What editors do depends on who hires them to do what they do.
Regardless of the detail of what an editor does it is axiomatic that at least one editor, in whatever guise, stands between you and your readers. (Even if you opt for self-publishing you will, at some stage, have to play the role yourself or ask someone else to do it.)
In our collective eagerness to find that elusive perfect literary agent, we writers too often forget that it's editors we really should be looking for and talking with.
I have two very good friends who are editors. One works for the Oxford University Press and is responsible for acquiring academic textbooks; the other is the former founding editor of an influential international art journal, and is now best described as an editor-at-large.
The only real commonality is that they spend a lot of their time in Business or Club Class, at someone else's expense, jetting between continents. My OUP friend has considerably more air miles, having logged visits to the Caribbean, Germany, Holland, Jordan and Spain as well as the States.
My OUP friend spends a fair proportion of her time talking with writers and educationalists; my art journal friend spends most of his time hustling, and negotiating with managing editors, proprietors and board members of publishing houses, foundations and galleries.
I could describe myself as an editor - my main role in producing the translations our partnership (WordBirds o Pajaros de la Palabra) undertakes is to ensure consistency with our house-style, or the style parameters defined by our clients. However, our contact with the writers (Spanish, Catalan and South American media academics, media-literacy activists and medical researchers) is usually mediated through a representative of the organisation responsible for publication of the material. Although we do work on the galleys with designers and printers to further ensure consistency.
We usually meet the writers post-publication - and it's always a pleasure to hear their praise for our efforts.
A quick scan through the range of editors listed here in the Editors' Blogs sidebar will demonstrate the diversity of roles and tasks editors take on during the publishing process - and should convince you that it's they, not agents, you should really be spending time and effort getting to know.
But how? Well, the easiest way is to become an editor yourself. You will have noticed (please don't say you haven't ...) that a large proportion of agents were once editors, or have remained editors, or will become editors and/or writers.
From the outside looking in it often seems that publishing is a closed loop, with editors for one set of publishers offering their writing to editors working on behalf of another set of publishers, sometimes directly, sometimes via an agent who used to work for .... you get the picture.
Still confused? It is a bit of a tangle.
Here's an interesting article from Salon which should help untangle some of it for you.
Are you an editor? If so, it would be good to hear from you.
Have you had experience of working with an editor? Please share.
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