Good Books: What Do Editors Actually Do?

By Jack Limpert

In the late 1970s my sense of how an editor should behave was shaped by reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott Berg. Perkins was a book editor at Scribner’s and his authors included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones, and many others. His genius was his ability to inspire writers to do their best work. He often had a big impact on a book—the length, structure, and title—but to the outside world the finished book always was the author’s—it was the author’s genius, not the editor’s. I translated that to often just saying, “Writers are more important than editors,” and always believed it.

Editors at Work: Make It an Idea Competition

By Richard Babcock

A few days ago, my old editor buddy Lee Walburn offered some suggestions for finding good story ideas. Like everything Lee says and writes, the advice went down like fine bourbon. So I hope Lee doesn’t mind if I sully his drink with a small footnote.

Lee’s right that everything begins with ideas. In fact, I’ve long held that if the idea is strong enough, good editors can coax it into a publishable story, even if the proposal originates with a writer who needs help reporting and more help writing. But in my years as an editor, I also found that the great ideas—the kind that sell magazines, delight readers, impact the community, win prizes—remain terribly elusive.

Editors at Work: The Number That’s Not Talked About

By Jack Limpert

The number that causes headaches among the top people at a print publication but is rarely discussed with the rest of the staff or made public: the renewal rate, the percentage of subscribers who renew each year. The renewal rate at a magazine or newspaper is like the body temperature of a person—it’s a very good way to gauge overall health.

Editors at Work: Making the Budget Your Friend

By Jack Limpert

In 40 years as an editor, the most important money lesson I learned: Get a reputation for being responsible about spending money and come in on budget. Doing that had two big benefits:

Editors at Work: It’s Time for the Annual Budget Meeting

By Jack Limpert

If it’s mid-September and you’re the editor, you can expect an email from accounting asking each department head (editorial, production, advertising, circulation, etc.) to come up with a proposed budget for next year. You then analyze editorial spending in the current year, talk to staff about how the magazine can get better, and come up with budget  numbers that you think will let you improve the editorial side of the magazine without drawing too much laughter from the numbers people.

Editors at Work: How Harold Ross Did It

By Jack Limpert

There aren’t many good books that describe how editors actually do their jobs—the best I’ve read is Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel. Ross edited the New Yorker from its founding in 1925 to his death in 1951, and Tom’s book captures how Ross hired and fired, how he edited and motivated, how he built the magazine into something that lasted.

Editors at Work: Finding Good Story Ideas

By Lee Walburn

It all begins with ideas.

So, where do ideas come from? The answer is everywhere.

While at the hair stylist, listen to what people are talking about. Do that in the checkout line at the supermarket. Do it at the neighborhood saloon. Do it wherever people congregate and talk. What seems to be concerning them? What’s the meat of their gossip? What about their jokes and their stories? What are they buying? Has the news of the day had any impact on their lives? Are they excited about anything or anyone?

Editors at Work: Saying Yes and No

By Jack Limpert

As a magazine editor, you knew going to work in the morning that you’d be saying a lot of yes and no as the day went on. Is this story going to run in September? Should we lead with this photo? Available for lunch with the publisher tomorrow? Any raises going to be given out mid-year?

Editors at Work: How to Do Good Service Stories

By Jack Limpert

When I started at The Washingtonian in 1969, two city magazines were worth looking at for ideas.

One was Philadelphia, which back in the 1960s did the best reporting and civic journalism of any city magazine in the country, maybe of any magazine in the country. Its editor, Alan Halpern, created a magazine that came up with one great reporting piece after another about what was happening in his city.

Editors at Work: Doing Stories About People

By Jack Limpert

Let’s say that one rule of magazine editing should be that you can’t have too many good people stories. I’m old enough to remember when People magazine started in 1974. The Time magazine reporters I talked with back then laughed it off, saying that Time was real journalism–politics, the economy, world affairs–while People was just celebrity fluff. But People was very shrewdly edited, mixing plenty of stories of real people in with the celebrities. As the years went by, People  grew and grew and Time and the other newsmagazines got smaller. U.S. News & World Report is gone, Newsweek is on life support, and Time’s ad and circulation revenues continue to fall. How much do readers value People and Time? A year of People is $112, while Time is $30. Ad revenues are even more skewed in favor of People.