Career Day: Editor

Tell us a little about yourself and about your job?

My name is Stacy Whitman, and I’m the publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books. I grew up on a farm in Illinois, and now live in New York City, where I acquire, edit, and publish diverse middle grade and young adult novels. I received my bachelor’s degree in Human Development from BYU, and my master’s in children’s literature from Simmons College in Boston.

Books I have edited include American Indian Youth Literature YA Award and Top Ten Quick Picks title Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac, and Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, which received a starred review from School Library Journal and has been placed on numerous lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, School Library Journal’s Best of 2012 List, and the Lone Star Reading List. In 2013 I founded the New Visions Award, which honors a new unpublished writer of color. The first New Visions Award winner was published in spring 2015, Ink and Ashes by Valynne Maetani, which garnered a starred review from Kirkus.

I am a founding member of the CBC Diversity Committee and currently I serve as a Publisher Liaison to We Need Diverse Books. Prior to launching Tu Books, I was an editor for Mirrorstone, the children’s and young adult fantasy/SF imprint of Wizards of the Coast. Before that, I edited elementary school textbooks at Houghton Mifflin, interned at the Horn Book Magazine and Guide, and spent a brief stint in grad school working as a bookseller.

What does your job entail?

As the publisher of my imprint at a small press, my job looks very different from what a publisher at a large house might look like. At a small house, you wear many hats. I am the only editor on my imprint, so the editorial work I do involves acquiring manuscripts, working with the author to improve the manuscript both before and after acquisition (the developmental and line editing processes), managing freelancers like copyeditors and designers, and getting the book ready to be sent to the printer. I also art direct my books, working with designers to create the cover that will make audiences want to pick up the books, and I work closely with the marketing department to create marketing and publicity campaigns that will help our books reach their audience.

My day-to-day tasks can be anything from a variety of editorial tasks—reading the slush pile (which is mostly electronic now), writing an editorial letter, creating an acquisitions committee memo, line editing (paragraph and sentence-level editing), going over a copyedit, etc.)—to looking over a designer’s work, to working on the schedule, to posting on social media, to research of varying sorts, to traveling to a writing or library or science fiction/fantasy conference and networking. Or I might be working on coordinating communication between my authors and the marketing department, or gathering materials together for a paperback edition, or sending in a book for copyright registration, or creating a bar code to send to the designer, or a hundred other small tasks.

Why did you want to become an editor? What drew you to the profession?

This is a very long story. You can read the longer version (at least, up to 2006) on my blog. The short version is that it took me a while to figure it out. In college, I was originally animal science pre-vet. But when I decided that perhaps being allergic to pretty much all mammals made becoming an equine vet a pretty terrible idea, I was adrift for a long while. Finally I settled on human development and family studies, which was a really interesting major, but none of the career options were that interesting to me.

Finally, in my second to last year at BYU (this was after a few college transfers), I took an elective in that major (in which I was focusing on child development): children’s literature, taught by Gene Nelson of the Provo Public Library, who was on the Caldecott committee at that time.

Finally, the light bulb went on. I’d been working my way through college in a variety of publishing jobs: typesetting college textbooks, working at the local newspaper, proofreading phone books, etc.—but all of those jobs were just the “easy” office jobs I’d been doing because they were better than the laborious farm work I’d grown up doing. They never sang to my soul as something I wanted to be doing the rest of my life. Here, though, was something I really knew I could do and actually love doing—children’s books. I could use the skills I’d been honing for years doing something I actually wanted to do.

What kind of education/training is required? Any post-graduation requirements? What skills/personal characteristics are important to have/develop?

Generally, most editors get undergraduate degrees in English. This isn’t required, however—my undergraduate degree is in marriage, family, and human development from BYU. I went and got a master’s in children’s literature from Simmons College after working in Chicago for a couple of years after BYU, but that was because it was a job downturn and I felt I needed more grounding in children’s lit to get the kind of job I wanted to get.

The most important thing is to get as much editorial experience as possible—as an undergrad and while job searching. This means being willing to figure out how to work for as little money as possible when you’re very new—internships don’t pay much.

What types of job opportunities are there in your field?

The job market in children’s books is incredibly tight, especially since the 2008 downturn. Ever since that year, especially, many editors have been doing the work that used to be done by 2 editors, and few companies have expanded versus asking their employees to handle more. This is not to say that publishing isn’t doing well; it’s just that it’s been in a state of flux for quite a while now due to technological change. Companies have merged and gone out of business. Small publishers have started up and challenged the status quo. And Amazon has been changing everything.

What that means is that publishers do look for new people, but the number of applicants for every job is very high, and that the people applying for the jobs must be very competitive in the amount of experience they bring to the table, and in their awareness of current issues in the market. Publishing is a business, and editors need to be savvy.

What types of jobs have you had within your profession?

Since 1994, I’ve worked as a typesetter (in a program called LaTeX in Unix, no less), a proofreader of phone books, a newspaper reporter and photographer, a transcriber of overland trails journals, a library tech, an art photographer at a printing press, an editorial assistant at 3 different companies, publisher’s assistant, assistant editor, associate editor at 3 different publishing houses, editor of science fiction and fantasy, freelance editor working directly with authors, editorial director of a startup press, publication manager for an astronomy society, and now editorial director and publisher of my own imprint at a New York publisher.

What is the best part of your job?

I love working with authors, helping them to shape their book into the best book it can possibly become. I work with some of the best authors. And I also love being a part of the children’s book community—one of the most supportive, kindest communities.

What is the worst part of your job?

I’ve never been all that good at marketing and sales, so it’s a big challenge for me that this is such a large part of my job. But it’s also been fun to learn so much about it as I’ve started up an imprint—it’s a lot of work to start a company from scratch! I’d never really seen myself as the business sort of person, so it was a big learning curve.

What’s the work/family/life balance like?

I work pretty much all the time. I think I work about 60 hours a week on average, sometimes more if I have a deadline looming. So not really very balanced. I think it might be much more balanced at a larger company, but then, I have friends who work on far more books than I do at other companies (I publish 2-4 books a year at my imprint), so even though I work on fewer books, unlike editors at other companies, I work on every aspect of my books, aspects that might be handled by a larger team somewhere else. So I know I’m not the only person in publishing who works the kind of hours I do.

Plenty of people in publishing have a more balanced life between work and family, but my extended family lives far away, and it’s a lot of work, starting up a whole imprint. I try to take a vacation to visit them every year, but it can be hard to have the money to travel, so it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.

What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

I’ve yet to see a portrayal of a book editor in a movie or TV that actually reflects what an editor does in real life. A lot of people think being an editor is just fixing grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but it’s far, far more than that. We look at structure long before we worry about grammar. If the structure of your book isn’t working, who cares if you can spell perfectly? We’re looking at plot, characterization, worldbuilding, pacing, magic systems, culture… so much more than spelling.

A copyeditor looks at those things—and that person is often not the same editor as the person who acquired a book.

What opportunities have you had because of your education and profession?

I never would have lived in Seattle or New York City, so I never would have met any of the people I’ve met in the last 11 years. Boston, either, actually—so make that 13 or 14 years. I’ve had a lovely time in every place I’ve lived, and made many very good friends that I hope to say will be lifelong friends. And I’ve been able to get to know some deeply thoughtful authors and others in my profession. I’ve been a part of the creation of dozens of wonderful books.

What stereotypes or criticisms have you faced as an educated Mormon woman with her own career?

I’ve been told that I “chose my career over family” by people who have no idea what my dating history is. I’m really, really tired of that one. That, and the accusation that I’ve “delayed” marriage. You have to have actually had it offered to you as an option for you to delay anything. I’ve been told by bishopric members that getting my master’s degree isn’t worth it and that it won’t provide an adequate return on investment—because I’m a woman. With the assumption, of course, that I’m going to get married soon and become a stay-at-home mother.

But the thing is, no one can know whether I’ll get married ever, let alone in any amount of time to make it “worth” educating myself or not. I had direct, specific, personal revelation that told me that was what I needed to do with my life, so it was heart-breaking to be told by leadership that I didn’t know how to receive my own personal revelation for my own life. Were they going to employ me if I dropped out of graduate school without even a degree to show for my student loans?

Many people I met along the way didn’t understand what it was like to come from a family in poverty, so the criticism was compounded. Why go into debt? Why not just ask your parents for money? When your parents make less money than you do, that’s just not something a daughter can do. I’ve been on my own since I was 17, and if I don’t do what I need doing, it doesn’t get done.

What it comes down to for me is that I’d been told again and again that I’d need my education for “just in case” but my life isn’t a “just in case” or a plan B. My life is just my life. And whether I get married or not, I am a daughter of God who is worth educating because I am worth educating, not because I might have to support a family if a husband dies or leaves. I am worth educating because I have to support myself right now, marriage or no.

What spiritual guidance have you felt as you have pursued your education and developed your career?

The biggest moment of spiritual guidance I had was telling me I needed to go to graduate school. It was very specific. But often, the guidance has been more of a feeling of places that I needed to be, and then the opportunities became available. In addition, I had a very strong feeling that the right thing to do when I was laid off was to start this small press with my friend. When she decided she could no longer do it, I decided to continue to follow the prompting to try to start it myself. I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 for seed money (we needed a lot more; the plan was to use that to approach a bank for a small business loan for the rest), which gained the attention of Lee & Low, which eventually led to them offering me a job in New York City to officially start what was my company as an imprint of their company instead, with the full funding I’d need to start it.

Those were the big moments. I had (and of course, still have) a lot of little moments of struggle and eventually guidance along the way, too, that are more personal in nature.

Any other thoughts, advice, or stories you’d like to share with other women?

The biggest thing I can say is that you have to be willing to start at the bottom if you want to work in publishing. Be willing to do clerical work to get the chance to see how it all works. Publishing is a very mentor-oriented profession, and you will have superiors who are willing to show you the ropes. And the more skills you show up with—especially tech-related skills, in this new tech-savvy publishing world—the better your chances of success. Follow editors and other publishing professionals on Twitter (aka the water cooler of publishing)—I’m @stacylwhitman there, and my imprint is @tubooks. Follow my blog (though, honestly, I don’t post that much on my blog nowadays—I just don’t have the time to compose something thoughtful anymore, and Twitter is where everyone is) and the blogs of editors working on the kinds of books you want to work on. Take a look at the books you love and want to work on. Who publishes them? Go to that publisher’s website and look for their job listings.

Informational interviews can be a great way to meet editors and other publishing professionals for networking purposes, to figure out if what they do is really what you want to do. Seek internships as a way to try it out. And good luck!

Also: buy my books. 😉


3 Comments on “Career Day: Editor

  1. Stacy, I loved your post! Congratulations on your success with your education and your profession. We have a lot in common…I also grew up in the Midwest, graduated from BYU, spent some time in Chicago after graduation, and was single for many years. I majored in family science at BYU and it took me a long time to find a career I was passionate about, but it all worked out! I love what you said about “my life is just my life.” I’m glad you’ve had the confidence and faith to trust the revelation you’ve received. I think that personal revelation is the greatest gift that Heavenly Father could give us.

  2. I loved reading this. What an interesting job (and career path). Makes me wish we lived in the same area and I could meet Stacy at an AMW event and hear more about her work (and books!).

  3. Oh, I would love your job so much! Thanks for telling us all about it.

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