Getting started as an editor

Ala alg’s post about getting a job in publishing.

When I tell people that I edit children’s books, their first answer is, “Oooh, how fun!” My answer is usually something like, “Yes, but it was also a lot of hard work to get here. And I’m still working.” But having a lot of fun while I do it!

Getting my dream job was not a straight path, unlike many in trade book publishing. The stereotypical path of a children’s book editor is to start out as an editorial assistant in a New York house and work your way up. You use certain skills as you do that, though, that I also used in my much-longer path to figuring out just what I wanted to do and how to do it.

Behind the cuts below, I’ve talked about each phase of my path to becoming a children’s and YA fantasy editor, but to sum up, I worked my way through college in publishing jobs, being willing to take any job or internship that presented itself as long as it was giving me more experience in the field. I was willing to work for cheap, if anything—while scrounging to make a living because I had no family money. As I worked at it, eventually I got jobs that led me closer and closer to my goal. After graduation, I still didn’t get my dream job, though, and needed to go to grad school to get that extra edge in the children’s lit field. While in grad school, I got some more experience, working for an educational publisher. And then, in a stroke of good networking at a part-time bookselling job, I got a tip that led me to the job opening for my current job. Long road, but using the same elements that everyone else did: who you know and what you know. Network and build your skills. And then move to where the jobs are.

It starts way back when I was an animal science-prevet major at the University of Illinois. I decided I hated chemistry. So I picked the best-sounding major that would keep me within the College of Agriculture, so I could keep my scholarship. Thus, I became a human development and family science major. Worked in a few preschools.

At the time I had a friend who worked at a local prepress. My friend copyedited college textbooks, and it occurred to me that it would be a lot more fun to do that than to chase toddlers and two-year-olds around for $5 an hour at a daycare with no benefits. I love kids, but teaching wasn’t fitting me, especially teaching an age group that was mainly potty-training.

I got hired there as a typesetter, programming books in Unix in the early 90s, about the time that Quark was first being introduced. Another team was figuring out Quark, but I worked on math and physics textbooks, and the equations came out looking better when done in Unix.

Later, taking some time off school, I went home and worked at the local newspaper for a few months. I then moved to Utah, where I got a job editing phone books for Phone Directories Co., where I was considered the expert at catching errors in the White Pages. Talk about repetitive and detail-oriented. While working at PDC, I was also working on finishing my bachelor’s degree at BYU. I ended up quitting PDC so I could go back to school full-time.

I got a job on campus at the library in the Special Collections department, where I got to see ancient texts, Victorian books, and all sorts of amazing things about the history of publishing. During summers, I juggled that job and a job at the University Press, where I used my photography skills (one of my many majors in those years) to make slides of artwork for professors to use in class. While working at the press, though, I also got to help out in the press itself whenever they needed an extra hand.

During this time, I took a children’s literature class as an elective in my major (back to human development and family studies, with an emphasis on children’s literature, so I could graduate quicker, even though I was toying with the idea of becoming an editor after graduation). It was like lightning struck–wow! I could combine these interests! I could do good things for children, and I could work with books! It was an epiphany—one I can’t believe I had earlier.

So I took an editing class in the English department. Completely out of my major, but I thought I needed to hone my skills a little. In that class, I met , who announced that Leading Edge magazine was looking for students to join its staff as slush readers. My time reading slush at that magazine directly led to getting my first job out of college. Plus, I’m still good friends with many of the people I met there.

Also in that class, I heard that the director of the Humanities Publication Center was hiring an editorial assistant for the next semester. Not only did I take an unpaid internship with him the next semester, I got the EA job, so I did a lot of copyediting of campus journals like the Journal of Microfinance and the Journal of Comparative Religion.

After college graduation, I couldn’t find a good full-time job in Utah (big surprise), so I moved home to western Illinois to figure out where to go next. I had no money to just up and move to New York, so I knew I needed to find something a little more local, even if it wasn’t my end goal of children’s literature.

No real opportunities presented themselves near home, but I did know some people in Chicago, and called them up to see if I could stay with them for a few days while I interviewed for a job. These friends suggested that I cold-call all the publishers in the Chicago area from the phone book, just to see if they were hiring. So I went down the list alphabetically, and Barks Publications was hiring. When I sent in my resume, I didn’t even know what they published, but I was hungry for a job, and they’d just had their publisher’s assistant quit. I took the job.

Turns out they published a trade magazine in the electromechanical aftermarket (industrial electric motors, and everything related to them). My grandpa was an electrician and I grew up on a farm, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to learn all I could about motors so I could be advanced through the company and become an editor. I started out answering phones
at the front desk as publisher’s assistant, and a year later, I was associate editor, in my own office writing articles, editing columns, and copyediting the whole final magazine.

But I still wanted to do something with children’s literature, so I read all I could, joined the local SCBWI chapter, and even tried to take a night class in writing. But that class was filled with literary snobs who looked down upon children’s lit, genre fiction, and generally anything commercial, so I dropped it within a week and started looking for other options.

Eventually in my search, I found children’s literature master’s programs. There was the writing for children master’s at Vermont College, or there were children’s lit programs at Illinois State in Bloomington and at Simmons College in Boston. At that time, I attended an SCBWI presentation by Anita Silvey, who once edited the Horn Book magazine and had just recently retired from being editor in chief/publisher at Houghton Mifflin children’s trade. She taught at both Vermont College and Simmons College, so I asked her advice when she signed my book. Her answer–“If you want to be an editor, Simmons College, no question.” No other school had the contacts and the depth of education in the literature itself, she said.

Simmons it was. I never really planned on being in a master’s program–it took me nine years to get my bachelor’s, and that tends to discourage one from going on to higher degrees–but I thought that even if I never finished the program, I’d be better off for having experience in the children’s field.

Grad school, especially in Boston at a private college, is expensive. So I started looking for ways to make it less expensive. One part of that was getting a job: temping at Houghton Mifflin in the School division. When they offered me a full-time editorial assistant position, I took it and went on sabbatical to raise a little money for school. Soon they’d promoted me to associate editor when they discovered my experience. I made a lot of good friends at Houghton, and editing social studies textbooks for 5th and 6th graders really taught me a lot–both about editing/the publishing business and about history, geography, and culture.

But I still wanted to work in trade children’s books, so I went back to school after about a year. Took Anita Silvey’s publishing class, took a really great folklore class, and a lot of other classes that really delved deep into the literature. Got an internship at the Horn Book that fall, sorting books and doing other clerical jobs for both the Magazine and the Guide. Had a great time being a “intern fly on the wall,” as Roger Sutton once put it, getting to sit in on meetings about how they chose the starred books each month.

The next semester I got a part time job at the local Barnes and Noble, because that was the last place in the book business I’d had a job and because I needed the cash. What a blessing that I did! I got to know a few coworkers, and in talking with , found that she was as into fantasy and science fiction as I was.

While in grad school, I’d also started networking as much as possible with editors from publishers in Boston and New York. Whenever there was a conference in town–WorldCon came to Boston in 2004, where I met Anna Chan from Tor, and ALA Midwinter was in Boston in 2005, where I met a few other editors at various houses, who all said to let them know when I graduate and they’d help me find where the openings were.

About a month after I started at B&N, comes into work and says, “Hey, did you see that Wizards of the Coast is hiring a children’s book editor?” I hadn’t, because all those editors I’d been talking with said to wait till after graduation to start looking for a job–preferably after I’d moved to New York.

I figured I’d apply anyway, even though graduation was still a good two months away, figuring that if the interview process took time, it’d be close to graduation, so what did I have to lose?

Happily, I got a first interview, by phone. Then a second interview, by phone. Both went really well, and I felt like I’d work really well with the senior editor in charge of Mirrorstone Books, and that the company would be a good fit–great benefits, great city. So when I got the offer, even though New York was certainly closer, it was a bird in the hand thing. I could move to New York (with barely any money) and gamble that I’d get a job in children’s lit that would let me work on fantasy, or I could move to Seattle and start on children’s fantasy from Day 1.

Right when I got out here, I found out from a writer friend that her editor at Bloomsbury was hiring an associate editor. Part of me kicked myself for not having patience, but the other part of me says that who knows? Maybe eventually I’ll find myself at Bloomsbury, or maybe I’ll just start publishing books like the ones I love so much from Bloomsbury.

I picked the bird in the hand, and it’s really worked out for me. The series I edit are doing well, and I have a new series coming out next year that I’ve helped develop from the beginning. We’re even starting to take manuscripts for standalone books. I’ve really grown as an editor, while getting to watch the imprint grow, too.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’re not bored by the details. Like I said at the beginning, it’s always a combination of improving your skills as an editor–both as a generalist and within your chosen field–and networking so that you know people who know where the job openings are. Then, you move to where the job openings are. For most, that means New York. I was lucky to find a job in a city with a little lower standard of living, but it took me a long time to get here. Good luck in your own search.