Special Guest: Jessica Wade!


Greetings, dear readers!

I’m Jessica Wade, and I’m an editor at Ace and Roc, the science fiction and fantasy imprints of Penguin. The lovely Faith (AKA Gwen) Hunter asked me to write a guest post for you all, and in this case I’m going to follow the age-old dictate that says ‘write what you know’ (strange advice for fantasy writers I suppose!) and try to give a sense of what it is that I do as an editor—mostly how I shepherd a book through to publication. I hope that getting a feel for what goes on after a book is bought will be of interest, and will maybe shed some light on what sometimes seems like the faceless military-industrial complex of publishing.

So. What is it that an editor does? The answer varies from house to house, and from imprint to imprint within each house (the imprint being the smaller division of the big company, and the word you see on the spine of the book). But in general, our jobs have two very distinct parts: acquisitions and editing. Acquisitions entails reading submissions from agents, or unsolicited (charmingly called, since time immemorial, “slush”) manuscripts, and deciding what to buy for the company. Part of what I decide to buy is based on theoretical market savvy (“I read in Locus that Harper Collins is having a lot of success with post-apocalyptic naval fantasy told from the point of view of sentient sea rats! We must have some of our own!”) but mostly it has to do with whether I fall in love with a book when I’m reading. Does the character grab me from the word go? Does the author pull me into a world that is rich without being obtrusively detailed, and set up agonizing conflict? Sign me up! Typically I buy multiple books in a contract (because by the time the first book comes out, the second book should already have been delivered if we want a timely sequel). Calling a first time author is a really fun part of the job, and though I’ve been working at Penguin for nearly a decade, it’s still really thrilling to hear the joy in a new author’s voice when I talk to them for the first time.

But now Ace/Roc has a new author, so what’s next?

The editing! I edit a manuscript globally the first time around. I’m not looking for grammar or spelling mistakes (that’s the copyeditor’s job). I’m looking to make sure the novel has a satisfying structure; that the character grows demonstrably as a result of her experiences; that motivations make sense. Big, honking, world-building, deal-breaking issues. (“I note that the rat narrator has a lot of enmity for his siblings and that drives the first part of the plot, but we don’t really get a clear picture of why. Can you make sure he explains, with some telling details?”) I’ll also typically note down any smaller, continuity-type queries (“On p. 67 the rat narrator said DeLorean A’ngvarmain’s tail adornment was in the latest style, but then on p. 68 One-Eye said it was dowdy. What gives?”). Then I send them off to the poor, benighted author in an editorial letter (ok, email, but we still say letter!). I’ve written letters as short as two pages and as long as thirteen. The author reads the letter. He weeps. He sobs. He rends his clothes. He fantasizes about writing a letter back to me critiquing each point of my letter. But then (hopefully!) he sees that my changes will help make the novel more accessible or tighter and we have a chat or email exchange and work out a timeline for revisions. Then I read the new version, typically line-editing in Microsoft Word at the same time for flow and content and send it back to him. He weeps. He sobs. He realizes no one really ‘rends’ clothes so much anymore—it’s not green. He approves my changes. Voila! Off to the copyeditor. The copyeditor copyedits, kicks it back to author, the author reviews the changes. Then the manuscript is typeset to look like a book, and the page proofs are kicked back to the author, approved, and then, three months later, we have a book!

The whole process takes about nine months to a year. What, pray tell, is the indolent editor doing in the meantime? That’s the third part of our job, and it’s a doozy. Because I’m the conduit through which all the information about the author and the book flows to other departments, I do a lot of email answering. I also go to a lot of meetings, where we talk about covers and line-ups and bring up submissions for the editorial group to talk about. I look at covers and edit back cover copy. I go to cons. I obligingly write guest blogs when asked by my authors (*grin*). And all of this minutiae (‘getting nibbled to death by ducks’ is what my boss calls it) takes up a LOT of time. Probably sixty to seventy percent of my work day, so that I end up editing and reading submissions a great deal at home—and that’s true for most of the editors I know. It’s overall an exceedingly engaging job, and can be very rewarding, but it will expand to fill up as much time as you allow it to.

And with that, I’ll sign off! I hope hearing about editors and the editorial process hasn’t bored you to tears and that maybe you’ve learned at least one new thing (get to writing the apocalyptic rat fantasy, STAT, for example). I should note that I’ll be happy to respond to comments/questions, but that I’m going to be on vacation through 8/20 and may not be in range of the Internet until then. Apologies. And many thanks for your time!


14 comments to Special Guest: Jessica Wade!

  • First — THANK YOU JESSICA!!!! This was great! How I wish I’d had this before I was published the first time. Sigh… Lucky newbies.

    I’m away from the computer for the rest of the day, too, but I do want to say one thing about Jessica in particular, and about editors in general. And then offer a word of advice to the non-pubs at the site.

    I think every published writer here at MW would agree, that almost every editor works *with* a writer, meaning that, if the rat’s tail adornment situation is necessary to play out in book two or three, then they usually agree that it should stay in the manuscript. But they will then explain what is obtrusive about the section and suggest ways to correct that part so the book flows better. They are here to make our work shine, glow, stand out from the crowd. They bought your work. They want other editors to come up to them at cons and say, “I turned down the rat story. I am so dumb.” Or words to that effect. They want to hear, “Jessica got the rat story. I *love* the rats!” And even better, “Jessica’s new author went to number seven on the NYT. She is so good!” To which Jessica nods regally and smiles mysteriously and goes back to work. (Often 60 hour work weeks for not much pay.)

    Now, the advice. When you get that first (second, 19th) revision letter, don’t read it before bed. Read it after breakfast, when you have time to let it settle and germinate. Read the first para or two. Put it down, go pull weeds. Box. Target shoot. Challenge the dojo’s best brown belt. Get it out of your system. Sleep on it. Sit on it. WAIT! Do NOT CALL or EMAIL the EDITOR! Weep alone. I’m serious. I wept on my first rewrite letter. For three days. I felt violated and abused. (NOT by Jessica. Her revision letters are gracious and kind.)

    Now, I sit on a revision letter for several days, and I like to sit on it for a full week, depending on deadline schedule, reading it over and over during that time, pulling up key scenes and rereading them. Then I email my editor with my responses, which usually go something like. “You are so right about EVERYTHING. I am so STUPID. However, on page 12, the detail about…” And the negotation begins.

    As I mentioned, I am away from my computer the rest of the week. I hope you leave lots of comments for Jessica to respond to when she gets back from vacation. And thank you Jessica for being here today.

  • […] Jessica Wade (an editor at Ace/Roc Books (my publisher), guest blogged today on Magical Words.  Her… Since a lot of you are aspiring authors, I knew you’d enjoy an insider’s view of what it takes to make a book. […]

  • Deb S

    Sentient sea… Rats! I mean, darn. So close. I should have known sentient sea zombies were trope:)

    Thanks for the peek behind the curtain, Jessica.

  • pwtucker80


    It’s a well known fact that editors luxuriate by roof-top pools in the heart of Manhattan, sipping on gin and tonics as cabana boys fetch them the latest shoes and chocolates from that place you love. Admit it Jess, it’s all glamor, soirees, Midtown parties and darts down at the pub. Occasionally I’m sure you lean over to sign a document proffered by a cabana boy, but I’m sure that’s about it.

  • Last year, I took upon myself the job of putting together a charity anthology at another web forum. I thought that I could jsut copy and paste some word files and “voila!” instant anthology. Boy was I wrong! I never understood the difference between editing, copyedit, and typesetting until I did that. I never knew so much went on behind the scenes to put out a publishable book.

    Thank you for giving us un-pubs an inside look at the magic behind the magical words of fantasy.

  • Wow, thank you!

    I appreciated hearing how you split up your day, Jessica. My first thought when I started reading this was, “Well, I already have a pretty decent idea of how this works … but I’ll read it anyway.” But the details have made a lot of those “Mysteries of the Editor’s Desk” things I don’t think about much very clear. Thanks!

    (And speaking as someone who answers a lot of e-mails for her job, I can totally relate to it being a bit of a time-suck. So I can really appreciate what you do.) 🙂

  • Welcome to MW and thanks for posting. Oh, and thanks for publishing Faith’s books. We love ’em!

    Do you think things were easier on editors in the past? I know staff cuts and such must put a lot of extra workload on you all, but at the same time, it seems that editor interviews from decades ago read the same. Particularly about doing a lot of the work at home. So, are things worse today or is an impossible workload just par for the editor’s course?

  • Hi, Jessica. Thanks so much for the guest post, and the inside look at the “glamorous” life of an editor. I’ll be very interested to see your eventual answer to Stuart’s question. And I’d be interested as well to know if you have a few quick submission “dos and don’ts” for our readers. Great to see you here! Thanks again.

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, this cleared up a lot of things for me. I think it’s great you answer all of those emails and guest post. Plus the cons. People can learn a lot from you.

  • R.O. Kashmir

    Another enlightening post. Thank you Jessica.

    I’m hoping that writing government acquisition documents subject to multiple reviews as they crawl their way through legal, procurement, budget, and various HQ functions has prepared me sufficiently for those revision letters.

    I do have a question. From your perspective as an Editor where do you see the Agent role in getting a new author published? The chance the slush pile or go the Agent route question?

  • Welcome, Jessica, and thanks for the insights.

    Following Stuart’s lead on asking questons, what are some of the things that will get an author bounced in a great big hurry?

  • Sooooo…. You like calling first time authors? Feel free to call me any time you want that rush of telling me you’ll publish my book! 🙂

    I can imagine there would be some authors who gnash and rage when they get their edits back. I know my father sulked for quite a bit when he was told how he could improve his story. He never followed through with getting it published but he has written a second novel and is starting on a third so I guess he got over it.
    Personally, I’d love to be told what to change to make my novel more betterer. I’m not attached to it at all, I’d even rewrite it as a vampire loves teenager story if I was told to (like it isn’t a bit creepy for a 100+ year old to get it on with a 17 year old).

    I just about cried tears of blood just typing that, I shouldn’t be so ironic.

  • Ryl

    Dang. I just want to read about those sea rats now,…

  • green_knight

    Hi Jessica, thanks for the post. When I started writing, I had this notion that a book was created by a writer. The more I learn about the industry, the more it looks like a team effort – from beta readers and people to brainstorm with to professionals who all help to make a story better.

    Out of interest: do you do electronic copy edits? And if not, why not?

    I’m a copy editor, UK based, and I’m finding that in my main field (academic), electronic seems to be pretty much prevalent. My writer friends, on the other hand, seem to get paper edits – which is a problem when they’re not on same the continent as the copy editor – it adds precious time for turnaround, carries the horror that the work might be lost, and makes it much harder to maintain continuity (How do I love thee, ‘highlight all instances of’? Count thine own ways.) I know some writers prefer paper edits, which is fair enough, but I wonder why there seems to be such reluctance in genre publishing.