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Getting into Editorial

What does it take to be an editorial assistant in a top publishing company? 

Carla Josephson has worked with leading crime and thriller writers at Simon and Schuster, since completing an MA in English Literature at Queen Mary University of London. So how did she progress from studying books at uni to producing them for the general public?

What advice would you give to students wanting to work in Editorial?

Do research and figure out if you actually want to work in editorial. The hours are long, you have to be very focused, and it’s a solitary event. You spend a lot of time working by yourself. You need to be organised, have a great eye for detail, and be diplomatic. It requires a lot of tact. You also need to be a people person, as a lot of your work involves building a good relationship with the agent and author.

What is the best way for students to develop these skills for the necessary job while still at university?

Pay attention to detail when writing essays. Proofread them, edit yourself, offer to look over your friends’ work too. It’s important to keep your work’s integrity and voice, but it always needs some kind of editing. Write, work with your words, and read a lot. Build up your knowledge of the market, notice what books you see everywhere, which books are being talked about.

What were your career aspirations as a student? Did you know what you wanted to do?

I studied English Literature because I liked books and wanted to study them. I thought about being a teacher for a while, but then began to think about publishing. It seemed at that point impossibly glamorous and I knew nothing about it, so I started talking to people on the internet and reading about it. I grew fixated on the idea during the last year of my degree. Before that I didn’t really have any idea.

How did you get to where you are now?

I got an internship at Alma Books which helped by giving me some experience. Internships are great but a gamble, as it’s not guaranteed they’re going to go anywhere. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. It was great to have on my CV to show I had some experience in the industry. Then I took quite a circuitous route. I had student loans and had to support myself, so I lowered my expectations. I thought if I can’t get into editorial now, why don’t I just get in and see what I can get under my belt, so I started applying for jobs in sales. Sales is underrated. I learned a lot about publishing in general, and made friends with the editorial team while working in this department. They were lovely and very encouraging.

What makes Simon and Schuster distinct from other publishers?

It’s big, with a global presence. There are 90 people in an office, enough to make it busy and vibrant but still small enough to get to know people. It’s an egalitarian-feeling publisher, with a really friendly and positive learning environment. There are only five of us working in editorial, but we’ve worked on some great projects, some of which have been submitted to the Booker Prize.

A lot of your recent projects seem to involve contemporary writers of crime/thriller – would you say that it's the genre most commonly sought after by publishers, or is that just a particular niche at Simon and Shuster?

Crime and thriller is the best-selling sort of fiction. I used to only want to read literary fiction as I put the crime thriller genre into too much of a box; a lot of it is much better written than I thought. All literature is a gamble really, the only thing guaranteed to sell is brand authors, which a lot of crime and thriller writers are.

I understand that you’re looking for fiction that is unique and quirky. What kind of writing would you define as ‘unique and quirky’?

A non-linear narrative, taking risks with character and dialogue, pushing boundaries, and quirky plots, which seem to be more common in American fiction than here. I like it when books are funny. Humour is very important. I’m mainly looking for books that are well written but still accessible. It’s a really hard balance to find.

I read that you’re also interested in bringing American classics to the UK and recently published John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. What elements in particular of American classic fiction do you feel have something to contribute to the contemporary market?

As an American, I was surprised to find that a lot of the books I know, wonderful books that have won a lot of prizes in the States, don’t seem to be known here. I think they should be published here as well, but it’s complicated because of copyright law. I’m looking to bring authors like Edith Wharton, who are known but not fully appreciated, to a new market. They have universal themes which should be of interest to a British audience.

Do you think there is a certain quality these American books have that English literature is lacking?

I think there are more quirky books back in the States such as Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Simon and Schuster is based in America, so they want to see a new British voice take on something of that quirky quality.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers hoping to get published in the near future?

We only take submissions through agents. You can self-publish, or go to a small publisher to submit writing directly, but it’s better to get an agent.