Ask Alex: Editorial Assistants

This month’s question came to me through Tumblr anonymously, and I have a feeling it’s been on a few of your minds! As always, I’m happy to take questions here in the comments, but you’re more than welcome to email me if you’d like to ask privately. I’ll always double-check to make sure it’s okay to post the question here.

From Anon:

Could you talk about being an Editorial Assistant? That’s my dream job, but I always hear that you don’t actually edit or acquire and that a lot of it is administrative.  And maybe this is a little too personal (feel free to ignore!), but why did you switch to marketing?

Unsurprisingly, editorial assistant positions are some of the most competitive, fiercely sought-after positions in the industry. It makes sense—when you think of publishing, what’s the first job you think of? And how many glamorized instances of it have you seen on TV and in the movies?

That’s why I always feel like a jerk saying I actually didn’t apply for my editorial assistant job! In fact, I spent most of the Columbia Publishing Course telling everyone that I didn’t want to be an editorial assistant, would never want to be one, and I wasn’t actually applying for any of those positions. See, I’ve always understood that I’m not a particularly strong editor (especially as far as copyediting goes), and I was reluctant to prove myself right. But then I got the phone call from HR about coming in to interview… and it was in children’s publishing… and I was two weeks out of the course totally jobless.  So after meeting my supervisor and seeing what kinds of books she published, I accepted the job when she offered it. I don’t regret my time as an EdAss for a second, but over time I did realize that I needed a better balance between my day job, my writing career, and, you know, my fledgling social life. So to answer your last question off the bat, I switched to the career I had been after from the beginning (marketing), and one that would hopefully provide a more 9-5 work schedule so I could write after work and on the weekends.

Speaking very generally, most editorial assistant positions are VERY administrative, but the degree of it depends on who your supervisor is. For instance, my boss was a bit more old school and needed someone to maintain her calendar for her, answer her phone, schedule her lunches, do mailing, copying, etc. A handful of the other assistants did some of those tasks, but not all of them.

There’s quite a bit of information tracking as well. I controlled our team’s time-off calendar, tracked submissions, returned picture book art, and routed passes of manuscripts/covers/marketing materials between departments. If your supervisor is looking to acquire a project, you will also be creating P&Ls (profit and loss statements, which factor in advance, estimated sales, potential production costs, etc. and tell you if you’re actually going to turn a profit on an acquisition) and handling contracts and amendments. This is the part of the job that requires you to be timely and organized–or at least good at remembering to put all of your tasks in your Outlook calendar! You have to get the authors their payments and finished copies on time!  You have to make sure you’re reporting all acquisitions to the right people! You have to remember when all of those important meetings are to pull the information your supervisor will need!

Aside from administrative tasks, chances are you’ll be reading a good chunk of the manuscripts coming to your boss for consideration. You’ll be giving him or her feedback and, eventually, working on editorial letters alongside him or her. But it is a rare thing for an editor of any level to be able to sit at their desks and read or focus entirely only editing–most of it has to be done after hours or over the weekend which can be a bit frustrating at times when you start to think in terms of how much you’re getting paid vs. your actual hours. That aside, this was actually was my favorite part of the whole job: reading my different coworkers’ projects and giving editorial feedback, or brainstorming possible solutions to sticky plot projects. You’re also working directly with the authors themselves which…um…  can be a total joy or a total nightmare depending on the personality you’re working with. 😉

In reality, what you’ll spend the bulk of your time doing is writing copy. Every book on a list gets: catalog copy, cover summary (a kind of descriptive form for design to help them figure out a cover direction), bound galley copy, flap copy, titlesheet copy, launch presentations, sales meetings presentations, and later paperback edition copy. I also wrote quite a bit of EXTRAS content for the back of different paperbacks. The only thing more overwhelming than keeping up with the copy deadlines was trying to keep up with one author’s fan mail, which I had to respond to. I would spend whole days addressing these little postcards, and usually ended up bringing piles of it home so I could force my roommates to help me!

As to when you get to acquire… again, it totally depends on your supervisor. My supervisor saw acquisitions as something that should come after being promoted to assistant editor (after 2+ years as an editorial assistant) or an associate editor. Other imprints–usually smaller ones–had assistants who were extremely hands-on and editorial from the very beginning. It was often the case that they would acquire projects as assistants, and that acquisition was quickly followed by a promotion to assistant editor. The projects that you’re working on independently as an assistant are usually paperback editions or repackages of older titles.

I loved being an editorial assistant–and I loved the people I worked with–so I feel very privileged to have had the experience I did. It’s a lot of hard work that demands organization and being able to keep numerous balls up in the air at the same time, but, man, it’s so worth it.

Sound off in the comments if you have any specific questions about the life of an Editorial Assistant in kidlit, or if you have a question for next month!


6 Responses to Ask Alex: Editorial Assistants

  1. Meg May 15 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    I’d be interested to hear a little bot more about your current job in marketing. I’m a graphic designer and there is nothing I would love more than being able to apply that skill set to anything book related.

  2. Kim May 16 2013 at 12:05 am #

    This is a really interesting post, thank you for sharing your experience! I’m extremely interested in the publishing world and love to learn more about it–but I don’t think I would want to do all of that. My ideal job is being a librarian. I could still be surrounded by the books I love and the people that love them too. I’m glad to hear you were able to get the marketing job you always wanted 🙂

  3. Alexa Y. May 17 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    It was fascinating to read about what an editorial assistant does, so thank you for sharing! It looks like EAs have to balance A TON of work on their plates, so major props to anyone who is an editorial assistant. I do think I’d like to try it out for myself at some point, and I do think I’d be capable of doing what needs to be done. But I’d probably eventually try to find a different position that would allow for more regular hours — and writing time!

  4. Anthony Jones Feb 13 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    Interesting post! I’m actually applying for editorial assistant positions right now. I’m about to graduate this May, so hopefully I can find something. I’m a pretty optimistic person, so I think I will get what I’m looking for. I do have to say that I’m even more excited about getting an editorial assistant position after reading this.


  5. Jonathan Aug 31 2016 at 11:31 am #

    I’m an amateur writer/blogger. I’m active in numerous social media circles. And I recently discovered that I love beta-reading/editing other people’s work almost as much as I love creating my own. I’m curious what other positions in publishing/blogging/marketing might be a good fit for someone like me?

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