Niamh Cunningham, a graduate of UConn, a full-time editorial assistant at Yale University Press, and a student in Yale’s graduate program in English literature, was the ideal person to ask about the life in the world of publishing today. You can read more of Niamh’s work in Make Mine a Double, by the way; her essay in the collection is titled “Drink and the Single Girl.”
My authors can write serious volumes on some of the most complicated subjects, but when asked to fill out a 20-question form with questions on THEMSELVES, they freeze. When I send the form, I often get responses like, “I couldn’t possibly fill that out. It’s too complicated. I just don’t know the answers.” Mind you, Question 1 is “Name,” Question 2 is “Address,” and Question 3 is “Please describe your book.” They don’t get much more difficult from there.
Along the same lines, it’s amazing how tortured a fairly normal person can become once he or she signs a book contract. EA’s do much more than help authors prepare their manuscripts. They turn into veritable therapists. I once had to tell an author that a blurb we received for his book was, indeed, quite complimentary (“This is a great book…”). The author analyzed every syllable, wondering if the person really did like the book, or worse, if the person really liked him. The situation reminded me of the way women analyze every syllable in every text message and email from men they’re interested in: “He said he wanted to get dinner with me. Does that mean he actually likes me?”
But it is these same authors who remind me why I got into this in the first place: Smart people writing well about interesting topics who still believe in the book business, whether that means print books, ebooks, books on tape, Kindles, Nooks, or iPads.
Reading is reading, and so long as prospective authors (with contracts and publishers) are moved in the middle of the night to wake up and record that one great sentence, and then another and another, there will always be a market for books, and that means a need for editors. And that means my degrees in English will always be put to good use.
The next writer, BW, has spent her career in publishing. One of the most erudite, savvy, and culturally hip women I know, she divides her time between Massachusetts and New York. Stories about her earliest incarnations as an EA follow:
Best Story: For Chronicle readers not in the know, a book style sheet is actually a long document that dictates all the spellings and stylistic choices that the copyeditor will enforce for consistency throughout the book. When asked to compile one for a medical text on orthopedic surgery, I recall responding along the lines of, ”Yes, of course. Thanks for this great assignment!,” with fear already setting in, given that I took on this EA job in the medical division with zero knowledge of medical literature and a habitual lack of self-confidence. Who was I to decide whether to go with “x-ray” or “X-ray,” etc., etc.?? But it all ended well, with the lead authors writing me a nice letter and approving most of my choices.
Lesson learned: Given that I came up with a strong style sheet, maybe I would also be good at influencing a book at an earlier stage than final draft… Just not a medical book.
This one is easy. I will never forget the time that the head of the design/production group of the Large Publishing Company medical division sent an excoriating memo to my boss, the head of the copyediting group, in which he explained why he was sending back to copyediting the “ready-for-production” manuscript that I had placed on his prescribed shelf. (Backstory: This fellow never encouraged direct communication, i.e., talking, between production and copyediting, instead setting up a literal bookshelf between the two groups.) A memo that took me as a complete surprise, as he hadn’t informed me earlier of his ire and as he didn’t copy me on it; thankfully, my own boss thought the content as weird as the messenger, as it focused on “…messiness. I count three colors of pencil! [author, copyeditor, me].”
Lessons learned: Get wise to office politics; appreciate the nutty characters in the business, who at least are usually well educated.