read hundreds of really terrible manuscripts looking for your manuscript in which they see a glimmer of hope.
then they gird their loins and prepare their pitch (a pitch honed by reading "in their spare time" what else is being published both by their house and others) and persuade their colleagues in editorial that yes, they know how to fix it; and, if it then passes committee muster, doubly persuade their colleagues in sales, marketing, finance, inventory, etc that yes, it will sell.
then they do a lot of negotiating back and forth between the agent and the contracts department until it is all signed up. of principal concern these days are the e-book rights. agents seem to think these should belong with them. publishers feel that because it is the exact same thing as the printed page it is exactly the same as, say, a paperback edition. you can click on the three (front-page, i might add) recent nytimes articles linked in my previous post that talk about this ongoing battle. it's easy for the layman to ignore, but it's a really big deal right now.
then they edit the book. this involves careful examination of
prose (wordiness, run-on sentences, repeated words, word choice, on and on and on)
any ONE of these things being off can ruin a book. any ONE. look at breaking dawn. remember the intensely mixed reaction that hugely-anticipated book got? i don't work for little, brown, but rumor in the industry has it that stephenie meyer was too big a deal--her book was needed too quickly and she was too touchy about edits--for breaking dawn to get the edit it needed. think how much more satisfying it could have been. look at her fifth book, which was supposed to be twilight from edward's p.o.v., and how it got leaked onto the internet pre-editing and how, embarrassed, she withdrew it from publication. editors do so much. so much. i swear, if you could read the first draft next to the published draft...
there's a common mistake made that assumes that picture books, because they are short, are much easier and the editor doesn't have to do anything. FALSE. i personally don't like to edit picture books because they are so tough. the text is so sparse (or should be; another common mistake: really effing wordy picture books) that every word needs to be perfect and needs to perfectly interplay with the art. picture books? really, really hard.
back to editors. they oversee the book through the production process. a vastly abridged list of what this entails includes:
taking the heat for the author's lateness in delivering at bimonthly, uncomfortable production meetings
presenting (aka PITCHING) the book (again) to sales and marketing at any number of pre-pub meetings
(subtext: maintaining a popular and trusted in-house persona so that when you say something is really good, they believe you)
reading and re-reading the manuscript each time it routes up from copyediting and never assuming that the proofreader is all-knowing. case in point: my current ms, which apparently had a moron for a copyeditor. i'm catching typos, orphans, and echoes on nearly every page. I'M NOT the one who should be catching this. but you can never be too careful. that's why i read every pass.
brainstorming jacket ideas (based on marketplace knowledge and a honed aesthetic sensibility) and writing them up for the design department
maintaining a friendly relationship with the design department so that when you ask for something to be redesigned for the umpteenth time because you don't feel the title font is bold enough, they do it
not being afraid to sacrifice your friendly relationship with the design department to go to bat for a redesign because you know the jacket is the be-all and end-all of a book's commercial chances
looking excruciatingly closely at every detail of the book's page design and recommending that, say, the leading be expanded so the type looks more readable; should the margins be a percentage point narrower?; does that flourish by the page number look too girly for this boy book? can't the chapter headers look more special? and on and on and on
going over each and every sketch to make sure that what's being depicted matches what's described in the text
standing (no chairs) in a tiny brightly lit room for an hour and a half with the designer and production manager to analyze the colors in the book proofs and recommend "add red in the boy's face." "subtract yellow in the quilt." "pump up the black in the kitchen table." etc to make sure the final book matches the artist's original art colors as closely as humanly possible. repeat, for each book, times at least three.
talking to the author each and every day for months on end
snagging your incredibly overworked marketing manager in the elevator to boast that this one author is super web-savvy and listing off all the proactive steps s/he's taken in the hopes of getting an extra dollar tossed at the book's web marketing
i'm really tired and i think i've managed to describe, oh, a tuesday afternoon. i'll stop now. i won't even mention our salaries. i've been working in publishing since 2004. i still use one whole paycheck a month for rent. 2010 is what? the week after next?
books need publishers. do me a favor. next time you buy a book, don't buy it from amazon. i'm saying this as someone currently racked with guilt for thoughtlessly purchasing several christmas gifts from amazon. i get it. they're cheaper. so is walmart. but is walmart all you want left?