Nancy Flight is Editor Emerita of Greystone Books, where she worked for 24 years, first as Editorial Director and then, from 2002 to 2017, as Associate Publisher. Catch her in person at the Book Publishing Boot Camp on March 6, where she’ll discuss what editors look for on a panel about the business of publishing.
In 1972 I was hired as a receptionist at a small publishing company in San Francisco with the idea that I wanted to become an editor. About a year later, after reading and reporting on manuscripts from the slush pile and doing some proofreading, I was given my first manuscript to edit. There were no courses in editing back then, and my sole instruction from the publisher — who did know enough to give me a dictionary and a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style — was “Here, edit this.” For years I wondered if I was doing it right. But ever since that day I have been editing books.
At what stage do you typically begin working with an author, and what sort of editorial work do you do on their manuscript?
I usually begin working with an author at the proposal stage. Developing and honing a good proposal may take a great deal of time and effort. The editorial work on the manuscript itself might involve structural editing to strengthen the narrative line and to delete irrelevant or unnecessary information or ask for crucial missing information. Or it might involve heavy stylistic editing to tighten and clarify the writing. Each manuscript has its own challenges, and the kind of work to be done varies endlessly from manuscript to manuscript.
You’ve worked with a lot of authors, including some very prominent names, over the years! Among the books you’ve edited, can you tell us which was among the most rewarding, and why?
I have worked on many, many rewarding books. Almost all of them have been rewarding in some way.
What do you look for in a nonfiction book proposal?
That is a big question, but a few things are a great story or a unique take on an important issue, a compelling voice, something new or unexpected, and passion for one’s subject. Also, wonderful writing.
What common mistakes do first-time authors make when approaching publishers?
Not paying enough attention to what the market is, what is already out there and what will sell. Also, not realizing how important a good, thorough proposal is.