Book editors do largely what you would assume: They edit books.
One of the most important things book editors do is acquire books. Book editors read manuscripts (aka unpublished drafts of books) and decide whether the work should or should not be bought and then sold to the public. That decision usually comes down to taste and an eye for the market. (While an editor’s fate isn’t entirely dependent on how many bestsellers he delivers, the people who get ahead in this field almost always have some big name books under their belt.)
If you love books and love to read, a job as an editor can be a dream come true. That said, there aren’t an abundance of needles in the proverbial haystack. In other words, much of a book editor’s time is spent sifting through manuscripts that will never see the light of day, so you have to be OK with reading a lot of bad things in order to find that gem.
Another aspect of an editor’s job entails cultivating relationships with authors. Book editors are ultimately looking to discover new talent, publish them as unknowns, and then continue working with them as they build a bigger audience. For this reason many authors will have only one editor for most of their career. (Writers, who have good relationships with their editors, will often follow the editors as they change jobs over the years. This means that editors who work with high-profile writers are often more valuable to publishers, since they usually bring big clients with them.)
Skills & Education Book Editors Have:
Most editors have at least a B.A., usually in English or literature. Some have graduate degrees, but it’s not a requirement. More important than the specifics of your education are a passion for literature and an aptitude for editing.
Specialization Among Book Editors:
Another important thing an editor needs to bring to the table is an awareness of, and interest in, the subject matter. The reality of book publishing today is that it’s very specialized. There are imprints at the publishing houses which focus on specific genres of literature, everything from science fiction to romance to cookbooks to literary fiction. So you need to keep this in mind when applying for jobs. While entry-level candidates are not expected to know everything about a subject, it’s probably not a good idea to try to get a job editing romances if you’ve never read one and hate the genre.
The bottom line about book editors is that they love books. They’re voracious readers that went into the profession because they get a thrill discovering new voices and working with authors. If you fit that bill, this could be a perfect job for you. Just think about what kind of books you’d get to edit in a perfect world -- historical fiction? business? gardening? -- and start looking for an editorial opening at a publishing house that publishes in this area. For a list of publishing houses, check out this listing of company profiles.