Working as a project editor at Perseus

and why I stopped using Amazon

Today, I’ll discuss my work as a project editor at Perseus Books Group in Colorado.

But before that, a friend said she wanted to hear how me working in publishing and me being a fiction writer doesn’t overlap. I’ll probably discuss this more in another newsletter, but to put it succinctly: I haven’t held a position in publishing that has helped further my goal of becoming a novelist. Hopefully I will someday, but if I don’t, that’s OK: I got into publishing because I needed a better-paying job, preferably one I didn’t dislike, and as a reader as much as a writer, books have always felt magical to me, so I’m happy to be paid to help bring them into the world.

In 2012, I started working for three imprints of Perseus Books Group: Nation, Basic Books, and PublicAffairs. At this time, before Perseus was bought out one of the “Big 5” publishers, it was one of the largest independent publishers in the United States. I wasn’t sure what independent meant, so I asked Perseus’s chief financial officer when he was in town, who said independent could be applied to any publisher that wasn’t owned by a media conglomerate. There aren’t many large independent publishers left now like Perseus was; most independent publishers are really small (fewer than five employees often), and as you can see on this chart, the Big Five publishers are mind-bogglingly large.

As a project editor, I managed the editorial production process for eight to fourteen trade nonfiction books simultaneously. In-house, I worked most closely with the designers/typesetters, but most of the time, I was either on email with acquisitions editors or associate editors in New York and authors all over the country—often journalists or historians—or combing through copyedited or proofread manuscripts. Unlike fiction manuscripts, which need to be completely finished when a writer approaches an agent or small publishing company, nonfiction writers can approach agents or small publishing companies with a proposal. If the agent likes the proposal, they’ll take on the writer, the writer will write their nonfiction book, and the agent will shop that book around to acquisition editors at various publishing houses. Once the acquisition editors do any large edits on the nonfiction book they’d decided to publish, they send the manuscript to the project/production editor, my position at Perseus. I managed the book project through copyediting, layout, and proofreading—until it went to the printers. My salary at Perseus was $35K/yr with a cost of living increase of 2 percent per year. I was also earning $4–5K/yr on freelance copyediting jobs.

Compared to a small university press, where my work on each book project varied, I had very defined tasks at Perseus. Each book went through similar steps on a similar schedule—but because each book had different content and different challenges, the work, for a few years, kept my interest. I enjoyed and was good at managing projects (my boss called me a “model project editor”), and I loved working with intelligent authors and publishing staff on high-profile books. Some of my favorites include Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko, which details the militarization of the US police and 935 Lies by Charles Lewis, which details some of the lies the US government and/or corporations have told the American people (for example, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that cigarettes aren’t bad for you).

During my time in Colorado, I stopped using Amazon. It came about in this way: Hachette, one of the Big Five publishers, complained that Amazon was lowballing them on their proposed ebook price. To strong-arm Hachette into their agreement, Amazon used a tactic they use regularly: they removed all Hachette’s ebooks from Amazon until Hachette capitulated six months later. Because over 80 percent of ebook sales happen on Amazon, this move harmed many publishing imprints and authors. After Amazon got their way, they increased the share of what they kept as a middle man—currently 40 percent of all purchases. Ideally, some kind of antitrust laws like those enacted during the late nineteenth century would curb Amazon’s power, but in the meantime, I shop Powell’s or Bookshop for my books, and most other stuff I buy in the real world, directly from the company, or on Etsy or Ebay. Many people, such as self-published authors, publishers of small presses, and those who live in rural areas, to name just a few, can’t opt out of Amazon, which underscores the problem, I think. If you’re interested in how extreme monopolies have become in the United States, you could read Monopolized by David Dayen or Goliath: The One Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller and/or read Stoller’s Substack newsletter (he’s currently hopefully covering the Google antitrust case).

In 2015, I decided to quit my job and pursue more contract copyediting jobs in order to move back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I enjoyed the work at Perseus, but partially because everything in my role was streamlined so much, it had become repetitive, which made it easier to decide to move on.

Thanks for reading! Next time, I’ll post a poem I wrote while living in Louisville, Colorado.

I hope everyone is well.