Chelsea Cambeis is Acquisitions and Lead Editor at BHC Press, an award-winning independent publisher of fiction and nonfiction, founded in 2016.
Jillian: You edit books in a variety of genres. Is it imperative that you be personally interested in or like or agree with a manuscript’s subject matter? Does it make the work of editing a project easier or harder?
Chelsea: While I have my favorites, I truly enjoy reading a wide variety of books, which sets me up to enjoy editing across many different genres.
My job is to ensure a book reaches its full potential, so when I dig into an edit, that’s my primary objective. I’m editing for and reading as the author’s intended audience, not myself. So no, it’s not imperative that I’m personally interested in the subject matter to help an author whip it into shape. I’ve even worked on a few potentially polarizing books in the past that conflicted with my personal views in a big way, and they were still great experiences.
That said, if I fall in love with a book or a set of characters, it certainly makes the editing process feel closer to effortless, but I’m equally invested in all books I work on.
Jillian: What does an ideal editor/author partnership look like to you? How do you know when a creative partnership is going to work?
Chelsea: As soon as I begin an edit, I become that author’s teammate. I live for the joint effort and back-and-forth discussion it takes to get a book to its best. I’ve built some great relationships through editing. The author-editor partnership is a special one.
I think candidness is key. I’m all business in the document, and I’m known for giving a lot of feedback and asking a lot of questions. My aim is for the author to be able to review my edits with ease and understand what the manuscript needs. It’s just as important that an author can come back with their honest thoughts, as well as requests for help when they need it.
It comes down to being open to feedback. It’s a vulnerable thing to hand your manuscript over and intimidating when it comes back covered in red. That level of feedback can trigger defensiveness or fear, because revision can be daunting, but 99 percent of the time, in my experience, the author is thrilled to have a substantial amount of feedback to work off of. After working with many different authors, I can get a feel for if they’re ready to go all in, use me as a resource, and do what it takes pretty quickly.
Jillian: As an Acquisitions Editor, is there anything about the acquisitions process that may surprise prospective authors? And that has surprised you?
Chelsea: When reviewing submissions, we want to see who the author’s intended audience is and where their book fits into the market.
Something that has surprised me and would likely surprise prospective authors is the confusion when it comes to intended audience. It’s common for a submission pitched as YA to contain material that is not appropriate for the YA age group. Many base how they classify their book on the age of their protagonist, but this isn’t always a reliable indicator. It by Stephen King is an extreme but familiar example everyone will know. The book is about children, but it’s definitely not for children.
Many authors pitch their book as NA [new adult]; however, most publishers don’t acknowledge this as a genre. If a book is pitched as NA and we like the premise and choose to publish, it’s generally published as Adult Fiction.
Some books with an interesting premise are passed on because they don’t have a solid place in the market (i.e. wouldn’t entirely appeal to young adults or adults).
As for something that isn’t particularly surprising but worthwhile to note: we receive submissions that do not fit what we’re asking for. Query letters with the appropriate information (e.g. comparable titles, market info) and manuscripts formatted to standard industry specifications are all a great way to start out on the right foot!
Jillian: In addition to being an editor, you are also a writer. How does this impact your interactions with the authors you work with? Does it give you any special insights?
Chelsea: My personal interest in writing set me up to be an editor. On the flip side, being an editor has greatly improved my writing, and I’d like to think the mix of experience makes me even more equipped to work with others on their stories.
I know receiving any kind of criticism is hard, and I also know rejection, while a part of the process, can be a discouraging blow to the ego. I know what it’s like to read and reread your manuscript so many times that it’s branded on your brain. When that’s the case, and an editor comes along and suggests major revisions, the thought of making changes to this manuscript you know so well can be mind-boggling. And because I know this, if I have to say, “This isn’t working,” what I really say is, “This isn’t working. Here’s why, and here’s what you can do about it.” I pinpoint areas for improvement, but I also offer solutions, because the last thing I want to do is stun an author into writer’s block.
On one hand, I’m possibly more sympathetic than other editors because I know what it’s like to be attached to your characters and believe you and only you know what’s best for them. On the other hand, I have higher expectations for the authors. Editing is part of any serious writer’s journey. We all need eyes other than our own on our material, even if it’s scary to put your soul on paper and hand it over.
Jillian: What role does creativity play in your editing process?
Chelsea: A good book is two things: imaginative and well-written. It takes loads of creativity on an editor’s part to ensure the author’s imagination comes together to form a fresh, intriguing story that makes sense, and that their text is pleasurable to read and suits the novel.
As mentioned above, I always provide solutions during evaluations or rounds of developmental editing. This requires investment in the story and, of course, creativity to come up with work-arounds, twists in plot, adjustments to character motivation, etc. This is where my love of writing comes into play without me actually writing anything.
Line editing is less about imagination, but it’s still art: rearranging words in the most effective order, swapping a comma for an em dash, trading a dialogue tag for a heated look. This all has to happen while preserving the author’s voice, which requires a certain astuteness, and creativity as well.
Thank you, Chelsea!
Chelsea says she is passionate about the Oxford comma, loves an em dash, and enjoys nixing adverbs. Her writing has been featured by The Write Launch, Scribble, and in Five Minutes at Hotel Stormcove, an anthology. You can find Chelsea at chelseacambeis.com or @chelseacambeis on Twitter and Instagram.