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Everything you wanted to know about becoming an Editor

Written by Kate Lopaze

If “bookworm” is one of the top ten words to describe you, chances are you’ve at least thought about a career in publishing or editing. Or maybe you’re like I was, just out of school: holding an English degree in one hand and a lifelong love of books and writing in the other, but unsure of how to make that into a career path. Whether you’re already interested in the literary arts or thinking about making a career switch, you might want to consider entering the editorial field.

Book publishing

When you think “editor,” you probably think of a traditional book editor: a pile of manuscripts on the desk, poring over a writer’s words with a red pen. And that’s definitely a part of what book editors do. They also do so much more, though: they look for new authors, negotiate contracts, work with writers to develop and refine the book’s manuscript, shepherd a book through the entire publishing process by working with different departments, and maintain author and book agent relationships for future books.

There are also editors who specialize in specific parts of the process, like copyediting. These copyeditors get manuscripts once they’re already finalized, and go over everything with a fine-toothed comb to fix grammar, identify any inconsistencies in the text, make sure that an author’s voice is consistent, and generally whip the book into shape. Proofreaders are a type of editor who reviews text to make sure it’s consistent from one pass to the next.

Editors who work in book publishing need strong writing, grammar, organizational, project management, and critical thinking skills. They also need to be good communicators and good collaborators as well. Books require so much teamwork at every step, and good customer service skills are key in working with everyone involved—especially authors—to make sure the final manuscript is everything it can be.

Good salesmanship is also a part of acquisitions editing: an editor needs to be able to articulate why the company should buy a potential book/book proposal, and establish a contract with the author. So it’s important to be able to advocate, as well as be savvy about industry and cultural trends.

The field for book editors includes the “big 5” book publishers (Hachette Book Group, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Macmillan), but there are hundreds of smaller trade publishing houses as well, in addition to academic presses, educational publishers, or specialty companies that publish books. It’s also possible to freelance. Copy editors, especially, are typically contract workers or self-employed people who are hired by publishers to work on manuscripts. 

Book editors typically need a bachelor’s degree in a related field (like English, creative writing, or communications), but editing is a job that can certainly be learned through on-the-job training if you have the right set of skills. Editorial is usually a through-the-ranks position. A standard career progression for a book editor is:

  • Editorial Assistant
  • Associate Editor
  • Editor
  • Senior Editor
  • Executive Editor
  • Publisher

The salary for book editors vary depending on the level of seniority, with Editorial Assistants at $38,217 and Editors at $63,400 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median salary for a copyeditor is $51,056. Freelance copyeditors, proofreaders, and editors negotiate their own rates and are typically paid on a project basis.

Print/online publishing

Editors are a major part of print and digital journalism as well. The model is a bit different from book publishing, where you might spend months working on a single book. Newspaper, magazine, and website editors work with writers to find and develop content, often on tight turnarounds—especially for publications or sites that specialize in news or current events. Editors are typically responsible for commissioning content, working with writers to get it to spec, revising text, making sure it meets particular style or content guidelines, communicating with marketing, legal, and design stakeholders—and doing it all on a set schedule.

Editors who work in print or digital media need strong writing, grammar, organizational, project management, and critical thinking skills. Time and project management are especially crucial, with websites often needing frequent and updated content.

Traditional newspaper and magazine editing have largely shifted online, but there are still a number of companies that do print editions (often with a digital component or version). A bachelor’s degree in English, communications, media studies, or similar is a good gateway, but like with book editing, the skills and on-the-job experience are key. Print and online publishing editorial jobs may include:

  • Fact Checkers, who review and verify information to determine accuracy
  • Editors (including Assistant Editor, Associate Editor, and Executive Editor), who are involved in writing, commissioning, or editing content before publication
  • Managing Editors, who oversee publication schedules and manage logistics
  • Copy Editors, who review content for grammar and style

The median annual salary for editors in various forms of media is $63,400, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Managing editors make a median annual salary of $64,933, and fact-checkers make a median annual salary of $61,890.

While traditional media are changing and becoming more digital all the time, one thing that’s not changing is the need to have quality content in books in all forms, magazines, newspapers, and websites. Editors are essential gatekeepers for words and ideas, and if you’re thinking about getting into the field, it can be a rewarding career path for someone who loves the printed word. 

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.