An Open Letter to My Aunt, or What Exactly Does an Editor Do?

Dear Fran Murray,

Thank you for the graduation gift and the letter. I was glad to hear from you after so many years. Grandma doesn’t talk much about her sisters, but I know that you and her were close growing up. She never told me that you graduated from CSULB too and that you were an English major like me.

To answer your question, I am attending Portland State’s graduate program in book publishing. As for your second question, yes, people do still make books. I laughed aloud when I read that. But the truth is, most people respond in the same manner when I tell them what my chosen field is–something like “Oh, so you want to be a writer then?”

Part of a book editor’s job may include writing, but writing isn’t what they do. There are several steps in the book editing process, and a different kind of editor is usually in charge of each step. However, the size of the editorial department generally depends on the size of the publishing house itself, so job titles may vary from company to company. At some small publishing houses, one person may be responsible for all of these duties (or more).

First, a book publishing house must acquire a manuscript, which is the job of the acquisitions editor. Publishing houses receive many submissions each year, which has caused many of large publishing houses to stop reading unsolicited manuscripts. Instead, these publishing houses work with literary agents who send them manuscripts. The literary agent has usually developed relationships with publishing houses, so they are aware of what each house is looking for in an author and manuscript. The agents help eliminate the time an editor might have once spent sifting through the slush pile–the informal term for unsolicited manuscripts. If an acquisitions editor decides that a manuscript is a good fit for the publishing house, they will acquire the manuscript by creating a budget and getting the approval of the publisher. The acquisitions editor must be able to sell the value (financial, cultural, and social) of the manuscript to the rest of the house before the book even reaches the customer. After they gain this approval, the acquisitions editor can begin negotiating the details of a contract with the author’s literary agent, who acts a liaison between the two parties.

Today, most manuscripts that arrive on an acquisitions editor’s desk have already undergone developmental editing. Many authors hire freelance developmental editors to help them prepare their manuscripts, or, in some cases, an author’s agent may also serve as a developmental editor. However, an author can also expect a publishing house that has acquired his or her manuscript to conduct a developmental edit of their own. Developmental editing focuses on the content and structure of a story, as opposed to the grammar and mechanics. Generally, developmental editors do not rewrite portions of the manuscript themselves, but they will send the author notes, pointing out passages that can be revised or cut entirely, characters that need to be more fully developed, holes in the plot that need to be addressed, or other ways that the story could be told more effectively. A developmental editor may also look for themes present in a manuscript, whether they are intended or not. The editor will point these themes out to the author during the developmental edit so that any themes that are too blatant can be scaled back and themes that are too subtle can be expanded on. Occasionally, a developmental editor may come across language or content that readers may consider to be offensive. In these situations, it is not the developmental editor’s job to remove the language or content, but, again, to point it out to the author. The author may not have realized that something they wrote was offensive and revise their manuscript accordingly. However, the author might choose not to remove it, because to do so would change the statement the author is trying to make, the plot, or the characters.

After both author and editor are pleased with the revisions conducted during the developmental edit, the manuscript is taken to a copyeditor. Copyeditors must be detail oriented and manage their time wisely. While most publishing houses adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) format, a few book publishers deviate. More often than not, this type of editing is done by freelancers. Since a developmental editor focuses on bigger picture items, a manuscript may still contain grammatical errors when it reaches a copyeditor. It is the copyeditor’s job to scan the manuscript for mechanical errors and misspelled or misused words. However, copyeditors must not allow the adherence of the CMS to overshadow the author’s own personal style.

Duties like fact checking or permissions editing are also given to freelancers. In some cases, however, this work is also done by a copyeditor. Fact checking can involve ensuring that the dates of events and other information in a nonfiction piece are accurate, like that the flight duration from Los Angeles to Portland is actually two and a half hours long, for instance. Permissions editing involves the copyeditor sifting through the manuscript for any places where the author has quoted material that another person has written. While publishing houses cannot be held liable for false information or material the author uses without permission, an editor will point out any concerns to the author before moving forward with publication.

In addition, some copyeditors may be asked to do the type coding for a manuscript. Type coding is when an editor prepares a manuscript to be sent to the designer. While an editor has no control over the overall design of a book, the editor can dictate general formatting of the text itself, like which pieces of the text will become chapter headings or need to be bolded or italicized.

At this point, the designer works with the printer to make a proof of the manuscript, or the “test version” of the book, before a complete print run is done. A proofreader goes over the proof, line by line. The proofreader usually has a copy of the type coded manuscript that was sent to the designer, and they compare the proof with the type coded manuscript in order to make sure no mistakes were missed by the copyeditor or introduced by the designer.

Editors are an integral part of the book production process. Their work, whether on a freelance basis or not, will always be valued and necessary. Editors not only find the manuscripts that get turned into the books that readers, like me, love, but they have to do so while creating budgets that produce a profit, so that the publishing house can make more books in the future. At the same time that an editor advocates for the financial stability and mission of the publishing house, the editor advocates for the reader and the author. An editor helps an author achieve the vision they have for their book, but they also assist the person who will eventually read that book by making sure the message is clearly written.

My Great Grandma Kate (left) and my Grandma Carolyn (right).

As you can see, Fran, an editor wears many hats. When you asked me, “Do people still make books?” I know you were only half serious. When I was a little girl, I would go over to your mother’s house in Seal Beach–—although to me she was always Grandma Kate. She’d take my sisters (Josh was too young then) into her spare bedroom, which was lined with bookshelves filled with children’s books. There might have been other books there, but if there were, I don’t remember them. One of us would pick out a book, and Grandma Kate would sit down in a large, cushioned chair in the center of the room and read to us. She never really retired from her job as a librarian; she just brought her work home with her. I only knew Grandma Kate for a short time, so I imagine that you have even more memories of her and those books. While I struggle with the changes in book publishing, like the transition to e-books and the closing of bookstores, I realize that I still want my own children to experience those same memories. I think it’s important to remember that change does not mean that the world of book publishing is over. The form a book takes shape, from print books to e-books, may change over the next several decades, but editors will always be needed if authors and publishers plan on producing high quality works that readers remember for years to come.

Your Loving Niece
Melanie Figueroa


  1. Pingback: New Years Resolutions (For Writers) | The Poetics Project

  2. Pingback: Resolutions For Writers | The Poetics Project

  3. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: Resolutions For Writers | The Poetics Project

Tell Us What You Think.