What Do Book Editors Do?

In a year end review of big stories, the buzz around the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and the revelations that it was an earlier version of what became the heavily revised and strongly edited To Kill a Mockingbird offers NPR’s All Things Considered a chance to ask “What Exactly Does an Editor Do?”

Reporter Lynn Neary took up that question with the help of author A. Scott Berg and vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books, Rebecca Saletan.

9780425223376Berg, who nearly two decades ago wrote the award-winning biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (he edited several geniuses, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe), says that Perkins re-created the job of editor:

“Not only did he change the course of the American literary river, but he changed what editors do by becoming their best friends, their money lenders, their marriage counselors, their psychoanalysts … And along the way he began offering them titles. He often provided structure for what their novels ought to be. He often gave them whole ideas for what their next book should be.”

Today, given the demands on their time and the expansive duties of their jobs, editors are less intimately involved but have not stopped editing says Saletan:

“Now, with online media and other aspects of modern life there’s a ton to do and it takes a lot of time and we have to work very, very hard to get our books above the tree line … I always cringe a little and feel a little sympathetic for the editor when a review says, ‘This wasn’t well-edited.’ Because it’s very hard for anybody outside the process to know what went into it.”

For those who want to harken back to the earlier days, Berg’s book on Perkins is making its way to the silver screen under the title Genius (see our earlier story), scheduled for release in July. It’s likely to be a glorified version, however, with Colin Firth as Perkins, Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe, Dominic West as Hemingway, and Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald. The website Thompson on Hollywood provides a photo from the filming.

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