July 2, 2018

The Life of an Editor: Passion and Perseverance

By Hannah E. Harper, NYU Summer Publishing Institute Class of 2018

Laura Tisdel came to New York 15 years ago from Michigan for two weeks to find a job in publishing. With the help of a friend, she landed an interview for a publicity position at Viking, part of Penguin Random House. The morning of the big day, with all her belongings in tow, Tisdel stopped at Kinko’s [now FedEx Office] to print her résumé, thinking she’d change afterwards.

In mom’s-worst-nightmare New York City fashion, Tisdel got mugged in a hallway outside Kinko’s. She was fine! But all her belongings were gone, including her wallet, interview clothes, and résumé. So, what did she do? Tisdel called Viking, explained the situation, and assured them she’d be there soon. For one of the most important interviews of her career, Tisdel showed up in shorts and a t-shirt, no make-up, and with no résumé. She even had to ask the hiring manager for $40 for a cab ride to the airport.

Flying back to Michigan, Tisdel accepted the loss of her New York City dreams, thinking she blew it.

The next day, Tisdel got a call from Penguin Random House; she got the job. They were impressed not only with her talents, but with her dedication and commitment to a career in publishing.

As I listened to Tisdel, who is now Executive Editor at Viking, tell her story on a panel of editors assembled at the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, her words stood out to me. Laura’s attitude expressed the qualities most necessary in one’s career: passion, perseverance, and reliability. These qualities were continually expressed by the editors on the panel, both in their articulation of their own experiences and in their expectations for prospective employees. Along with Tisdel, the panel featured Selena James, Executive Editor at Kensington Books, Jofie Ferrari-Adler, Executive Editor at Simon & Schuster, and Krishan Trotman, Senior Editor at Hachette Book Group. The panel was moderated by Kate Miciak Vice President and Director of Editorial for the Ballantine Bantam Dell division of Penguin Random House.

We listened intently to a lot of great advice. James encouraged us to dress every day "like it’s your first day on the job." Ferrari-Adler revealed the importance of showing engagement in interviews and having a "spark;" and Trotman reminded us to be ourselves and communicate our own opinions.

One of my biggest takeaways from the panel was that the role of the editor is a lifestyle, and a social one at that. You need to be ready to take initiative, stand your ground, understand people, connect with agents and authors, and really love your job. And you need to take manuscripts home to read on nights and weekends!

After the panel, students were assigned to editorial workshops with the editors. I was thrilled to be in Tisdel’s group putting our newfound advice to the test. My group began by discussing the manuscript we had been assigned earlier that week for a "reader’s report." Tisdel reminded us that the report is not necessarily a reflection of our personal preferences, but instead an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and whether or not the book has potential. Keeping this in mind, we discussed the voice, structure, themes, and comparable titles of the book.

Students in a small circle group, sitting, listening, and speaking

It proved incredibly valuable to compare and contrast our own perspectives with that of an editor; while many of our pros and cons were similar, Tisdel pointed out factors I had not considered, such as the author’s vision. When considering a manuscript, Tisdel asks deeper questions like: "How much does the author relate to his/her characters; realistically, can she develop them further?" Another question: "How long has the author been working on this book and will he/he be open to changes?" Along with evaluating the technical strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript, Tisdel also considers the person behind the book to determine how well the editor/author relationship will actually work.

This brought us to our next lesson: being an editor means being personable, yet professional. When working with authors and agents, it’s necessary not only to form real connections and build relationships, but to keep budgets and deadlines in mind. Tisdel presented a mock situation about which we crafted emails to our "authors." We quickly learned that the length, phrasing, and tone of an email may all affect the delicate balance between personal and professional. One particular hint from Tisdel: "Always aim for 'Yes,' even when you’re really saying 'No'."

My group continued a free and flowing conversation with Tisdel, discussing agents, financial processes, the difference between marketing and publicity, getting to know your boss, and the importance of having a work friend who can offer criticism. The group asked questions like: "Is it appropriate to use exclamation points?" (Yes, she uses them all the time!) Or "How do you give critiques without scaring off authors?" Tisdel answered everything with confidence and relatability.

Tisdel left us with a few pieces of advice regarding the job interview process: "Don’t ever be mean, always write an email thank-you and a handwritten note after an interview, be yourself, be creative, and follow up." Reminiscent of her own fateful interview 15 years ago, Tisdel also told us: "Show how well you work, show how hungry you are for this."

We all left the session not only hungry for this, but excited about careers in publishing.

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