainly establish your proofreading chops by taking home freelance assign-
learn to copyedit. Take a copyediting course. Even if you’re an ace
grammarian, you’ll learn much about editorial convention that otherwise
comes only with publishing experience. Also, listing the course on your re-
sumé will distinguish you from those whose resumés clearly indicate that an
editing career is a backup plan. Once you’ve passed a publisher’s test, remind
your contact via email that you’re available for work—in-house editors are of-
ten reluctant to try a new freelancer, even one who has passed a test with fly-
ing colors. Make certain you do a flawless job on your first assignment, even if
doing so means spending many more hours than the budget allows: a wowed
staffer will speak highly of you, and soon you’ll be getting more offers than
you can accept.
If you’re in-house, taking on copyediting assignments may be difficult
How to Become a DE (continued)
while working full time. Instead, offer to copyedit in-house materials like copy
for jackets and catalogs.
show potential. If you can find one, take a course in developmental or
substantive editing. Signal your interest in such assignments by demonstrat-
ing a grasp of developmental issues in the projects you copyedit. Do not overstep
the bounds of a copyediting assignment and undertake developmental work without
the publisher’s express permission. Instead, in the cover memo that should always
accompany the copyediting jobs you return, let the client know that you noticed
certain developmental issues, prescribe editorial solutions, and offer to do the
work for an additional fee. The client probably won’t take you up on that offer,
but she may think of you the next time she has a job with developmental needs.
If you’re in-house, the most direct way to enter the developmental fray is as
the successful candidate for a position on the acquisitions staff. But you may
also participate in project development as a production staffer or marketer: of-
fer to read proposals and manuscripts at home, then write up reports that offer
sound developmental advice (see chapter 6).
be patient. Whether you choose the in-house track or the freelance one,
don’t expect to be elbow-deep in developmental work overnight. Your first as-
signment will likely be to restructure an introduction or a single chapter in a
manuscript that is otherwise solidly constructed. As a freelancer, keep updat-
ing your “List of Edited Works,” and be sure to break out the developmental
jobs under a separate heading. As an in-house staffer, be sure that your annual
performance review documents your developmental accomplishments. Sooner
or later, a big hairy job will come to you because nobody else wants it—and
then you’ll be on your way.

DE is an insatiable reader, but voracious reading habits do not guarantee de-

velopmental talent. Authors should insist on seeing evidence of a DE’s level
of experience.
Ultimately, though, authors must rely on the judgment of their publish-
ers in the selection of a suitable DE. An author should beware of allowing
the opinions of friends and loved ones to trump the better judgment of the
publisher: often a stranger can see more clearly into the heart of an author’s
work and provide more useful help in achieving its fullest expression.
Most publishers administer copyediting and proofreading tests, but
there’s no way to test a prospective DE. The best an author or in-house editor
can do is to ask for a list of books edited, references, and a sample or two.
review a list of books edited. If the book list does not distin-
guish developmental edits from copyedits and project management, then
this freelancer may be attempting to pull a fast one.

content: assessing potential 37

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