Behind every book is a team of people – the author and the editor, of course, but also the managing editor, production editors, designers, sales team…so what exactly do all these folks do? We’re excited to welcome Rebecca to KidLit Network to explain a little bit about her job as production editor at a major publishing house. 

What is a production editor?

A production editor is basically the person who guides a title through the book production process—once the editor has finished developmental edits with an author and it’s time to make a physical (or digital) book out of the story. We’re copy editors, fact checkers, and also liaisons between the editorial/design departments and the production department. But every house handles these roles a little differently. Where I work, I am part of the managing editorial team. 

My biggest responsibility is to copyedit and proofread all stages of our books (my imprint publishes everything from board books to middle-grade novels). Copyediting primarily means line-editing a manuscript using MS Word. I will read closely, correcting style and grammar mistakes, suggesting rewording for clarity or consistency, and making sure that the manuscript follows our house style sheet as well as any series style sheets.

What’s a style sheet? It’s a document that keeps track of how we treat various grammar/spelling/punctuation/style points. Style sheets make sure that all of our books are consistent, within a series or among the list. When I copyedit, especially if I am working on a new series or a standalone book, I will create a style sheet as I go. Whenever I make a style choice (such as italicizing a sound effect), I’ll document on the sheet. Then editors, other copy editors, and proofreaders will know which style should be used going forward. We love consistency!

Another big part of copyediting is fact-checking—and that goes for both nonfiction and fiction. I research and use various reference sources to make sure that the dates of a historical event are correct (for a biography, perhaps), or that a great white shark can be twenty feet long (for a NF reader), or that two streets actually intersect (if a novel’s protagonist mentions running there while escaping a zombie).

Proofreading happens when a book makes it into pages—once the book has been designed and the text is placed in the layout of the final book. I will read the pages against the copyedited manuscript, making sure that no copy was “dropped” (i.e., somehow got deleted) and also checking to make sure that it looks okay on the page—checking for tight or loose lines, widows and orphans, or messed-up indents.

While proofing I will still make grammar and style corrections, if I notice something that wasn’t caught during the copyediting stage. I’ll also do things like make sure that the book lists the correct ISBN and that the copyright information is accurate. I’ll check the art, making sure that it matches the text (e.g., a character wearing a green shirt doesn’t switch to an orange one in the middle of a scene)—and I might fact-check it, too. Proofing happens at every stage of the book production process, from pages to galleys to book approvals. Later on, I’ll be looking for ink splotches and other printing errors, and making sure that the color is adjusted correctly.

But while copyediting and proofreading are the biggest parts of a production editor’s job (at some stage, I will review all of the hundreds of books we publish each year), we do a lot of other stuff, too! I make sure that our internal tracking documents are updated so we always know at which part of the process a book is. I also work with the production department to figure out physical details and pricing for books.

A day in the life of a production editor

I don’t know that there really is an average day for me. Some days I might spend hours routing paperwork. Some days I might spend the entire workday copyediting a manuscript. If launch is coming up and covers are due, I might proof a half dozen of them. I suppose an average day is one in which I do a little of everything: finishing up fact-checking art sketches for a nonfiction book; proofing a few “rush” covers; copyediting some front matter or jacket copy; handling a couple pricing requests; and starting to proof first-pass pages for a novel. The fact that what I do varies from day to day  makes my job interesting and fast-paced, which I like. If there’s a downside, it’s that you have to be flexible. It’s important for me to be able to prioritize work based on the needs of production schedules.

And always part of my day is thinking long and hard about fairly obscure grammar and style points. I love the fact that the other copy editors and I can have extensive email chains debating the proper usage of hyphens and en-dashes. And that we all really care about getting it right—to the extent that we have internalized the Chicago Manual of Style and can quote parts of it from memory. (I know, it’s nerdy!)

How do you become a production editor?

I don’t know that there is a direct path to becoming a production or copy editor. Publishing, in large part, is an apprentice-based industry. Most people start at the assistant level and work their way up over many years. (In terms of my personal path, I started working in production editorial at the assistant level after college, left for graduate school, came back into publishing as an editorial assistant and then editor, and eventually switched back to production editorial.)

A lot of copyediting skills can be taught—how to mark up pages, how to create a style sheet—but the ability to focus intently on the written word and the design of pages really can’t. Attention to detail is so important in this role. Everybody misses an error here and there—we’re not robots, even if sometimes we sound like them in our endless queries. But it’s important to get it right almost all the time. If you’re not someone who is going to be happy spending hours and hours tweaking writing at the sentence level, it’s probably not the job for you. But if you’re someone who loves grammar jokes and freaks out when a menu uses apostrophes incorrectly, welcome to the club.

What’s the most important thing authors should know about their production editor?

I’ve had a lot of writers tell me that they are afraid of the copyediting (CE) process, and often this fear stems from them feeling embarrassed about the mistakes that will inevitably be caught. I say “inevitably” because every single author makes mistakes. But that’s okay! It’s your CE’s job to catch those errors, big and small, and then get out of the way so your prose shines. We don’t want to change your tone or style, and we respect the very hard work writers do. Copy editors might be nitpickers by nature, but generally we  don’t judge. If you are feeling horrified about an error your CE caught, stop!  We’re here to help you and your future readers, and we are happy when we can do so. (And what’s more, we make mistakes, too.)

Also, it’s not always easy to be the person who sits around correcting other people all day. Sometimes CEs suffer from Alex Trebek syndrome: seeming like a smarmy know-it-all because s/he has all the answers. Just remember that we have all those answers only because we are naturally inquisitive, detail-obsessed people with corporate subscriptions to Encyclopedia Britannica and the CMS. If you think the tone of your CE’s comments and queries is a little annoying, it’s most likely not meant to be read that way.

And that leads to the final thing I’d tell authors: If you had a good experience with whoever copyedited your book, thank him or her! You don’t have to do it in your acknowledgments—we know that page is very personal. But a quick note or email from an author—or hearing from an editor that an author appreciated our hard work—will always make our days.

Thanks so much, Rebecca!