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Think back to the best book you ever read, that immersive book that piqued your interest right from the start and never let up.

Well, behind your best reads are hardworking book editors. They find promising writers and steer them through publishing, from the first drafts to the final edition.

When Robert Loomis first approached Maya Angelou about her memoir, she was reluctant. It wasn’t until he turned it into a challenge that Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings—her most famous book.

Today, the publishing world remembers Maya Angelou and Robert Loomis as one of the most successful author-editor partnerships in history.

Beyond the glamor, the publishing industry is quite competitive; it’s famously hard to get into and riddled with long waits for promotion. The following are industry insights on how you can start and build a career in book editing.

Secret 1: Be Open to Internships and Assistant Positions

Nobody starts their publishing career in editorial positions. It’s an industry standard for newcomers to go through the hard yards of internships and assistive roles just to gain a foothold.

On top of that, advancing through the ranks is a slow and arduous process, usually taking years to materialize.

Nonetheless, internships and assistant positions are a proven strategy.

In 1989, Jonathan Karp started his publishing career as an editorial assistant at Random House. 16 years later, he rose to become editor-in-chief of the company—one of New York’s Big Five publishers.

So why is being an assistant or intern important?

First, such roles expose you to all aspects of book editing in context and practice. They function as a crash course in what modern book editing is all about, from the various stages (acquisition–publishing) to the required skillsets.

Ultimately, this exposure leads to a clearer understanding of the type of book editor you would like to be. For instance, you might be more interested in fiction, autobiographies, business, or STEM subjects.

Second, internships or assistant positions give you access to more experienced professionals. As such, you may be working with one or more editors with different approaches to inform your own.

For instance, Robert Loomis was famous for his patience in forgiving delays few editors would tolerate from authors. However, he also had a rigorous line-by-line copyediting routine.

Expert tips:

  • Target smaller, independent publishers since they receive fewer applications and are more likely to respond. 
  • Be more personal in your application, demonstrate that your application follows thorough research of the publisher.

Secret 2: Seek Out Freelance Opportunities

Technology has revolutionized the publishing industry and created more opportunities for freelance book editors. For instance:

  • Digital self-publishing has created more opportunities for independent authors. Consequently, there are more writers for editors to work with. 
  • The rise of freelance websites has made it easier for editors to find work and experience with outsourcing publishers.
  • Ebooks have shortened publishing schedules and enabled publishers and authors to take on more projects. The result is a better workflow for editors.

As such, freelance editing is now a viable career option with multiple approaches.

The Generalist Versus Specialist Approach

It’s often debatable whether you should focus on specific topics or take on any subject matter when freelancing.

As a general book editor, your work cuts across different, often less scientific fields. This approach may get a better workflow but at lower rates.

As a specialist book editor, your work focuses on your area of specialization, which tends to be more technical. As a result, your workflow may be lower, but you can charge extra for your expertise.

The following table highlights the recommended rates for two editing functions across different subjects; copy editing and development editing.

Copyediting Median Rate Per Hour ($)
Fiction 36–40
Non-fiction 41–45
Business 46–50
Medical/STEM 46–50
Development Editing
Fiction 46-50
Non-fiction 51–60
Business 51–60
Medical/STEM 61–70

Source: Editorial Freelancers Association

In deciding between the two approaches, you must consider your experience level. Most publishers and authors give specialized jobs to well-reputed freelancers they can trust.

If you’re new to the industry, you’re better off going for general editing jobs while building your experience and reputation.

You should also consider your interests. For some editors, working on one subject might be boring.

Alternatively, other editors have a great passion for their fields with little interest in venturing outside.

seek out freelance

Secret 3: Maintain Your Professional Growth

In the fast-paced publishing world, editors are under constant pressure to advance their skills and methods.

This pressure stems from emerging technologies and industry demands. What’s more, it applies to budding editors looking for experience or promotion.

In a  previous Council of Science Editors meeting, members (freelance and in-house) discussed the lack of support for manuscripts by non-native English speakers. This industry problem represented a massive opportunity for English-speaking editors. 

The meeting ended with recommendations for editors on how to work with authors who use English as a second language. Additionally, the session provided resources and training material to address the problem.

Expert tips for professional development:

  • Consider taking online courses since they’re more flexible and accommodative of hectic work schedules.
  • Attend industry events and seminars, whether online or in-person, to stay updated on emerging trends and opportunities.
  • Join professional bodies or associations to access educational resources and build your network—for example, Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) or Publishing Professionals Network (PPN).

Breaking Into the Field

With these three industry insights, you’re now one step closer to your dream job. All that’s left is a compelling resume, and you’re sure to tip the scales.

At Small Revolution, we provide step-by-step lessons on how to get this done. Our detailed course features real-life examples of career-making resumes that we customize to your specific needs.

I got a job! The employer saw my portfolio on your platform and I made it on the interview. Thank you for making this happen.”

Jose Paulo, Small Revolution alumnus

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need an English degree to become a book editor?

No, while a relevant degree helps boost your resume, it is not a decisive factor. Most publishers place greater importance on work experience.

Are book editors also proofreaders?

Proofreading is among the editorial functions of book editing, but a book editor’s role is far more encompassing. It involves various tasks like acquiring writers, copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing.

Which are the Big Five publishers?

These are the largest publishing companies in the United States and include:

  • Penguin/Random House
  • Hachette Book Group
  • Harper Collins
  • Simon and Schuster
  • Macmillan

Before Penguin merged with Random House, they were the Big Six.

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Small Revolution

I'm Katrina McKinnon, founder of CopySmiths and Small Revolution. I'm using my 20 years' experience in building and operating online businesses to create engaging educational materials that helps others become successful online workers. Find me on LinkedIn and Twitter.