By now you’ve probably heard different titles for different editors, heard of different sorts of edits, and you may even know what the difference is between all of those people and edits.

Most likely you don’t

For reasons unknown, this seems to be some kind of mystical secret within the publishing world, but no more!

And of course I’m hardly the first one to “out” this. In fact, I recommend a quick click over to the web site of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, an organization I happen to belong to. They match up freelance editors with those in need of an edit, and as an aid to all concerned have done a terrific job describing what each edit really is, so an author can find the help he or she needs.

But of course there’s always some gray area. In many cases these are job titles and anyone who’s ever worked in Corporate America knows that job titles are far from standardized and even within one company can be a bit fluid and open to interpretation.

In case you’re wondering, anyone with Senior in his or her title (like Senior Editor) really does sub in for “oldest.” Anyway, it’s the person who’s been there longest and the organization can’t give that person the next raise without some kind of title to justify it, so even if the job description is exactly the same, voila, you’re senior managing editor!

So with all those caveats, let’s work our way down the corporate ladder, starting with:

Executive Editor

This job title doesn’t show up in every publishing house. There was no executive editor at Wizards of the Coast, for instance—at least not while I was working there. This is a real title in that this person tends to have responsibilities in excess of simply being the most senior of the senior editors, though that tends to be how you get the job in the first place—a few best sellers in your pocket doesn’t hurt either.

The executive editor is the boss of the editorial team, and tends to work directly with the imprint’s biggest authors (again, which is how that person got that title in the first place) and tends to have a more heavily-weighted vote in any acquisitions decision. An executive editor should expect to be part of the leadership team in general, with some hand in the overall operations of the imprint.

If you are a new author with no sales track record, you might be introduced to an executive editor in passing, and believe it or not that’s not snobbery but is actually fine. If that executive editor is busy with Stephen King’s new book, how much bandwidth can we expect to get? Just sayin’.

Acquisitions Editor

This is the job everybody wants. You don’t necessarily have to be anyone’s boss (which sucks, by the way, unless you’re a power hungry demagogue) but it’s your job to discover great books by great authors and make the deals necessary to publish them. You get to make the greatest phone call of all time, one I endured thousands of rejections and crappy manuscripts to be able to do only a few dozen times: “Hi, I want to publish your first novel.” Want to be an author’s best friend for life? Make that call.

Story/Line/Developmental Editor

These tend to be different names for the same thing, and your job title is likely simply editor, with some tag like associate or assistant to indicate you’re the new guy or senior to indicate you’re the old guy.

In many but not all cases, the acquisitions editor will find your book, make the deal, then hand you off to a line editor who will then work with you to make that book fantastic. In most cases, that line editor is there to help you write the best book you can, but in the end it’s your book with your name on the cover, not the editor’s, so a good line editor will work with you in the spirit of informed consent—and there’s a whole post on that coming soon.

The line editor will work with you on bigger picture stuff: Is this subplot working? Could the ending be stronger? That sort of thing.

Managing Editor

Though my role at Wizards of the Coast was called managing editor it included an awful lot of stuff that would fall under the executive editor title in most other publishing houses, in general the managing editor is the keeper of the editorial and production schedules. The managing editor will hire freelancers, make sure that galleys are approved on time, act as a go-between with the art department and other parts of the company, and work to shepherd the book from edited manuscript to finished book.

Copy Editor

Once you and your line editor are satisfied with the story and the writing, off it goes to the managing editor to send to a copy editor. These are usually freelancers and it’s the copy editor’s job to act as a fresh set of eyes on the manuscript. As managing editor I always told freelance copy editors: When in doubt, mark it. I’d much rather have to STET (ignore) a few dozen corrections that I didn’t agree with than see a manuscript come back with a scattered few obvious typos marked and wonder what was missed.

Copy editors see the manuscript still at a fairly early stage. The story is locked in, but the writing itself probably still needs help. The copy editor will be looking for consistency in grammar and usage, as well as style points specific to that book. Are all the characters’ names spelled consistently? Place names? Do you want to spell gray with an a or an e?

This requires a good, steady eye, a calm, detailed disposition, and real hands-on experience. It ain’t easy.


This final stage of the editing process should come once the book is typeset since typesetting can also introduce some issues like dropped folios (headers and footers), bad word breaks, widows and orphans, and so on. There can sometimes be a fine line between a copy edit and a proofread, but the better the copy editor does, the less fine that line. Proofreaders, like copy editors, should be encouraged to mark anything that looks fishy rather than assume we want it that way. I’d rather be asked than allowed to make a mistake.

And all this is where the indie self-publisher can really get caught up. Are you doing all these things? You are your own executive editor and acquisitions editor—easy enough if you like your book and you’re willing to publish it. But can you be your own managing editor? Do you know what really needs to be done and have the connections and money to get them done? You can try to be your own line editor, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Everybody needs a good, smart, experienced, collaborative, and positive editor to help you see things you can no longer see, find mistakes you didn’t think were mistakes, and offer suggestions that very well might change (for the better) everything you do as an author.

If your book hasn’t been copy edited it will almost immediately be spotted, and even the indie e-book audience is getting less and less forgiving of bad presentation. You need that person too.

A proofread, if your copy edit is fantastic and you’re careful with how you format your e-book, maybe you can skip, but again, I really, really, really wouldn’t recommend it.

If you’re self-publishing that means you’ve made the decision not only to write, but to be a publisher, even if your publishing house only ever publishes that one book.

Are you properly staffed up?


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, creative team, E-Books, horror novels, indie publishing, NaNoWriMo, POD, Publishing Business, Romance Novels, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to THE SIX EDITORS

  1. J. M. McDermott says:

    Friend for life? Yes. I love you, Phil Athans. You are awesome!

  2. Sean Durity says:

    Very helpful. It does seem like this is “insider info” or special knowledge…or it is just assumed that everyone understands the differences.

  3. Pingback: What to do with your first developmental edit from a real editor | Write on the World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s