Hofstra Professor Barbara Heinssen on Book Editing

By Lindsay Demarco

Barbara A. Heinssen is an alumnus of the Hofstra University Publishing Program. She is now an Adjuct Associate Professor for the program, and teaches Book Editing 1 and 2. Her professorial work also includes helping students find internships and full-time positions in publishing. Within the industry, she is currently hired as the project manager and development editor at both Pearson Education and McGraw-Hill Education. She has been the Assistant Vice President and an associate publisher at the Princeton Review, the Director of College Survival at Houghton Mifflin, the Director of Development at St. Martin’s Press, and has held many other titles within the publishing industry.

How does your editing experience change from the time you get the original manuscript to the final run through? How, if at all, does your focus shift?

Barbara Heinssen: Since I work on college textbooks, when I receive a first draft my focus is on organization, clarity of expression, whether or not the key concepts are included, and whether or not the material stands up favorably when compared to the leading competition. This also entails ensuring that the content is clear for the level of student audience for which it is intended, first-year, upper level, developmental?  There is also always the “why should they care?” factor to consider as well and the examples that may not be relevant to students that were born in an age very different from that of the author. Of course, the quality of the writing is a key focus and that is worked on throughout every stage and is always in focus. As the book progresses and the writing honed, my focus shifts to the photos, charts, and overall art program as well as the permissionable items. The design is also considered as is the digital component if this is an introductory text. While all this is going on I continue to keep the marketing aspects of the material and how the sales people will present the material in mind.

What do you believe is the most important job within book editing? Why do you think that?

BH: Getting the best work out of the author and helping them make their vision of the work a reality. I think that because the entire publishing industry rests on the success and failure of its authors and their work.

What are some of the biggest challenges you come across when working on a book, and how do you overcome them?

BH: Schedules.  The schedules are tighter and tighter and the work on the book overlaps with the work on the digital product so it is extremely hard to create a truly integrated print digital product when you are only one person with 26 chapters to attend to going through the traditional stages of production while the digital product needs to be conceptualized and prepared in a somewhat similar manner to the process outlined in number 1 above.  How do I overcome them?  I work as hard as I can and as smart as I can and delegate what I can to the support I am given to keep all the balls in the air and enlist the aid of the authors with the digital product, convincing them this is the future for their continued success (and revenue stream).

What’s the most difficult part of professional book editing?

BH: For me, as a full-time freelancer, working on multiple jobs at the same time is the most difficult. You cannot just work on one job because priorities change, authors don’t produce, and then you have no income, but if a book gets delayed, or the author cannot produce for some reason, you may wind up with multiple projects on the exact same timeline and that is difficult to juggle.

What is your favorite story to tell about something that happened to you while working on a book?

BH: I was the Director of College Survival and company had merged two programs. There was a book on the list that had not sold well in its First Edition, but I felt it had potential and I met with the author and discussed what it would take to get approval for a Second Edition.  He was resistant at first, but after a number of conversations, he agreed to a revised outline and some adjustments to the content. The book exceeded its first year sales goal and continued to sell well every year of that edition. The Third Edition broke the 20,000 copy sales range.  The book is now is now in its Sixth Edition and is one of the bestsellers in its market.

Approximately how many different departments are working on one book at the same time? How do you figure out the book’s schedule?

BH: How many departments are working on the book depends on what stage the book is in at any given time.  Right now with a book that is in production I am working with design, production, rights and permissions, and the digital team.  For the book in first draft I am working with the editorial team.

What made you want to teach editing?

BH: I am a graduate of the Hofstra Publishing Studies Program and I always wanted to come back and be a part of it. I teach editing because I think the author–editor relationship is very special and the most interesting one in publishing.  I am amazed by what authors can do, they make magic out of thin air as far as I’m concerned; I still believe that after all these years. To be able to assist someone in realizing their dream and to create material that helps students learn is a valuable endeavor.  I am a first generation college graduate and I want to help others succeed. Education got my family very far and I want to see it do the same for others. I greatly enjoyed mentoring assistants and those that were in entry and mid-level positions when I was working full-time and teaching gives me an opportunity to pass on my expertise and well as mentor new candidates for the publishing industry.

How do you prioritize the order in which students learn the editing material, and how do you figure out how much time you spend on the lessons?

BH: I’ve been teaching the course for 10 years now, but every year I ask the students if there is anything I should do differently and I read the student comments very closely and make adjustments accordingly.  I begin with the basic elements of editing, familiarizing them with the tools and how to use them.  Since my class is once a week, I break up the sections in manageable chunks, integrate visuals when I can, include current events, have the peer teacher present certain topics and designate time for actual editing.

What part of publishing do you think is too often overlooked? On the other hand, which section of book publishing do you think is the backbone of the industry?

BH: Many parts of publishing are overlooked it is an extremely broad industry that goes far beyond books. We need to keep that in mind as we work on our materials for class. To me the backbone of the industry will always be the writers.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into the publishing industry?

BH: Get internships and network with the people you meet and don’t be afraid to keep in touch with them after you leave the internship.  Also use the LinkedIn Publishing Studies Program group for networking when you are looking for an entry level position.  Good luck!

Interview by Lindsay Demarco.

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