Today, because it was Friday and things were slow at the office, I compiled a list of all of the books I have edited over the 8+ years of my publishing career. It was relatively simple to do given the fact that I have spent my entire career at one company and that company (Penguin Random House) has great systems that are easy to use. Several of the books are now out of print and therefore weren't in the regular management system, but I did some digging through old files and lists and came up with what should be a comprehensive list.
I have edited 72 books.
That is an average of just under 9 per year. This is not a terribly unusual number for an in-house editor; a typical number for someone who works in the categories I do is about 8-12 depending on the imprint. And, for some of these, I didn't edit the entire manuscript. In a few cases I may have offered feedback on early chapters before the book was transitioned to a different editor for some reason (for instance, when I left my first imprint). I only counted books under these circumstances if I felt my edits had a significant impact on shaping the book as a whole. If my feedback was nothing more than "This looks good! Keep going," I didn't consider it an edit.
Any editor knows that some books have a bigger impact on your career than others. Perhaps the book did extremely well and helped you make a name for yourself. Or perhaps it was your first book in a new category and thus helped you expand your repertoire. Perhaps you developed a special rapport with the author and went on to maintain a relationship with them long after the book was published. Perhaps the author was a nightmare who made you rethink your entire career choice but also taught you important lessons about professionalism and dealing with adversity.
In my own case, the thing that strikes me most about these 72 books is not the number but the diversity they represent. The first book I acquired was an account of the Bernie Madoff scandal. My most successful book (in terms of sales) was a collection of Christmas stories by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (say what you will about the man or his politics, but that book made me cry on more than one occasion because it was so affecting). The first book I acquired when I switched imprints was a memoir by a Dutch veterinarian who is also the star of his own TV show. The last book I edited was about GMOs and the American food system.
I realized I wanted to be a book editor when I was a freshman in college. If you had asked me then how I envisioned my career, I would have told you I wanted to edit the next Great American Novel. I was always a huge reader, but apart from books I read for school, I exclusively read fiction, except for an occasional memoir. I would never have touched a business book or a book by a conservative politician (or, for that matter, any politician). I took my first job because it was the first one offered to me, and I figured it would be a great foot in the door to what I really wanted to do. But I stayed for five years. And I loved it. And I changed.
I love non-fiction now--all kinds of non-fiction (except sports and military history, though I did read Moneyball, but that's also kind of a business book). Today I tell people I only want to work on non-fiction. Even stranger? I prefer practical non-fiction--self-help, business, lifestyle...My mother once tried to get me to read Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey, and I flat out refused. Now personal finance is one of my favorite categories to work on, and three of the authors with whom I have maintained relationships over the years, have written personal finance books.
A few years ago, I spoke at a panel for my alma mater. I graduated from a journalism school where I majored in magazine journalism. The panel was part of a trip the magazine department organizes every year where they take some seniors in the department to New York for a few days to meet with alumni and pick their brains about how to get a job. This was 2009, so the job prospects for these students was bleak.
Joining me on the panel were two other magazine grads who, like me, had ended up landing jobs with a business focus. One worked at Forbes, the other was at CNNMoney.com, and then there was me. None of us had sought careers with a business-focus. We knew nothing about business or finance when we entered these jobs, but we all ended up loving what we did. At one point, one of the seniors asked us about this choice and said, "Don't you need to love the work in order to enjoy your job? Shouldn't we be looking for jobs that align with our interests."
I wanted to tell her, "Honey, you're graduating at the bottom of one of the worst recessions in history with a degree in magazines...take any job you can get." Instead I told her that how much you enjoyed your job depended less on the work and more on the work environment. If you hate your coworkers or have a tyrannical boss, you could be working at your favorite publication and be miserable.
I still agree with this and have offered the advice since then. But in thinking about these 72 books and how I've changed in the past 8 years, I also realize that the problem with seeking a job that aligns with your "interests" as opposed to your "skills" is that, when you're 22, you really don't know who you are. Your options have been limited. And studying a subject for a couple hours a week or pursuing a hobby in your free time is very different from working at it 40+ hours a week. I knew I was a good editor, but I had no idea I'd be able to edit 72 books about so many different topics--and edit them well.
There's a bit of a misconception that editors are failed writers--that if they were really talented, their names would be on the front of the book, not tucked away on the acknowledgements page. But I don't know a single editor for whom this is the case. I certainly know some who also write, but good editors love editing. Some people might find the prospect of reading, let alone editing, 72 books books to be a nightmare. Meanwhile, I can't wait to see just how high that number can get.