A literary agent is not an editor–or a publicist. That may seem obvious to some, since the words are all spelled quite differently. But I occasionally get a submission from an aspiring writer who wants me to act as one or the other. I have been an editor (of both magazines and books), but an agent has a different role from those people. So I thought I’d try to clarify the various kinds of editors and others you’re likely to encounter in the book-publishing process. (Some of these things have parallels in the newspaper and magazine business, but I’ll stick to books for the sake of, well, making my job easier.) Note these are general categories; and the titles or labels for the jobs can be different, depending on the publisher.
This person’s role, like all the others I’m about to mention, differs from one publishing house to another; but, generally speaking, an acquisitions editor searches for and acquires new writers and new books for publication. Part of his or her role is also presenting those promising writers, proposals, and manuscripts to other decision-makers (such as an editorial board comprised of editors (go figure) and/or a publication board made up of editors as well as sales-and-marketing people).
Line editor (sometimes called a developmental editor)
A line editor reviews a manuscript with an eye on the big picture. For example: Is the writing style appropriate for the publishing house and the target audience? Do the ideas flow in a logical, orderly progression? In the case of fiction, are the characters believable, is the story line realistic, are the subplots crucial, does the dialogue ring true, does the pacing work? The line editor may recommend a substantive rewrite that involves deleting, rearranging, or adding whole sections to the manuscript.
If the line editor takes a big-picture approach, the copy editor may be said to take a fine-tooth-comb approach (if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors …and if you won’t, well, it’s too late now, isn’t it?). This person makes decisions on grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, citations, footnotes, and more, along the way making sure that those decisions conform to “house style” (the thousands of little decisions that are consistent in books by that publisher, such as whether or not to capitalize pronouns referring to deity, etc.).
A proofreader (whether on staff or freelance) reads the galleys and identifies any mistakes, inconsistencies, and other problems that have either been missed in previous stages or have arisen in the editorial and design process.
Freelance book editor or book doctor
Publishers also sometimes engage freelance editors who fill many of the roles above, whether because of budget cuts, crunch times, or special needs. They’ll also sometimes engage a freelancer as a book doctor, which usually involves substantive and developmental tasks to fix a book that, perhaps, needs more fixing than staff editors can give it. And, freelance editors are often hired by writers to make sure that the manuscript they submit to an agent or editor is even better than the writer alone could’ve made it. (Even then, of course, the manuscript, when accepted for publication, is still put through each of the editorial steps above.)
Let me mention again that these roles differ from one publishing house to another and often overlap or are divided among different people according to sophisticated measures, such as tea-leaf readings and the alignment of planets. I’d say more, but you wouldn’t understand. I sure don’t.