An Interview with Michael Barron
“What I like the most about being an editor is that I have the ability to promote something to the world that I really believe in, which is literature.”
Michael Barron is an editor at New Directions Publishing, an independent publishing company in New York. He has worked with his company since 2006. Prior to moving to the east coast, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Poetics from The Evergreen State College in Washington state.
Michael’s publishing company often works with international authors to produce English translations of their work. He appreciates that his job allows him the opportunity to travel and to experience the way that people from different cultures express themselves through literature.
In your own words, what is an editor?
An editor is the person responsible for making sure that a book is ready to be published. They work with their authors to develop book ideas and to shape manuscripts into comprehensive narratives. Editors also work within public relations to promote books and support authors, and they may even contribute ideas to the marketing department about the design of the book. Editors may also do a lot of copy editing and proofreading. The exact role of an editor changes according to the size of the publishing house. In a small publishing house, like New Directions, an editor also has input on which books to publish.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming an editor,” what would your response be?
I would say that editing is a wonderful field if you truly have a passion for literature, but you should know that you aren’t simply going to be shut up in an office with manuscripts. It will be very important for you to develop good communication skills, because you will need to defend the stylistic choices you make. You will have to be able to explain to an author or their agent why you decided to make a certain change. You have to learn to work with people so as not to insult their work or hurt their feelings, because rude behavior burns bridges. This is an industry where connections are important, so you can’t be pushy when you are negotiating a text. Just because you don’t like the way a sentence is written doesn’t mean that it is wrong.
What level of education is necessary to become an editor?
To become an editor you need a bachelors degree in a field related to publishing, but your degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in English. For example, my degree is in poetry, but I interned with my current publishing house and got a very well-rounded publishing education that way.
Why did you decide to become an editor?
I decided to become an editor because I enjoy reading stories. I am enchanted with books and literature. I have fallen in love with the work that I do, from fine-tuning each chapter of a book to working with its author to choose artwork for its cover. It just made sense for me to get into publishing.
I have always appreciated New Directions as well. I remember browsing a bookstore in college and picking out 3 books. I looked at the spines, and they all happened to be published by New Directions, and that inspired me to try to get an internship with them, which I did. That internship eventually led to my current editing position.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming an editor?
Personally, I didn’t have any misconceptions about what being an editor would entail because I had interned long enough at New Directions to understand what would be required of me. But I think a lot of aspiring authors have the misconception that they can just send a manuscript to a publishing house and get it published. In reality, authors have a far better chance of getting published if they have an agent to negotiate the business side with potential publishers.
What do you enjoy most and least about being an editor?
What I like the most about being an editor is that I have the ability to promote something to the world that I really believe in, which is literature. My company publishes a lot of translations of world literature, and I like discovering the unique voices that every culture has. The body of work that we publish is drawn from a worldwide artistic community, and I am very passionate about it.
However, what I like least is the management aspect of being an editor. We have a lot of interns at my company, and I find it challenging to delegate meaningful, challenging work to them and manage my own work flow at the same time.
What is a typical day like for you?
I would say that I don’t have a typical day, because each day is very different. For instance, today I worked on editing a new translation of a novella by a German author. Then I had lunch with an editor from another publishing house, and I submitted several new titles to the Library of Congress for registration. But tomorrow, I will start my day by meeting with a Russian literary agent to go over some titles she wants New Directions to consider publishing. My workload is quite varied.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
I am very passionate about what I do, so my work and my personal life often bleed together. This is technically a 9-to-5 job, but I usually put in more time than that, especially when I am very involved in an editing project. I also get to travel with some frequency, since we publish so many international authors. When I travel, I am released from editing work, but I constantly read manuscripts. In a way, my mind never really leaves work.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as an editor and what traits would hinder success?
A personality trait that is extremely important in this industry is the willingness to compromise. You must be able to work with others. In fact, I have never once gotten visibly angry in my workplace, because you have to be able to calmly and politely negotiate with authors and translators.
On the other hand, a trait that would hinder success is sloppiness. My company has no room for careless mistakes or shoddy editing. Not only does it embarrass my company if we publish a book that has been poorly edited, our readers will let us know about our mistakes. I used to edit hastily, but I have learned to slow down and be more considerate of the work that I produce.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming an editor should pursue?
I highly recommend that a student who is interested in becoming an editor pursue an internship. In my case, I interned at New Directions the summer before I was officially hired on. It was an invaluable experience. I learned a lot about the publishing world from that internship, and I made many connections with reviewers and different people in the business.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming an editor?
I would tell students to remember that there are many different jobs that you can do within publishing, even if you don’t have the makings of a good editor. For example, you could become a permissions director, a bookkeeper or a production manager. All of those skills are necessary to run a publishing house well. That is why it is so important to intern, because you will learn your strengths and your weaknesses.