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Cheers to 20 Years!

Yesterday marked twenty years since I began my career in publishing. I certainly didn’t take the most direct path to a career choice, and it’s been a long and winding road since, but I’ve never been happier with my work than I have been in the past few years.

I say that I didn’t take the most direct path to publishing because when I graduated from high school and started college, I intended to be a child psychologist. I thoroughly enjoyed the handful of psychology courses I took my freshman and sophomore years, but ultimately, I decided that I neither had it in me to endure eight to ten years of college nor the emotional fortitude to deal with suffering children, no matter how much I yearned to help ease their pain.

After that, I flip-flopped through a variety of majors—never actually declaring one (because I didn’t have to at that point). For someone like myself who has a wide array of interests, it can be daunting to narrow down one to pursue as a career. Not only that, but some people know from an early age what they want to be when they grow up, while others struggle with that decision into their midtwenties or even beyond. I was somewhere in the middle, I guess, but still, I think we put a lot of pressure on young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one to decide on a career path. But I digress . . .

By the time I transferred to Purdue University as a junior, I’d considered majors in the aforementioned child psychology as well as genetics, music production, and education, either as an elementary schoolteacher or a history or social studies teacher for middle or high school. A few things put an end to those ideas. First, as fascinating as I found genetics, science had never really been my thing. (Still isn’t.) Second, I hadn’t realized that one must actually have some musical talent to attend music school and major in music production. My experience singing in the car and shower apparently didn’t count as talent or prerequisites. And finally, regarding a possible foray into the realm of education, I was painfully shy and couldn’t imagine standing before a crowd to teach—even if that crowd was made up of six-year-old children. In addition, I didn’t much care for teenagers when I was one, so the thought of teaching middle school or high school was also out.

So I was back at square one, and as a junior, I had to declare a major. The clock was ticking. And so, one night the inspiration came to me while watching Seinfeld. True story. Elaine’s life working as an editor at the fictitious Pendant Publishing seemed so glamorous to me. I mean, who wouldn’t love to read books for a living? OK, a lot of people, I guess, but a word nerd like myself certainly would! And that’s literally how I decided that I wanted to be an editor. I suppose it helped that I’d always excelled at spelling, grammar, vocabulary, reading, and writing. My high school English teachers had often praised my work, but for me, writing was difficult because I was my own worst critic, never thinking it was good enough, so I never considered it as a career choice. But Elaine opened up a whole new world for me: I could put all those skills together and be an editor rather than a writer.

Having made a decision that I wanted to be a book editor, the odds were a bit stacked against me. I’d already transferred to Purdue and the school offered no major in book editing or publishing. The closest thing available was journalistic communications, so I had to settle for that and make do.

Maybe it’s like this at other schools, but at Purdue at the time, before you could do an internship in your major, you had to take a certain number of degree-centered electives. But before you could take those degree-centered electives, you had to have fulfilled all of your prerequisite or required courses. And although I’d taken a variety of courses before transferring, there were still some that I had to take. So I couldn't take those degree-centered electives until my senior year. Thus, I was unable to complete an internship between my junior and senior years, which left me behind other students in my class, many of whom already had jobs in their majors lined up by the time they graduated. Needless to say, even though I'd made nearly straight A's all through high school and college, I was behind the curve.

After graduating, I returned to the South Bend area and my job at a local grocery store. I already knew from my work at The Exponent, Purdue’s campus newspaper, that I wanted nothing to do with working at a newspaper or being a reporter. During my senior year, I had been involved in the campus’s fledgling online magazine, Leaf, and that seemed a bit more appealing, but I still knew that I didn’t want to write for a magazine. It didn’t matter anyway because with my lack of an internship, it was difficult to get my foot in the door anywhere in publishing. I didn’t make it easy on myself, either, because being shy and an introvert, I wasn’t ready to venture too far away from home, and the only publishing company in the area (aside from the Yellow Pages, which I did interview for, but thankfully, either didn’t get or turned down) was Ava Maria Press on the campus of Notre Dame. I applied for a job there too, but because the company publishes materials for the Catholic church and I’m not Catholic, that wasn’t a good fit either.

**Side note: At some point, a year or two post-college, I did begin applying to publishing companies in Chicago, about two hours from South Bend. I know this because a few years ago, I found an old appointment binder—a ginormous two-inch-thick calendar where I would log my work schedule and appointments in the pre-cell phone days. On a whim, I decided to peruse what I had going on that year, and lo and behold, I found an entry for a job interview at Publications International (PIL) in Lincolnwood, Illinois. It was the first (and only for a long time) job interview I scored in publishing in the Chicago area, but I distinctly remember canceling the interview because I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to have a car in Chicago and I had no idea how I’d get to the suburb of Lincolnwood. Nearly ten years later, I was actually living in Chicago and was offered a job at PIL. This time, I took it. And for those of you who don’t know, Lincolnwood is easily accessible from the north side of Chicago by bus. The things you learn when you’re not sabotaging yourself.**

For the next few years, I was floundering careerwise. Eventually, I left the grocery store and began doing administrative work, first for a large, corporate insurance company and then for a local, family-owned insurance agency. Those jobs taught me valuable lessons and skills and allowed me to put a roof over my head, even enabling me to purchase my first house just a few years out of college. The latter job, the one at the insurance agency, also permitted me to expand my wings a bit and actually use some of the skills I’d learned in college, mainly desktop publishing and helping to edit the company’s newsletter. It wasn’t where I saw myself long-term, but I did enjoy the job and met one of my dearest friends there.

But looking back, what really gave me the kick in the pants to take a leap of faith and get serious about applying for publishing jobs in Chicago was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As I stood around a television set with my coworkers, watching live as an airplane crashed into the Twin Towers that fateful morning, something stirred inside me. That evening, I was so terrified that the United States was going to be attacked that I went to stay with my parents for a few days. But once it felt safe to return home, I started taking inventory of my life, and I realized that if I were ever going to follow my dreams of living in Chicago and having a career in publishing, there was no time like the present.

Shortly after the new year, I applied for a job as a publishing assistant at Heinemann Library, an educational children's book publisher. I can still remember taking the day off work and driving up to Chicago for the interview. It was a sunny and relatively warm, almost spring day, and as I walked back to my car following the interview, I felt elated in my “big girl” pant suit. I wanted to spin around and fling my hat in the air à la Mary Tyler Moore. (OK, I may have actually done that.) I don’t think I’d ever felt so confident in all my life, and I just knew that I was going to get the job.

And I did—despite the fact that I was several years out of college, had never done an internship, and other than helping to edit the company newsletter, the only “real” experience I had was back at Purdue. For giving me that opportunity, I have to thank Mark Friedman, the publisher, and Mike Carpenter, the editorial director. Most people in the publishing world know that women outnumber men in the biz by about three to one, but these two guys took a chance on me, and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Now, this was still an administrative position, but Mark and Mike saw that I had potential, and very early on, they started grooming me to become the next editor. The first order of business was sending me to the University of Chicago’s Graham School for a basic manuscript editing course because, unlike journalistic publications that use AP style, which I was trained in at Purdue, book publishing in the United States uses the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). And there’s no better place to learn CMOS than at the place that publishes the 1,000+-page reference book.

After a year at Heinemann, Mark and Mike promoted me to associate editor. I worked with a wonderful group of talented editors, all who took me under their wings and taught me the ropes. But the one who influenced me the most and contributed most to making me the thorough and detailed editor I am today was John Pinsky, who was assigned to mentor me. At that point, I was a classic case of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Sure, with my skills in spelling, vocabulary, and the finer points of grammar, I knew how to copy edit, plus I’d completed my course in basic manuscript editing. But John taught me the ins and outs of developmental editing, which involves not just looking at what’s in a manuscript but really digging in deep to see what’s missing and what questions a reader might have. He also taught me to look for errors and inconsistencies in the manuscript, to cut text that seems irrelevant or doesn’t enhance the reader’s experience, and to find ways to add details to really set the scene and paint a picture. These are not things you are innately born knowing or that they teach you in school—at least not when I was in school. It’s also not something you can pick up just by being a voracious reader. Even reading books on editing is not enough. These are things you only learn through hands-on experience training under a senior editor and having your work reviewed and critiqued to help you improve your editorial skills and become better and more adept at the craft. It took me a long time to get there, but I was very lucky to have broken into the publishing world so I could pursue my dream job.

As I say on the “Meet the Editor” page on my website, becoming the editor I am today did not happen overnight. It took years of practice and continuous learning on the job. I’m still learning and probably always will be in this ever-changing industry. Perhaps that’s why I get frustrated when I see people posting on message boards and job sites that they just graduated from college with a degree in English and have proofread a lot of their friends’ term papers, so they’re now looking for work as a freelance book editor. As someone who got a lucky break and was mentored by an incredible senior editor, I feel for you recent grads who want to be editors. But before you offer your services to an unsuspecting author, you have to cut your teeth and get some experience under your belt—real experience on real manuscripts under the supervision of someone who has a wealth of experience and time in the biz. Because if you don’t have that experience, you’re not helping yourself and you’re not helping the author. Nobody wants to be a guinea pig for an inexperienced doctor or hairstylist with no formal training and no supervision, and the same goes for editors. But don't give up. Once you gain that experience, just like me and Mary Tyler Moore, "You're gonna make it after all!"

So, to the authors out there, I cannot stress the following enough:

  • When you’re preparing to hire an editor, do your homework. Always query several different editors and ask them to complete a sample edit. Then compare the sample edits.

  • Be sure to vet your potential editors to ensure that they have ample experience working on books in your genre. Even ask for a list of former clients, if you have time to wait for them to respond.

  • Know that there are different levels of editing and realize that you may not know for sure what level you need. An experienced editor will help you determine this and will be able to back up their assessment with examples in the sample edit.

  • Don’t just take the least expensive offer because it’s true that you get what you pay for. You’re not just paying an editor to fix your typos and grammar; you’re paying them for the experience and level of skill they bring to the table.

  • Be flexible with your deadline if you can. Often, the most skilled and experienced editors can be booked up for months in advance (because editing a book-length manuscript takes time—usually at least a month, depending on the word count and the type of editing). Sure, there are times when projects get canceled and I find myself with an unexpected opening in my schedule, but that is the exception, not the norm. In fact, in the four years I’ve been a self-employed editor, I’ve had a project fall through and found myself with an opening in my schedule exactly one time. And I used that time to work on professional development—watching webinars and reading up on ways to become more knowledgeable about self-publishing so that I can better help future clients.

  • The bottom line is, if you want your book to be the best it can be, you’ll pay more and possibly wait a little longer for an experienced editor. You’ve put so much time and energy into writing your book, so don’t sell yourself short.

I can hardly believe I’ve been in publishing for twenty years now. This job has certainly had its ups and downs, and the industry has changed a lot. We’ve seen the consolidation and closing of numerous publishing companies, witnessed the rise of digital publishing (e-books), and watched as it became much more acceptable to self-publish a book rather than be traditionally published. In fact, for most people nowadays, it’s the preferred method, but that’s a post for another time.

In closing, I just want to thank everyone who influenced me along the way and helped me become a better editor. I can’t possibly name everyone, but please know that you taught me invaluable lessons, and I can’t thank you enough for helping me get where I am today. I’m finally living the life I’ve always dreamed of, doing work I can be proud of, and helping authors make their dreams come true. I still have goals and aspirations to write more books someday, and when I do, you can be sure that I’ll be doing my due diligence in hiring an editor because I know I’ll be too close to my own work, and that’s why even editors need editors.

Cheers to twenty years! Thanks everyone!


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