Editorial Careers in Textbook Publishing

Susan Whalen | December 2010


In the digital world of the 21st century, when immediate communication drives abbreviation of language in text messages, tweets, and e-mails, syntax and grammar are barely an afterthought. However, there are many of us who get unnerved by the lackadaisical, shortened version of phrases like “by the way,” or pronoun misuse when a friend texts “btw will be their soon” to alert us that he or she is running late for dinner. At the restaurant, we then cringe at “blue cheese” dressing on the Cobb salad, instead of the proper “bleu cheese.” These hypothetical situations are relatively benign and may not affect our decision to be friends with a person or to order a different dinner entrée. What happens when there is more at stake?

When the stock market plunged nearly 1,000 points on May 6, 2010, it was initially thought to be the result of a Wall Street trader’s zero-happy typo of one billion instead of one million. Although the typo theory was eventually ruled out, CNN contributor Bob Greene took the opportunity to discuss grammatical error forgiveness in our technological age. In his article, “Typos—no big deal? Think again,” he comments on the possible significance of such an error, saying, “If one keystroke could put the world’s economy on the brink of collapse, this would mean that a typo could be as powerful as an atomic bomb.”1

The hypothetical stock exchange error is just one example of how the preservation of the English language is still relevant today. Companies commonly seek the intellect of editorial-minded employees to best represent them when collaborating on any formal text, from white papers to newsletters to direct marketing campaigns. Editors are particularly in demand in the publishing industry, and one sector of this industry that may be overlooked by job hunters is educational textbook publishing.

This article aims to introduce you to editorial careers, both at leading educational publishing houses and at smaller presses. As a former employee in the editorial division of two major educational publishers, I will provide you with insider tips and insight on how to start an editorial career in textbook publishing.

The quality and accuracy of educational textbooks, and thus the reputation of the publisher, depends on a support team of authors, editors, project managers, designers, marketers, and production managers, who all help move a project through manuscript stages. As with any career, one must often get a start through an entry-level position, which in this case would be as an editorial assistant or assistant editor. While an assistant editor may contribute to various tasks, such as choosing a textbook cover design or hiring professors to review manuscripts for empirical feedback, the daily job involves assisting a senior editor or an acquisitions editor, who (as the title indicates) acquires the talent. If you are working on primary or secondary-level education, you will most likely be supervised by a higher-up editor who will delegate the actual copyediting and proofreading of materials based on both in-house style guidelines and, often, an existing style guide, such as The Chicago Manual of Style.

There is a slight difference between a copyeditor and a proofreader. Prior to a manuscript being typeset, a copyeditor rigorously checks it for grammatical errors, as well as style and format consistency. A proofreader compares a set of proof pages to the original manuscript to make sure all of the edits requested by the copyeditor have been implemented. The proofreader must also note whether there have been any grammatical or formatting mistakes since the manuscript has been typeset. Common proofreader’s marks2 are used in editing the manuscript, so the production team or vendor who typeset the manuscript is able to input the proper changes. You may want to familiarize yourself with these proofreader’s marks, and acknowledge your awareness in your cover letter or during an interview. You will most likely not be required to test these skills in an interview, unless you acquire an editorial position through a temp agency or recruiting firm, which may require you to perform a timed editorial proof of an essay.

In contrast, if you choose to work in higher education, you will most likely be working for an acquisitions editor. This work requires less actual copyediting and proofing pages; however, it will give you the experience of seeing through each stage of textbook creation, from a professor’s original manuscript proposal to the end product of a published textbook. You will be working on student and teacher editions, as well as supplementary materials, such as student handbooks, test answer books, etc. Your daily tasks may include setting up book reviews during different stages of manuscript production. This might involve creating a schedule for the review, drafting letters of instruction for the review, and contacting professors from different colleges and universities (based on the needs of the acquisitions editor) in order to hire them for the review. You may also be required to assist with the editing of marketing materials, communicate with customers and sales representatives, answer questions about the textbooks, or send out sample copies of the product to potential customers (professors), and attend status meetings to update internal departments on the project. After a period of time when you have established yourself as an assistant editor, you may find yourself being promoted to associate editor, which entails more responsibility, such as working independently on ancillaries.

You may also be interested in developmental editing at the collegiate level. Author Scott Norton describes developmental editing as this: “Some ‘big picture’ editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels.”3 Most often it is the humanities, such as history and English, that require developmental editors. Other subjects, such as mathematics and science, which involve computation, proofs, and theories, require accuracy checkers hired to review and fact-check the precision of problems and solutions.

A project manager may be in charge of hiring an accuracy checker, although the project manager may delegate this task to an assistant editor. A project manager is part of the editorial team. He or she creates and maintains the schedule for a textbook, which includes a time frame for when the manuscript should be with the author, editor, and production team (or vendor). The project manager may also be expected to secure freelancers or vendors to outsource certain parts of the project. A freelancer might author supplemental material, such as an activities book, and a vendor might typeset this supplement. In general, the project manager must be able to multitask and have keen organizational skills.

If you find that you are a detail-oriented person who notices an omitted comma or incorrect subject-verb agreement, or if you find yourself curious about the process of book creation from inception to completion, then your skills and interest would make you a valuable textbook editor. Of course, different companies may require different qualifications. In primary and secondary-level textbook editing, a company like McGraw-Hill prefers that you have teaching experience, as well as expert knowledge about the subject you will be editing. In higher education, a company like Pearson Education values experience in textbook sales in order to understand market trends.

When applying for a position in textbook publishing, it is important to reveal any relevant experience that you have in regards to the subject matter you are applying for, whether it be a bachelor’s or master’s degree you received in the field, or whether it be prior work experience. Remember to look over the description in the job listing, and in order to by-pass Human Resource’s slush pile, try to use similar language in the job post to describe your own qualifications. For example, if the job description says, “looking for someone who collaborates well with other internal departments” and “will secure professors for the review process,” then in your resume and/or cover letter, you could include similar experience and language to indicate that you work well with others, perhaps using the same key words “collaborate,” “internal departments,” and “secure.”

If you are contacted for an interview, make sure to research the company beforehand (perusing the company website will help); be aware of the company’s mission statement and the specific types of products the company handles. This preparation will help you in an interview. At the end of most interviews, the interviewer will ask if you have any questions; during this time, you should ask questions that show your interest in working in publishing rather than just inquire about salary and benefits.

In this technology-driven time, textbook publishers are also expanding their horizons by using podcasts and creating e-books for electronic devices. In a CNET news article, John Paczkowski writes about remarks made by McGraw-Hill’s CEO, Terry McGraw. In a conference meeting about the company’s yearly earnings, Terry McGraw said, “In the near future, you will undoubtedly see a McGraw-Hill e-book for the college market running on an Apple tablet… All our titles on CourseSmart, the industry e-book consortium, are already available to students on an iPhone operating system.”4 Undoubtedly, being up-to-date on technology will give your application an edge.

You will be working with several types of technology, some of which may be new to you, so it would be relevant to highlight your levels of proficiency with software like Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Also, editors do not necessarily mark-up pages by hand anymore; in my experience in editing, during the second or third pass of page proofs, I was directly editing on the electronic files via InDesign. It is a bonus if you can navigate programs such as Adobe Acrobat, InCopy, and InDesign. In the higher education sector, note whether you have experience working on platforms like Blackboard, Moodle, WebAssign, or Angel. As Kolowich notes in his article, “Over the last two decades, such software has gone from a pet experiment for computer-savvy professors on a couple of campuses to a must-have for textbook publishers who wish to stay competitive.”5

Technology as a competitive advantage applies to primary and secondary education publications as well. An ability to express your experience with technology will work in your favor. If you have not encountered many of these systems before, please do not let this deter you. It may just help to note in your cover letter or during your interview that you are quick to learn and you approach new systems intuitively. After you have been hired at one of the major publishers, there are often professional development courses offered to employees to help them learn and improve personal skills, such as time management and technological skills like navigating internal databases and organizing office e-mail.

Now that you have a better understanding of the types of editorial positions available, as well as the qualifications necessary, it is important to know where to begin your job search. The career websites for the leading educational publishers, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, and Scholastic are the most direct resources. Please note that these conglomerates often have subsidiary companies that you may have heard of, such as Pearson Education’s Scott Foresman, Prentice Hall, and Addison-Wesley or McGraw-Hill’s Glencoe or Wright Group. When you go to each company’s career search webpage, remember to place “editorial,” “editor,” or even a more specific term based on the position you want, like “acquisitions editor,” in the search field to get a list of available positions. You may even narrow down your search by filling in other fields for specific criteria, such as location. You may want to also research smaller educational publishers in your area and then view the career pages on their websites.

You could do a general search on craigslist.com in the “Writing/Editing” listings for your area, or you could research the job listings in your local paper (or the paper’s website); for example, if you are in the D.C. area, you could look at the Washington Post’s career webpage. You may do a similar search at indeed.com, typing “editorial” in the “what” field and your location in the “where” field. This website combines listings from several other sources, such as job search engines like Monster or Craigslist, as well as local listings published online.

There are several other useful search websites geared toward researching jobs in educational publishing. More specific websites include Chicago Book Clinic’s Jobline at chicagobookclinic.org, mediabistro.com, bookjobs.com, allcopyeditorjobs.com, the Association of Educational Publisher’s Career Center at aepweb.org, Bookbuilders of Boston at bbboston.org, and Bookbuilders West at bookbuilders.org Many of these websites not only contain job listings, but provide information on publishing trends, conferences, and events, and workshops offered to help make you more competitive in landing a position in the publishing industry.

Of course, many of us have romanticized visions of the publishing world—reading engaging manuscripts for up-and-coming authors and contributing to the development of the next best-selling fiction book. In reality, trade publishing (the sector for the books you would find at a chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble or Borders) is a tough industry to break through, and you may have better luck entering the field of educational publishing if you want experience with book creation. A career in textbook publishing often begins at an entry-level position with a small, non-negotiable salary. According to the website PayScale, the median salary is $30,246 for an editorial assistant in textbook publishing, $35,703 for an assistant editor, and $40,725 for an associate editor. Of course, the salary progresses as the title graduates, and may also depend on your previous experience. And despite the dispelled myth of a glamorous job in publishing, in the niche of educational publishing, you will be able to directly and indirectly impact a student’s learning experience.  


Susan Whalen received her BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She has worked as an Associate Editor, editing secondary school and collegiate textbooks, at Pearson Education and McGraw-Hill. She is currently a graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing program at George Mason University, and works as a freelance editor and online adjunct teaching assistant.

© 2011 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.


  1. Greene, Bob. “Typos—No Big Deal? Think Again.” CNN Opinion, on the Internet at http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/05/16/greene.typo/
     (visited August 20, 2010).
  2. Besen, Linda, ed. Style Guide: A Guide to Editorial Style for Print and Electronic Media. “Proofreader’s and Editor’s Symbols,” on the Internet at http://www.colorado.edu/Publications/
     (visited August 23, 2010).
  3. Norton, Scott. Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers. “Introduction,” on the Internet at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/595146.html (visited August 23, 2010)
  4. Paczkowski, John. “McGraw-Hill on iPad Launch: We Didn’t Get Booted: We Weren’t a Part of It,” on the Internet at http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-10444004-
     (visited August 23, 2010)
  5. Kolowich, Steve. “New Battleground for Publishers,” on the Internet at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/09/epublishing (visited August 23, 2010).
  6. PayScale, Inc. “Salary Snapshot for Textbook Publishing Industry,” on the Internet at http://www.payscale.com/research/US/
    (visited August 24, 2010).

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