So you’ve got a brand new book on your nightstand or electronic reader. Or maybe you have a book idea that you’d love to get published. How on earth does an idea get translated to pages or bytes? A book editor could play a big role. Jennifer Lawler was my editor for Math for Grownups, and these days, she’s the imprint manager for Adams Media’s new direct-to-ebook romance imprint. Today, she answers the big question we have here on Mondays: How do you use math in your job?
Can you explain what you do for a living?
I’m an imprint manager for a book publishing company, which means I acquire books from writers based on what we think our readers will want to read. Then I shepherd the books through the entire editorial and production process, which includes everything from negotiating contracts to approving cover design to making sure the publicity department is doing its job. My job constantly switches from big-picture items like “How does our imprint differentiate itself from other imprints like it?” to nitty-gritty items like “did that copy editor ever send over her invoice?”
When do you use basic math in your job?
I have a set budget for producing each title, but not all titles are alike, so they require different amounts of money. I have to make sure that each book gets what it needs without going over the budget as a whole, and also without being really out of whack for any one title. This is very similar to keeping a household budget and balancing a checkbook.
For nonfiction print books, I have to calculate how to make them fit into the allotted page count we have for them. At my company, page count is determined at the time a book is signed, based on the type of book it is, what the cover price will be, and other factors. Since nonfiction books are sold on proposal, not finished product, the finished product can vary significantly from what we assumed it would be at the time of signing. So I have to figure out what we can do to make the book fit. Can we add pages to the index, or subtract pages from the index? Can we add or subtract front matter? Can we go up to 2-page chapter openers or down to 1-page part openers? We can’t go over or under more than 16 pages for any project. Usually it’s not a big problem but sometimes you should see my desperation!
Do you use any technology to help with this math?
We use a special calculator based on trim size to estimate how many words per page, taking design considerations into account (lots of sidebars or illustrations mean fewer words on each page). For the budget, I just use a spreadsheet. This just helps make sure simple errors in addition or subtraction don’t through the whole process off.
How do you think math helps you do your job better?
On a fundamental level, if I don’t do the math right, the company and everyone in it suffers. We miss our projections, we overrun our budgets, we even screw up our earnings. That’s a big deal. It also helps me be creative and to make better judgment calls. If I find myself saying, “Well, it doesn’t really matter if this one book doesn’t fit the page count, I can just get the publisher to change the page count,” I know I’m being lazy. Maybe that is what has to happen sometimes, but that type of change directly impacts our profit-and-loss statement for the title, so it has to be the last resort. Same with the budget. “Well, the publisher isn’t going to kill me if I go over by a little bit.” That’s true, but it’s a lazy way of thinking. Doing the math makes me think about what I need to do differently to hit the budget. In some instances, yes, the budget simply needs to be bigger. But it could mean I need to watch what I acquire so I’m not picking up things with potential but that require a ton of editing. It could mean I need to streamline a process somewhere or develop a template instead of doing some type of custom approach each time.
Math adds a lot of clarity to my work—something I never thought a book editor would say!
How comfortable with math do you feel?
I am pretty comfortable with math except when I am put on the spot (like someone asking me point-blank to answer a math question). I find the math at work to be easy in the sense that I’m confident about not making mistakes with it. I do it in the privacy of my office, so if I have to check my calculations five different times to make sure I’ve got them right, I do it.
What kind of math did you take in high school?
I got as far as Algebra II and felt like a complete idiot by that point.
Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?
I had to get over my fear of “oh my god I will screw up the math and they’ll kick me out and I love this job!” Other than that, though, the math is straightforward—definitely something a high-school kid could do. Probably a third-grader could do it
Thanks for playing with us today, Jennifer! If any of you dear readers are interested in writing and publishing a book, check out Jennifer’s great book proposal class. (I can recommend it from personal experience!) Or feel free to ask her a question in the comments section.