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How do I become an editor?

Written by Grace Keane based on an interview with Sarah Rigby

Senior Editor at Hutchinson Sarah Rigby, who specializes in non-fiction and historical novels, offered to give us an insight into books, publishing, agenting and how editors aren’t allowed to drink wine all day (anymore).

How did you get started in publishing?

I started off with an internship for a literary agency called Curtis Brown. I worked there for three months in the summer after my second year of university and did everything from chasing contracts, to sorting and reading submission piles, to wandering around town with envelopes hat needed delivering. I spent time getting to know what everybody in publishing did, what the different roles were and getting a sense of what I might want to do.

What happened after your internship? 

After finishing university I started sending out letters to all of the different publishers I’d come across in The Bookseller. I sent out hundreds of letters and CVs and from there was offered a couple of Editorial Assistant jobs. I ended up working as an Editorial Assistant for the independent publisher Atlantic Books. There were only about 30 people working there at the time so it was a really good way to start in publishing. Working for a small company means you can get involved with absolutely everything and so very quickly you get a brilliant overview of how publishing works.

What is a typical day for you?

As an editor you’re really the lynchpin of a project: your job is to champion the author and their book at all times, but in lots of different ways. Within the company, you’re the person feeding information and material to all other departments so that they can do their work. It’s a lot of project managements and a lot of championing the books in-house, and to the media via bloggers or twitter etc. It’s very variable.

Some people think that an editor’s job (and maybe this was more true in the past) is to sit in your office with a glass of red wine, put your feet up and edit manuscripts. Sadly, that’s not the truth of it. I think, like lots of people, the job is expanding into many different areas. To give your books and authors a chance of success you do need to get out there and to talk to lots of different people. Simultaneously, you need to be the person at the centre of the project within the company. It can be a lot of balls to juggle at times.

How long does it take to edit a manuscript?

Normally I give myself a couple of weeks – in between working on lots of other things as well. But it can vary; it can be a lot shorter or a lot longer. Usually I’ll say to an author, ‘my plan is to work solidly on an edit for these two weeks, but I’ll try and get back to you within the month with all my thoughts’. Sometimes you want to give yourself a bit of a chance to edit, go away and have a think, and then come back to it a week or so later. I can be nice to have this extra time and perspective on things, but it’s very dependent on the time of year and what else is going on in our schedules.

What is your advice for people wanting to become editors in publishing?

Obviously you have to enjoy reading a lot and enjoy reading things that perhaps aren’t necessarily to your taste. You have to take an overview in terms of the commercial potential of something as well as your own personal connection to it. But as time goes on and you start acquiring your own books, of course your own personal taste is something you refine and develop, and that does become more and more essential.

Every book has its own opportunities and challenges, as does every author. You have to be ready to be a people person and to really connect with the people you’re working with. This isn’t just in terms of authors, but also agents and reviewers and journalists and bloggers. You need to recognise the importance of building up these networks and connections as well.

Should writers send unsolicited manuscripts to editors?

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you’re in contact with them already. At the moment we just don’t have the capacity or the time to look through unsolicited manuscripts, and it’s just not fair on our current authors who do need our time, energy and efforts. Normally, I would get all of my submissions through agents. I would definitely recommend that people approach agents and pursue that avenue to publication. An agent is going to be your first and greatest champion, so they have a very important role to play.

What is the hardest thing about the industry?

I think the hardest thing is probably the number of very brilliant books that don’t break through. There are so many books published every year and there are only ever going to be a small number that can be bestsellers and come to public attention.

What would be your advice to writers?

I think it’s really important that people write the books that they feel compelled to write. I think trying to second-guess what the market wants – taking a hybrid approach by taking examples of what’s working and mucking it all into a new novel – is only going to lead to bad things. Also, the industry and readers are always looking for something new and exciting, and I think if you’re trying to second-guess what the market wants you’re not going to write something that you care deeply about. You’re going to write something that you think people care deeply about, and it’s not going to be a good book as a result.

What would be your advice on publishing success?  

Be very clear to agents when you’re writing letters to them: tell them what your book is about, what kind of books it’s comparable to, but also what makes your book unique and exciting and brilliant in itself. I think that having a sense of who you are and what your book is about is attractive to an agent. They are people too, and they’re going to be excited by the same things that readers are excited by: inventive, brilliant new books by writers who are really passionate about what they’re doing.

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