What Does a Book Editor Do?

Sophie Playle

Every writer expects to work with an editor at some point in their writing journey. If you’re a writer, you might want to know exactly what an editor is going to do to your book. If you’re an aspiring editor, you might be wondering the same thing!

How exactly does a writer and an editor interact? What does the editor actually do?

Most people will have a vague idea that an editor is the one that spruces up your manuscript before it’s published. This isn’t quite true. There are many different kinds of editors that work in the book industry, and the sprucy-up kind is just one of them. (That’s not the official title, by the way.)

Commissioning Editor (Fiction)

A commissioning editor (sometimes known as an acquisitions editor) of a publishing house is what usually comes to mind when people think of an editor. They’re someone who understands the market and selects new work to be published.

Sometimes they choose manuscripts to publish from what’s known as the slush pile – unsolicited manuscripts – but more often than not, most commissioning editors only read work sent to them by literary agents, which is why authors usually try to get an agent before submitting to publishers.

The commissioning editor’s job is to find awesome new work and convince the publishing board – a group representing all areas of the publishing house, including finance, marketing, etc. – that they should publish that work.

They then monitor and develop the journey of the book from manuscript to bookshop.

Commissioning Editor (Academic & Non-Fiction)

In academic publishing, it’s slightly different. The commissioning editor either seeks out academics to write a new textbook in an emerging field, or they assess proposals that are sent to them from hopeful writers.

Once again, the project is presented to the publishing board, but this time it is usually before the text is written.

Then the editor will get back to the potential author and ask them to write the text by a specific deadline. Often, there is a peer review process along the way that helps the author develop the text as they’re writing it.

For commercial non-fiction the process is similar, but usually without the peer review element.

As with fiction publishing, the academic and non-fiction commissioning editor also monitors and develops the journey of the book, this time from further back in the process – from concept to bookshop.

Developmental Editor

A developmental editor helps a writer develop a book from an idea, outline or initial draft.

They make sure the book will meet the needs of the publisher and its readers, balancing a required deadline of completion with the final quality of the work. Sometimes they’ll work with the writer through a number of drafts.

Developmental editors are uncommon in fiction publishing houses, but authors are able to hire a freelance developmental editor directly.

Copy-Editor

The copy-editor delves into the finer details of the text. Their job is to shape the copy so it observes all the traits of good writing while still maintaining the author’s style and vision.

A copy-editor will check basic facts, and address errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, word-choice and so on.

In academic and non-fiction publishing, a copy-editor will also check the use of headings, references, graphs, images, etc.

In both fiction and non-fiction publishing, copy-editors also ‘mark up’ the text for the typesetter (though for self-publishing authors, they will probably just tidy up the file so it’s easier for either the author or a freelance book designer to work with) and consider any legal issues that might be present in the manuscript.

Copy-editors are rarely used in-house because they’re cheaper to hire freelance.

Proofreader

The proofreader is the last person to check a manuscript before publication. They make sure that the final typeset draft is as close to perfect as possible, and that all corrections or edits have been implemented correctly. They, too, are usually hired on a freelance basis.

Desk Editor

The desk editor works in a publishing house and essentially oversees everything relating to the inside of a book.

Once the book has been commissioned and is in a completed state (in terms of structure and written content), the desk editor will either copy-edit it themselves or hire a freelance copy-editor.

They’ll also organise the proofread and make sure all the edits are collated and implemented. They might sort out any copyright permissions needed, and will generally prepare the pages of the book for its final printing.

Freelance Editor

Freelance editors offer a range of services, from developmental editing to copy-editing to proofreading. Usually, a freelance editor will have a specialist type of text they work with, and sometimes they’ll have specialist knowledge of the subject or genre of the writing.

As mentioned above, publishing houses usually outsource the copy-editing and proofreading of a manuscript as this is more cost effective for them.

Some authors choose to hire a freelance copy-editor before submitting their novel to agents or publishers in order to give them a competitive edge. Often, though, it’s more important that the author has a solid story written in an engaging way, so hiring a developmental editor could be a better first move.

For writers who self-publish, enlisting the help of a freelance editor is an essential part of quality control – though before doing so, they should considering their budget and which services will best match the needs of their book.

Literary agents will sometimes help edit their clients’ work before submitting to publishers. They also might choose to hire a freelance editor.

Do You Want to be a Book Editor?

Becoming a book editor was always my aspiration, but before I started down this career path I was completely ignorant of all the different kinds of editors that work in the book industry!

This set me off down the wrong path (towards commissioning editor in a publishing house) when what I actually wanted was to work with the creative development of novels (developmental editing) and the formation of sentences (copy-editing). And both of those kinds of editors were nearly always freelance! Which meant I then had to figure out how to start my own freelance editing business … which I did!

Whether you’re a writer or an aspiring editor, I hope this post has shed some light on the many editorial roles there are, so you can better understand what the hell goes on in the book industry.

And if you want to learn professional editing skills, take a look at my online courses.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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