I am an editor for a publishing house. The pay is not bad, but it’s not great, either. Unfortunately, most of the editors I know do not really get to edit.
For example, we check the books before we send out page proofs and if we see something we can fix it, and if we see something we want to question, we can question it. But for 9 out of 10 books we really aren’t supposed to READ them, just make sure that the headings are correct, the page numbers are all there, and all the typesetting elements are consistent and in the right places.
A lot of the books we do are legal casebooks, though, so even if we see an obvious mistake in the case itself, all we get to do is query whether the mistake is in the original or if it was introduced in the process. If it was in the original, it stays. But if the questions following each case are misnumbered, well, we can change that.
And the last book I actually got to edit, I was limited to 10 hours.
This was not really what I had in mind when I took the job as editor. And, in fact, when I first took the job I got to do more working with the copy than I do now.
Most of the editors I know have similar duties. For instance, an acquiring editor for a rather large NY publishing house. She reads a lot of manuscripts, but in reality she generally makes a decision in the first page or two. Once she does make a decision, instead of editing the book to make it better, her job is to sell the book to her boss, to a publication committee, and then to the reps, who will then spread it to (mostly) Barnes & Nobles and their ilk across the country. (She can offer the writer an advance of up to $25,000, but to kick it any higher it has to go to the committee, and if she buys it at $25,000 she pretty much knows it won’t get the marketing support to really take off.) Once it’s acquired, the process of getting it through publication goes to someone else (a managing editor) and it’s not her baby anymore, although she does remain the contact with the author. If the book’s a huge success, it’s credited to the marketing department, but if it’s a flop–then it’s all her fault. So it’s kind of stressful.
My books were published by Ballantine and within about four years my editor had four assistants who all went on to become senior editors. They seemed to go directly from assistant to senior editor. They had a tendency to be people with MAs in things like comparative literature (complete with Latin honors) who took the job as assistant, which didn’t pay much, then they put in lots of hours, and got promoted. She did not edit my books, but read them and came back with letters with comments like, “Could your protagonist have a more interesting romantic life?”–in one case the letter was four single-spaced pages, ouch! But for the line edit, they sent the books out to an independent copy editor. My editor’s involvement was to take out one bad pun per book.
The people who get to actually edit the books are independent copy editors. They are mostly people who have worked in publishing and have the contacts to get hired by the publisher–or they are hired by the authors before they even submit the book. For a 350-page book, 50-60 hours of editing, the pay would be something like $1500. This is the job for someone who is good at improving the prose. She would be an independent contractor. Some of the publishers* are very slow to pay–like, three months after the thing is done, you might get your check. If dealing directly with the author, she would want to get at least half the amount up front. (I have done a little of this, and while I like the work, I also like the security of a regular paycheck and health insurance, and it’s too hard to do it with a full-time job.)
Being a good writer definitely helps. It’s a lot easier to improve someone else’s writing than to create something original, but you also have to know what good writing is.
So if not a great job I wouldn’t call it a crap job, the pay is better than retail, and work is out there.
*Probably all of the publishers.