Things I Wish I’d Learned Before I Became a Fiction Editor

I wish Grattan Street Press had been in existence when I gained my first job at a publishing house. Let me explain . . .

I was one of the very first graduates of the new Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne in 2003. There were only a few practical editing subjects in the course.  After I graduated, the practical offerings were expanded, but back then, many of the subjects were mostly theory-based, highly academic and less vocational. Learning about publishing in a global sense, having only a few weeks to master copyediting mark-up, and being given a summary of how books are printed, meant that I really hadn’t had any practise in applying what I’d learned.

But I set about getting a job anyway, completely oblivious to my lack of knowledge. I sent my CV out far and wide; I offered to work for free or to read manuscripts from home; I even sent Christmas cards to HR staff, and made sure my cover letters were individually written for each publishing house – commenting on the books currently on their lists. Eventually I was able to get some work experience at Penguin in the ‘Books for Children and Young Adults’ department reading and assessing manuscripts from the unsolicited pile, and was paid a few dollars per week. I befriended the other editors, worked quickly and effectively, and when a job came up for an assistant editor I applied for it – and got it!

On my first day at Penguin I wouldn’t have been able to tell a galley from a blue proof or a recto from a verso! Once I was officially in-house (not just tucked away in an office reading manuscripts), I quickly realised that while I might have been relatively clever in an academic sense, clever wasn’t enough to get a book to print. So what did I do? Worked harder, listened more, and yes, I had to ‘fake it’ to ‘make it’. Till recently this has been the way ‘in’ for many editors.

Publishing is driven by deadlines, so everything an editor does is completed within a tight framework. The publishing process is also highly collaborative. It’s a situation that can sometimes make you feel warm and collegial when an edit’s going smoothly, or ready to implode when you are at the mercy of others who think deadlines are for bores. Diplomacy, adaptability and efficiency are strengths you don’t automatically possess upon completing your degree. These qualities are learned through making mistakes in real-life situations and working with authors with all their quirks and differences. Scary? Yes. But exciting, too? Hell yes!

I spent eight wonderful years in-house as a fiction editor, and in that time, through my successes and failures, I learned more than I ever thought possible. I’ll never forget my managing editor saying to me on my last day at Penguin, in 2012, that she had been ‘surprised’ by ‘how little’ I knew when I first started. But I must have had some other redeeming qualities because this lovely woman, as well as my publishers and fellow editors, encouraged and supported me. It really is true that publishing is full of great people!

When I left Penguin to work full time as a freelancer, I admit that I didn’t miss the pressure; but I certainly missed the people and the thrill of getting a book to print and then having it return as a physical object. It’s always a celebration (sometimes with cake and champagne). There is something deeply satisfying about this process, which I realised had been missing from my experience as a student. I also realised, once I started teaching in this same course, that the students were always more engaged when I recalled, anecdotally, how everything they were being taught was applied to the actual process. It always surprised me, for example, just how much input you can have towards the cover or even the internal design if you put time into a terrific sample setting brief or cover brief. And a tip for all editors: never cut and paste an imprint page from an older title into a new one thinking you’ll update it later. I won’t even elaborate on that horrible outcome!

Often self-confessed control freaks, editors are used to overseeing the whole editorial process, so when I was asked to help out in Grattan Street Press, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would work. Collaboration is key in publishing, and involves seeking advice from various departments that specialise in things like sales and marketing, rights and permissions, design, and production and printing. While the people in these departments often have years of publishing experience under their belts, the students in a teaching press don’t.

The editorial team at GSP consists of up to five editors who might only have marked up the assignment you created for them in another subject from the previous semester. The press aims to produce real books within real deadlines, from authors who have expectations of how their work will be treated, in accordance with a professional, independent publishing house. This is a hugely ambitious task. Books can sometimes take up to 18 months to edit and print; at GSP each group of students per semester has been able to edit, design, typeset, market and distribute at least one book within six months. In some semesters, the teams have produced three books. Relinquishing total control of the process is something I’ve had to come to terms with!

There have been some hairy moments, for sure: having to coax students, already exhausted from the demands of completing a Masters, to take in last-minute author changes; reining in a collection of  enthusiastic edits when normally one would suffice; and convincing students that the boring administrative parts of the editing process actually do play a large part in the success of the title. And, just quietly, there have also been those moments where I have been exposed as not knowing as much as I thought I did. Nobody ever stops learning, after all.

Grattan Street Press was recently shortlisted for The Australian Financial Review Higher Education Awards, in the ‘Learning Experience’ category. This is an amazing endorsement for the press, which has been a valuable platform for many graduates from the Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. My observations over the last few years at GSP is that the students, although not always experienced, are clever (like I had been on that first day in-house), and they have a much wider variety of skills due to the expansion of the course to include InDesign, Sales and Marketing, Digital Media, and Production.

The most delightful observation is to see the students apply these skills in a real-life publishing scenario, to produce real books they can be proud of, and to see how every part of the process contributes to the whole, including all the triumphs and tribulations. The Grattan Street Press experience has held them in good stead for getting jobs too. Due to publishing’s aim for excellence within relentless deadlines, publishers need graduates who can hit the ground running. Grattan Street Press gives its alumni a great head start – and they don’t have to ‘fake it’ at all.

Photo by CoWomen from Pexels

Katherine Day, Managing Editor at Grattan Street Press. Used with Permission.

Katherine Day has been working in the publishing industry for over fifteen years. She was an editor at Penguin Group (Australia) before freelancing for Penguin Random House, Allen and Unwin, University of Queensland Press, Rockpool Publishing, Working Title Press, and Thames and Hudson. She is currently a lecturer in the School of Culture and Communications, University of Melbourne, and is a PhD Candidate at RMIT. Her research focus is publishing agreements.

Leave a Reply