By Molly Gregory, Dogwood Managing Editor
Ever since I got to college, I’ve known that I’ve wanted to edit children’s books. Growing up, books were a huge part of my life and my world. There was nothing that I loved more than curling up in my living room armchair with a new book fresh from the library, and nothing more exciting than going on all sorts of wild adventures from the comfort of my own home. Books exercised my imagination each and every day. They gave me the power to think for myself, to question the world around me, and to always be open to new challenges and ideas.
As an adult (a label that still doesn’t feel quite right), I still know the power of books firsthand. They are the key to a child’s full-fledged education; they not only teach children about their own values and beliefs, but they also teach children how to question them. They give children the tools that allow them to think beyond themselves and to consider their role in the world. All very grand ideas, of course, but very true!
Working behind the scenes on some of the books that will change the world—regardless of their critical acclaim or spot on the bestseller list—has been a dream of mine for a long time now. I sometimes sit up at night, dreaming of editing books in a cozy office somewhere (that, by some miracle, has a roaring fireplace and plenty of blankets). Before I make it to that office, though, I need to start learning more about the industry. What does editing entail? How does one get involved? Is it actually a horrible career that will result in graying hair at an early age, or a phobia of word processing?
I decided that I needed to investigate further.
Enter Colin Hosten, a Fairfield University English professor who got his career started in children’s book publishing. Unlike me, Colin didn’t always dream about editing books. In fact, he had been expecting to go to law school for most of his life. However, after a summer internship, he changed his mind.
Colin first got involved in publishing after his junior year of college with an internship at the New Press in New York. The New Press is a smaller house that publishes material dealing with modern social and political issues, and Colin got a lot of exposure to every part of the industry—all the way from editorial to book production to marketing—because of the house’s intimate size. After this experience, says Colin, “I thought to myself, ‘hey, I love to read, I love books, and I don’t particularly want to go to law school.” It just so happened that publishing was the perfect fit.
After graduation, Colin sent out applications to every publishing job he could find. “I pictured myself working as an editor of hard-hitting nonfiction books, dealing with politics or economics—all sorts of life-changing stuff—but I ended up working in children’s books instead. A friend of mine had a friend who was working in children’s book publishing and the company had an editorial assistant position open, so I sent my application in and got hired! And I was very lucky to get hired, and I say I was lucky because it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Colin’s first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant for Hyperion Books for Children, a branch of Disney Publishing Worldwide. An editorial assistant is a typical entry-level job in publishing—the job that I or any recent college graduate would likely get—so I was eager to learn as much about this first job as possible.
As Colin explained to me, working as an editorial assistant is a kind of everyman or everywoman’s job. Editorial assistants “see books through every stage of their development, from initial acceptance to the final product. At a large company, editorial assistants lean more towards the assistant part of the role. They’re very much support roles for the senior staff, handling anything from correspondence to getting coffee. Smaller houses might give assistants more editorial work to do. The ratio for the editorial work vs. the assistant work really depends on the company’s size.”
Disney Hyperion was a smaller to medium-sized house, so Colin was fortunate enough to do a lot of editorial work even as an assistant. He was able to do light editing, copyediting, and proofreading amongst his assistant duties (which included administrative activities like managing contracts, serving as a middleman between agents and editors, etc. “The administrative work was probably my least favorite part of the job,” laughed Colin).
Colin also had the opportunity to read initial book submissions, and started doing more directional editing—actually working with sentences on the page—after he’d been at Disney Hyperion for a few years. In 2008, after nearly four years as an editorial assistant, Colin switched over to digital media coordinating. Still with Disney Publishing Worldwide, Colin’s job was to help lay the foundation for Disney’s digital publishing sector, which still exists today.
“They [Disney] were ahead of the game in many ways, and they realized that to fight against technology would be a losing battle… Disney started the digital publishing arm almost as a startup, as a separate little entity within the larger publishing corporation. My background wasn’t in technology—I was an English major—but what I liked about the job was that it wasn’t necessarily a technological position. I had to have some understanding of the digital publishing landscape, but the best part about it was that the storytelling still came first”.
The main difference between digital and traditional publishing is the device that they’re put on: digital stories go on tablets and e-books, while traditional stories are print and bound. Some digital stories, especially the ones for children, incorporate interactive elements as well. “We [Disney Publishing] had to hire a music studio to add a background score to a book for example,, or hire voice actors to read the book. We also had to hire technical partners to add interactive elements like minor game play.” Digital media dramatically changed the publishing landscape—publishers had to make sure that books stayed relevant in spite of increased digital devices—and the business is still trying to work out some of the kinks in the system. Still, Colin says, “I think publishing has done a pretty decent job of adapting and staying ahead of the curve. Not everything has been a hit, of course, but they’ve been very proactive.”
Today, Colin works as an adjunct professor at Fairfield University, and he also does a lot of freelance writing and editing, as well as his own creative writing. Even though he hasn’t been formally engaged in the publishing industry for a few years now, it’s still something that he draws upon in his professional life, especially as a writer.
“I’ve found that a lot of people [writers] don’t know or don’t care about how the [publishing] process works, and that may be to their detriment because a publisher, while interested in storytelling and getting good literature out there, does have different priorities from a writer. I think it’s important for writers to understand that, and it’s helped me to sell or promote my own work. Writers might think their work is really good, but that’s not going to work with most publishers.”
So what are some of the things that future editors should know about?
“What’s great about where you’re at right now is that you can start at the start. You can take entry-level positions, like internships. You have that luxury now to just get the experience, make connections and meet people. Publishing is still very much a people-centered industry, and you have to get to know people and network. And that’s great! You can meet a lot of people that way.
Realize that your first job will entail entry-level stuff, like admin work. But the great thing is that publishing has started and will continue to evolve and adapt to the 21st century. A lot of publishing has moved out of the big five [Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillian, Simon & Schuster], which presents more options to people trying to break into the industry… When I got into publishing, which was only 11 years ago, people were saying that publishing was dead: nobody buys books, nobody reads books. Publishing is certainly challenged, but it’s a matter of adapting to the 21st century and to the consumers that are different from a generation ago. And although publishing is a tough industry to break into, and a relatively quiet one at that, it’s still chugging along and churning out millions and millions of books every year.”
Despite the changing role that publishing has in the world today, especially in regards to digital publications, the industry is still doing well. People haven’t stopped reading: they’re just doing it in a different way. So for those of us who, like me, want to get involved in book production, there’s still hope. The industry still needs editors, book jacket designers, marketers, accountants… people from every area of expertise.
My interview with Colin made me realize just how important getting involved in publishing is to me. After all, I love people, I love writing, I love editing, and most of all, I love books. Despite the changing digital climate, books are something that will endure. There’s nothing that compares to a great read: to a book that can make you laugh and cry. Children need these sorts of books too. Books open a child’s imagination; they help children to grow in heart, mind, and soul, and they need good editors to provide those books to them. I would be honored to be one of those editors someday.
The publishing industry is a place where minds can grow, creativity can flourish, and where all kinds of hopes and dreams can come true. One final perk?
“I didn’t have to buy books for about ten years,” says Colin.
If that isn’t a dream come true, then I don’t know what is.