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An editorial assistant is an entry level staff member who works in the publishing industry. Editorial assistants can be found in news rooms, publishing houses, magazine offices, and the offices of new media companies which publish online. This type of job is generally taken by someone who is just getting started in publishing, although sometimes some experience is required to become an editorial assistant.
The duties of an editorial assistant can vary widely, depending on the publication. Some may act primarily like secretaries, handling the phones, sending out correspondence, making copies, filing, and tracking filed materials through the office and between departments. It may also be the duty of the editorial assistant to get guests settled in the office, to attend meetings, and to help keep the editorial schedule on track and focused.
More hands-on work may be available at some publications. For example, it may be the responsibility of an editorial assistant to read any unsolicited materials which arrive, and to report on these materials to higher-ranking editors. In fact, the editorial assistant can become a key gatekeeper who decides which content will be passed on to higher ranking members of the editorial staff. In addition, an editorial assistant may be involved in the editing and proofing process as materials are prepared for publication.
At publications which have an online presence, the editorial assistants are often involved in maintaining that presence. For example, an editorial assistant can be put in charge of a blog or bulletin board, and may coordinate an online community on behalf of the parent company. For these types of positions, experience in online communities is usually required, and some companies prefer to work with people who have specifically been engaged in their online communities. Someone who has been active in the message boards for Xyz publishers, for example, will be more likely to be hired to manage that community than someone who has not been a participant.
In some offices, people must start in very low ranking positions, below that of editorial assistant, and work their way up gradually. In other cases, people with college degrees may be hired on as editorial assistants directly, allowing them to skip some of the lower rungs. College students who are interested in publishing careers would be well served to seek out internships while in school so that they can start engaging in professional development which will allow them to land jobs when they graduate.
I recommend looking for a small publisher if you are looking to start out as an editorial assistant. Even doing this work for the smallest of companies is still experience, and it can lead you on to bigger and better things.
Many online publishers still need editorial assistants to help with a lot of the organization and editing that goes on at their main office. Usually online publications deal with greater volumes of materials, so there is more opportunity to get some hands on experience with the books coming in.
A great thing about online publications is that you can often telecommute to work. Giving you experience, while still being able to hold down another job if need be.
If you are interested in getting into the publishing industry, many publishers offer internships to even high school students. While you won't be doing anything glamorous, it is at least a foot in the door.
During college my roommate worked as an editorial assistant/gopher, and used to have to go through stacks of manuscripts that came in unsolicited. While it wasn't always a fun job, it certainly opened her eyes to how much work goes into selecting books for publication. You may be surprised at just how many books go through the eyes of an assistant first, before ever making it to a publisher's desk.
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