Editor's Job Description

There’s an old cliché that goes: a man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done. Let me paraphrase that: an editor may work from sun to sun, but an editor’s work is never done.

Every writer I know, published and unpublished, gripes about the slow editorial response time. It does seem as if editors get slower all the time. Not just certain editors at certain publishers are indicted. In fact, when a writer gets a timely response, and a rejection comes too swiftly, she is suspicious her submission didn’t get read. Most of us who’ve been in the trenches a while know editors do more than just read submissions and edit contracted manuscripts. But for those who are new to this business, or for those who never learned, here’s an eye opener. Even authors with requested manuscripts suffer slow response times. So why don’t editors respond in the length of time listed in those market guides?

Editorial Process

If you’ve had a manuscript requested, the process begins this way. When the manuscript arrives at the publisher, someone, usually a receptionist or some low-level assistant logs it into the computer. Then it is sent along with many others to a first reader for evaluation. (If the editor has read you before, she will sometimes eliminate this first reader and read it herself.)

First Reader

If the first reader, who may be an employee of the publishing company or may be a freelance contract worker (best case scenario is someone who is knowledgeable about the genre; worst case is, well, we won’t talk about that) likes your manuscript, he/she will return it to the publishing office to a junior editor. It doesn’t matter if you addressed it to the Editorial Director, unless you have a prior relationship with that person.

Junior Editor

A junior editor usually has the title Editorial Assistant or Assistant Editor. Junior Editor places it in a big stack where it waits its turn. It’s supposed to be first in, first read, but a manuscript can go out of order based on other considerations - who the agent is that reps it; who the author is if she has a relationship with the editor; a contest win that might cause the editor, upon learning of it, to pull it from the stack, etc.

Line Breakers

Now, all that is assuming the manuscript is just a requested work. If, however, a manuscript comes in that is already contracted or an option manuscript from one of the editor’s published authors arrives, those take precedence and will be read before a “requested manuscript that had a good first reading.” This may sound unfair, but there are reasons. Contracts specify time limits for reviewing option books. Deadlines for contracted books must be kept so if a completed manuscript for a contracted book comes in, it must be read asap in case there are revisions which must be made. (It will have to go back to the author expeditiously in order to maintain the publishing date scheduled.)

If the editor is working from a synopsis from her published author, she may have to persuade others at an editorial meeting that offering a contract is a good decision. Yes, weekly editorial meetings, most of them running long, are another of the editor’s many tasks.

Senior Editor

If your manuscript makes it successfully through the junior editor, it then goes to the senior editor who has responsibility for the entire line or imprint. There, it waits again, in another stack. When Senior Editor gets around to reading it, she may want revisions. She sends it back to Junior Editor with a note to reject it or a note for revisions she might want or with a note saying to offer a contract. It may wait in a stack again on Junior’s desk. When Junior Editor gets to your manuscript again, you will receive it back with a rejection and revisions letter, just a rejection, or a letter and a contract.

Previous Obligations

While this whole process is going on with requested manuscripts (from authors and from agents) AND over the transom submissions - the infamous Slush Pile - editors are doing other things, such as, contracting books. Usually an editor has to acquire a certain number of books based on the line/imprint/publishing house. They negotiate contracts, edit manuscripts, write revision letters, and sometimes personal encouraging rejection letters. They also have to follow their contracted manuscripts through the production process and make sure everything is done in a timely fashion - a title selected, cover copy written (sometimes by a Cover Copy Editor but sometimes by your editor), cover art designed, copy edited manuscript generated, page proofs generated, inventory slot assigned, title selected, etc. - and if the editor is good and the house is author-friendly, all that in-house detail must be sent to the author as well for review.

Many Authors; One Editor

The editor is the author’s liaison to the publishing house and thus deals with questions from the author and/or author’s agent. So that interaction is multiplied by the number of contracted authors the editor deals with plus the aspiring authors the editor works with plus the random wannabes who have no finished manuscript but call the editor with, and I quote an unnamed editor: Ridiculous questions about how much of an advance the editor will give.


An editor deals with many phone calls, emails, meetings, problems that come up with authors or book scheduling. You know what happens - an author misses a deadline or falls ill. Cover art may have a heroine with black hair when she’s blond in the story or the author’s name is spelled wrong or the blurb on the back is for a different book or the galleys got lost in the mail. On and on - the list of problems is mind-boggling.

Then there are the career-related demands on an editor’s time - judging contests, attending conferences, reading the stacks of manuscripts in hopes of discovering authors the editor can “grow.” An editor’s advancement is related to the authors she publishes. They usually take home manuscripts, queries, proposals to read. I’ve been told they read dozens and dozens of queries for every one manuscript they request.

I'm convinced most editors are seriously overworked and drastically underpaid. I don’t even know how they manage to live in New York on the salaries they are paid. As I wrote this today, I even found myself wondering how they managed to have a life! So have a little patience when you get antsy about your submission.

Takeaway Truth

Chances are the editor is at the publishing house because she or he loves books. So writers and editors have that in common. Try to remember that.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Good morning, madhu!

    I'm in a good mood today so I'll give you a free pass and let your comment stay.

    Best wishes,
    Joan Reeves