Getting Inside the Head of a Book Editor

January 9, 2019

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Between the Lines: Getting Inside the Head of a Book Editor

By Meera Subramanian

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you don’t often get to the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conferences, you may be missing out on the signature SEJ “book pitch slams,” where attendees offer their ideas for a book to a panel of book editors for feedback in an open session. For reasons of privacy, these sessions are not recorded and are not available online. So SEJournal’s Karen Schaefer asked SEJ board member and book author Meera Subramanian to share some of what she learned from pitch slam editors at the most recent conference.

Attendee at the 2018 annual SEJ conference, where prospective authors received advice from book editors. Photo: SEJ. Click to enlarge.

True to tradition, the final session on the final day of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in Flint, Mich last Oct. 3-7 was the “Book Slam.”

Set up in an elegant room at the Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, Michigan, participants stepped up to the microphone to pitch their book ideas in a mere 120 seconds.

Then three editors — Paula Ayer of Greystone Press, Scott Gast of University of Chicago Press and Emily Turner of Island Press — provided thoughtful and encouraging feedback.

Given the cloak of secrecy around members’ works-in-progress, only those present could witness the idea development in process.

But the editors did kick off the session by sharing some universalities that they wished every aspiring author knew before they ever approached a publishing house.

Here are each of their five top tips.

Paula Ayer of Greystone Press

  1. We Google you! Be aware of what you post online, especially if you're complaining about the publishers who have rejected you.
  2. Publishers get lots of submissions. However, we don't receive very many well-thought-out proposals that reflect what we publish, so when we do, we pay attention.
  3. Be appropriately confident when you pitch — don't downplay your achievements, but don't have overinflated expectations, either.
  4. Know that a book is a very different medium from an article or essay; publishers receive many good ideas that are either too narrow for a book or that fall apart in terms of their structure. Think about a structural organization that can sustain itself over the length of a book.
  5. Be flexible and open to changes, but be the authority on your book. Book publishing is a collaborative process, but an author who gives in to every suggestion doesn't inspire confidence.  

Scott Gast of University of Chicago Press

  1. Ideas are usually more important than form. An exciting but messy book proposal is almost always better than a polished but dull one. Editors can help with form, but we can only do so much with hazy ideas.
  2. Ask yourself: Who are my readers? Editors want to feel confident that a proposed book will find interested readers. It's immensely helpful, and often necessary, for authors to help us understand who those readers might be. Try to be as specific (and realistic) as you can, and don't be afraid to do some market research.
  3. Ask yourself: Has this book been written before? Editors also want to feel confident that a proposed book will be fresh and distinctive. If other books about your subject have been published before, how will yours be different? Try to be as specific as you can.
  4. Ask yourself: Why should this book be published? This might be the most important question that editors themselves need to answer — for the sake of the book and for our sometimes-skeptical colleagues at editorial meetings. Help us answer the question convincingly. Be sure to think through and describe your rationale for bringing your project into the world.
  5. Books should have "long tails." Unlike news pieces and most magazine features, books have the unique power to speak to us years, decades and even generations after publication. As you conceive of and write your book, try to enlarge your sense of time. A book can be an opportunity for readers to step out of the news cycle and into a more timeless mode of thinking and feeling.

Emily Turner of Island Press

  1. Know the difference between a topic and an argument. Straight description, even if the subject is fascinating and the writing is great, isn’t enough. You need a point of view, thesis or idea that frames the book. Avoid the trap of creating a bag of stories and concentrate on building a narrative or argument that develops throughout the book. Your table of contents should reveal this structure unfolding.
  2. When publishers ask about audience, we want specifics. Writing that your book is for general readers, or readers of The New York Times, or nature lovers, isn’t that useful; lists of relevant organizations, websites and targeted publications are.  
  3. When it comes to your social media platform, honesty is the best policy. If you have a million Twitter followers, that’s great. If not, describe the networks you do have. If you’re in the process of building your network, tell us how you’re doing that.
  4. Realism is appreciated when listing comparative titles. If you’re a first-time author, comparing your book to Michael Pollan’s or Bill McKibben’s makes the marketing team think you have unrealistic expectations.
  5. Everything takes longer than you think. Be realistic when setting deadlines for yourself.

So go forth, dear authors. Think big, but keep your feet on the ground, as you venture into (or return to) the world of book publishing.

Meera Subramanian is an award-winning environmental journalist, former MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow and the author of “A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka.” She also serves on the SEJ Board of Directors. You can find her at www.meerasub.org.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 2. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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