Q&A with Katherine Latshaw, book editor

Katherine Latshaw, a 2009 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, is an editor at Stonesong Press in New York. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Latshaw discusses what she does, what it’s like to work with writers and what she learned in journalism school.

Q. Describe your job at Stonesong Press. What do you do on a typical day?

A. We are book packagers, which means that we turn rough-hewn ideas into either manuscripts or entirely finished book files for publishers. If a publisher hires us to create finished book files, we do everything from finding writers to editing manuscripts to making sure that photos to be included are in the correct high-resolution format. My job varies with each day, but I’m currently working on a six-book series on human diseases (talk about uplifting!).

Here is some of what I accomplished today:

  • Scoured the Internet, searching for appropriate photos for our tuberculosis title. For each photo I found, I wrote an informative caption to go with it.
  • Edited our influenza manuscript. Our client, an educational publisher, was worried that some of the text discussing flu vaccines was unclear, so I reworded the offending material. Because the flu epidemic is still ongoing and the facts are always changing, I also updated some statistics on H5N1 deaths.
  • Called a client to politely demand an overdue payment for a completed manuscript that we delivered.
  • Started developing a book idea I had, first by seeing if there were existing books like it on the market already (nope) and then finding editors to whom I could possibly pitch the idea.

Q. You recently finished editing your first book. What was that experience like?

A. It was a very interesting experience, not completely unlike editing a news article. I had to not only check spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but also ensure that the authors’ points were made clearly for readers. When there were issues with the writing, I had to edit carefully, making sure that the writers’ voices weren’t lost in the process.

This book was a humorous nonfiction guide to business writing, and the most recurrent problem I found was that the authors often repeated the same “Star Wars” jokes in different chapters. When that happened, I had to gently let them know that the multiple wookie references would need to go.

Q. You graduated from a journalism program known for more for news editing than book editing. How does that education help you in your job, and what do you wish you had learned more about in your coursework?

A. All of my courses taught me to write precisely and to consider words carefully, which are valuable skills for any type of editor. There were a few things I actually had to “unlearn,” discarding some AP Stylebook rules along the way. One example that immediately comes to mind is using that darned serial comma because publishing follows the Chicago Manual of Style.

Although I believe my journalism education was excellent, I do think it would have been helpful to have more direct contact with the writers whose pieces you’re editing. I occasionally get calls from writers who wonder why I made the edits that I did, and it takes skill to reassure them that, yes, they did a great job, but something they wrote just didn’t work. Then I have to explain why my edit effectively fixes the problem. I’m still working on that.

Q. Many students would like to land a job like yours. What advice do you have for them?

A. I have always loved words (when I was younger, I wasn’t chastised for watching TV during dinner, I was yelled at for surreptitiously bringing books to the table). When envisioning a career as a child, I wanted to be a librarian!

To have a career in book publishing, you need to harbor an enthusiasm for written word that goes beyond polite enjoyment. And when you’re on the selling side of the business as I am, you need to see a book in everything – that funny blog you were laughing at the other day? Book idea. That magazine article that was so fascinating? Expand it, and maybe there’s a book there. That celebrity whose favorite hobby is horseback riding? Pitch her to see whether she’d like to do a picture book on the subject.

Generating book ideas is an incredibly important facet of the job, so you must always be on the lookout for inspiration. Many people have romantic ideas about writers: They toil at their craft, tucked away in a garret (or perhaps a Starbucks nowadays), making sure that every sentence on their coffee-stained pages is perfect before sending their child out into the world to be judged by editors.

I hate to dispel that notion, but it’s not really like that for a majority of authors and their books. Motivated by popular trends of the day, editors and packagers very often invent ideas, write entire book synopses and then hire writers to execute their ideas. For example, the astoundingly popular “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” was conceived by a packager in precisely this fashion (sorry, Ann Brashares).

If such a love for books is ingrained in you and you think you can regularly come up with exciting new book ideas, then go for it. Take as many internships that you can get because practical knowledge is the most valuable asset in this business. Whenever applying for an internship or job, let the person in charge know that you have great book ideas that you want to share. That’s what I did!

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