How to Get into Book Publishing: Editorial

Celadon’s Executive Editor Ryan Doherty on why book publishing is the place for him.

By David Adams

After double-majoring in English literature (he wanted to) and Economics (he thought he should) at Georgetown University, Ryan Doherty had dreams of profiling famous people and writing about music like William Miller in Almost Famous. “I moved to New York with an internship at Rolling Stone,” the Narberth, Pennsylvania native recalls, “but it was 2005 and the magazine industry’s demise was on the horizon. Rolling Stone was still the large format, but circulation numbers were dwindling and the place seemed to run on an army of interns.”

So Doherty, who describes his childhood discovery of Roald Dahl as “life-changing,” switched gears to pursue his interest in books. “I interviewed here and there and was offered a job as a Rotational Associate at HarperCollins Children’s,” he says. “It was a glorified internship, but it paid!” After working in kid’s books for six months, Doherty moved over to work for nonfiction editor David Hirshey. Once there, he says, “I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

When an editorial position opened up at Random House/Ballantine Books, Doherty switched houses and spent the next eight years moving up from Editorial Assistant to Senior Editor. Asked to describe an editor’s job, he likens it to being a “project manager” for a book. The editor oversees the entire process from start to finish: from competing with other editors and publishers to acquire a manuscript, working with the author to make a book the best possible version of itself, and compiling descriptions and selling points for the marketing, sales, and publicity departments to use once the book is in their hands.

“The best part of this job is working with the authors. To help them achieve their goal, whatever that is—to surprise readers in a piece of fiction or help explain a tough scientific concept in a way the general reader can understand.” Doherty describes Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Survival by environmental journalist Dan Fagin as the most rewarding editorial experience he’s ever had. “Dan’s first draft was long. Very long,” Doherty remembers. “We worked closely for almost two years to bring it to the final 500 pages it ultimately became. So it was very special when it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction that year.” Another highlight from his time at Ballantine was editing the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

In 2014, Doherty made the jump from the book business to the film industry, joining Sony Pictures as Vice President, Literary Development. Working out of the studio’s New York office, his role was to help Sony find the best and hottest books to develop into movies and TV shows before the competition got there first. “Hollywood is a business in transition,” Doherty explains. “People spend more time on Netflix and at home, and as fewer blockbusters are being made, studios want material people are familiar with. They want the marketing to be done for them. Books have possibly an outsized significance in Los Angeles right now.”

While learning a new business and figuring out what to look for in an adaptation were rewarding experiences, Doherty admits it wasn’t easy to be 3,000 miles removed from his colleagues in LA. “It was tough to stay up on the projects I had brought in,” he says. “For me, it wasn’t as creatively fulfilling. After you’ve been a book editor, a trusted confidant of authors to help guide and edit their work, it was tough to watch projects develop from afar. I had to come back [to publishing].”

He got his chance when he heard rumors that Jamie Raab and Deb Futter were preparing to launch a new venture. Doherty had gotten to know the Celadon Books co-founders while working on Noah Hawley’s bestselling novel Before the Fall, which Raab and Futter published at Grand Central and Sony was developing for film. The trio opened the doors at Celadon on September 12, 2017 and will publish their first books in early 2019.

“I’m looking forward to people finally seeing what we’ve worked so hard cooking up in the last year,” Doherty says. “We have an incredible list of books—from some of the best thrillers I’ve read in years to inspiring and thought-provoking nonfiction.” He’s particularly proud of the debut thriller set to be the division’s first release: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. “I think Alex is an incredible talent,” Doherty says. “The ability to work with him on his debut and future books has been an absolute joy.”

Asked what advice he would give to someone looking to break into the publishing business, Doherty recommends reading widely, studying the bestseller list and award winners, and observing how people choose the books they buy. “This is a passion business,” he says. “You have to have the passion. But it’s also a business, so whatever type of book you want to work on, figure out why it sells and how to get to the end consumer.” And keep in mind that patience will be required. “The business tends to move at a glacial pace—in publishing a book, in advancement opportunities. So just be aware of that and only enter if you know it is for you.”

It took one paid internship for Doherty to know that publishing was what he wanted to do with his life. Twelve years and many excellent books later, he says he’s lost out on some great projects along the way. “There are plenty and there will be plenty more. But as my wife says, ‘Regret is a wasted emotion.’”

Besides, why look back just when an exciting new chapter is ready to start? “We’ve had incredible support from the industry—from Macmillan, agents, booksellers,” Doherty says of the first year at Celadon. “Now I’m excited for consumers to read our books.”  

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