After graduating with a major in comparative literature, I wanted to work in book publishing. Reading books for a living sounded like an ideal job to me. Although I wanted to be in the trade division (i.e. books sold retail), the first job I landed was in medical textbooks at Little, Brown and Company in Boston. Entry-level publishing jobs are hard to get, even though they are not highly-paid. I found little emotional connection to this material (proofreading chapters such as “Gunshots Wounds to the Head”). But it was a foot in the door of an organization that would offer other opportunities.
Soon, an editorial assistant position in the children’s book division became available, so I jumped at it. Editorial assistants are essentially administrative assistants, but they are also apprentices—they learn the business of book publishing on the job. I worked for the editorial director, going to editorial meetings, coordinating book contracts, corresponding with authors and illustrators, reading manuscripts, performing first edits, drafting sales copy, and preparing book proposals for acquisition meetings. I learned not only how to edit, but also how to nurture the relationship with an author or illustrator. I took on more responsibility over the years and worked my way up to become an editor.
A typical misconception is that a book editor mostly line-edits manuscripts. While that is part of the job, editors do much more. They develop a book through every stage, from acquisition to publication. An editor works with literary agents and authors, as well as with the internal departments of art and production, marketing, publicity, and sales.
Editing a book first requires developing a relationship with the author, establishing trust, and understanding how an author responds to criticism. Psychology is a major part of the job. Getting the best work from an author requires sensitivity, restraint, and a great deal of cheerleading. And since every author is different, an editor’s tactics must constantly be recalibrated.
After six years in Boston, our family moved to New York. Instead of seeking a more traditional job at a book publishing company, I decided to work as a freelancer. This brought assignments from different publishers. Through a former Little, Brown colleague, I was connected with National Geographic Kids about adapting teleplays into companion books for two TV properties: Mama Mirabelle and Toot and Puddle. I wrote the text and chose frames from the television shows to illustrate them. It was so much fun, it didn’t seem like work. Not to mention, it was a gift to have a job that interested my small children.
National Geographic began producing a film series for the NatGeo Channel called “Great Migrations.” They wanted companion books across their various platforms, including children’s books. So I was hired to write and produce four books in their Early Readers series on a rush schedule. I’d never written a non-fiction children’s book before. But I took the assignment hoping I could figure it out. I guess those first four books turned out okay, as I’ve now written more than 30 non-fiction titles for National Geographic.
Over the past ten years, I’ve also been the freelance project editor for the Early Readers series, and have edited more than 100 books. I usher the books through each stage of manuscript development, and then through photo selection and design.
What I love about writing and producing these titles is that each book is a new challenge. After being assigned a topic and reading level, I work to find the book’s focus and structure. Then, I organize the material so it’s presented most clearly for a young reader. And the research is fascinating! Did you know that an octopus in a tide pool can travel over land to find food in another tide pool? Or that a horned lizard deters predators by shooting blood from its eyes? Kids love these details. Admittedly, so do I.
Lately, I’ve been traveling to elementary schools, talking to students about researching and writing non-fiction. The students impress me with their questions and with the connections they make to the content and to their own studies. They are inspiring.
With these Early Reader books, kids are learning to read on their own while gaining knowledge about topics that interest them. I find this combination immensely fulfilling; I truly love what I do. My advice to Hamilton students is to identify what you love, then search for jobs that incorporate your interests. Those jobs are out there. “Know thyself,” ask questions, and you will find them.