What Does a Production Editor Do?

Not long ago, I had a conversation with my father that went something like this: HIM: So, what’s your job exactly?

ME: I’m a production editor, working mostly on fiction.

[Awkward pause. Blank stare. Blinking.]

ME: It’s sort of like when I was the managing editor at a magazine. But now, I’m sort of the managing editor of a bunch of books. I make sure all the pieces fall into place on time. With no mistakes.

HIM: So, um, you make sure commas are in the right place and stuff?

First off, allow me to say this: COMMAS ARE IMPORTANT, DAD!!!! And second, that’s not all I do.

For folks outside of the book biz, the role of the production editor can seem a little fuzzy, especially when compared to the other book professionals with editor in their titles.

For example, before a book is ready for reader consumption, the developmental editor—or dev editor for short— goes through the manuscript with an eye toward shoring up crucial big-picture items. If we’re working on a novel, the dev editor will look at issues such as character development, plot, pacing, structure, point of view, and, to some extent, language and style. The copyeditor reads the book on a more granular level, looking for grammatical issues, minute style choices (e.g, when numbers should be spelled out versus presented as numerals; when italics are appropriate), and so on. She’ll also flag any distracting repetition of words or phrases, or, again, if she’s working on a novel, words that may not be appropriate for the time period the story is set in. The proofreader will also look at style questions, as well as missing/wrong words, typos, and formatting issues (i.e., that line with just one lonely, little three-character word on it? That needs to go).

So what’s left for the production editor to do?

As it turns out, a lot. We’re the folks who keep all the little moving parts heading toward the ultimate goal of a beautifully designed, error-free book. And we make sure it happens in a timely manner, in spite of the bumps and unexpected events along the way.

To break it down, I’ve spelled out below just a few of the key roles we production editors play during a book’s creation.

The Matchmaker

As I mentioned earlier, the developmental editor looks at the manuscript on a more macro level, spotting issues with regard to character and story development, timelines, dialogue, and so on. That said, not all manuscripts will arrive at the first stage of production services—that is, the copyediting phase—at the exact same level of tidiness.

Depending on how much heavy lifting the dev editor had to do, she may have let slip through the occasional continuity issue (i.e., does the main character in the book lose his cell phone, then call someone on it in the very next scene?), point-of-view issue (i.e., if the victim in that crime thriller is tied to a chair and facing the wall, how does she know that her kidnapper smiles as he comes through the door situated directly behind her?), or quirky language and rough transitions. As a production editor, you can get a sense of where the dev editor had to focus most of her energy by reviewing the memo she hands off for delivery to the copyeditor. This memo calls out what, in addition to the more traditional issues, the copyeditor needs to watch out for. If I see issues called out that don’t line up with my copyeditor’s strengths, I might make a quick substitution.

Some copyeditors are amazing at keeping an eye on complicated timelines without missing more technical copyediting issues. Others are particularly skilled at smoothing out awkward phrasing in ways that authors appreciate. Some are great with historical fiction that may include lots of anachronisms.  Matching a book with the right copyeditor prevents lots of headaches down the road and makes the final product that much better.

The Schedule Juggler

In a perfect world, a book would arrive at the copyediting stage with no problems that require author rewrites. In addition, no one—the author, the copyeditor, the designer, the proofreader—would miss a deadline due to unforeseen circumstances. And we’d all ride to work on rainbow-colored unicorns accompanied by the dulcet melodies of harps while glittery fairies float happily around our heads.

Alas, it’s not a perfect world. And yet sometimes that final on-sale date won’t budge. Figuring out how to make sure everything keeps moving—despite unexpected hiccups and without increasing the risk of errors—is the production editor’s job. It’s also why you might see us heading for the whiskey after we clock out.

The Quality Assurance Queen

Just as I said that you want to match the right copyeditor with a given book, you also want to make sure that editor is working at the correct level. Is she treading too lightly? Or is she making discretionary changes that are a little too heavy handed? Are her queries to the author and/or publisher clear, succinct, and, most important, diplomatic?

Even seasoned authors who understand the process of book making can have a tough time submitting their work to the virtual red pen. So you want to be sure that every manuscript is receiving the appropriate level of edits—and that those edits are presented in such a way that the author understands their benefit to the final product.

The Herder of Kittens

Books are made up of many pieces. In addition to the story itself, there’s what we call the front matter, which can include the dedication, foreword, and prologue, among other things. And there’s the back matter, which generally includes your author’s biography, the acknowledgments, and perhaps an epilogue. Some of these bits can be tough for an author to let go of (read: they are often turned in late or are subjected to last-minute changes). It’s the production editor’s job to make sure they are all shepherded into place—and pass muster with the copyeditor and proofreader—before delivery of the final book. It sounds easy, but keep in mind that you’re never just working on one book at a time—and it’s never just one piece that’s lagging behind in each book.

Of course, there’s more to the job than this. We also perform more technical pure-production tasks, communicate with publishers and authors, review and edit promotional copy, assign and schedule designers, and help guide the cover-creation process. But that’s a blog for another day.

Right now, I’d better get back to work!