Courage in the real world
Julie Klassen has made a career out of her love for books. She shares her journey from editing well-known authors at Bethany House to becoming one herself.
by KATIE JOHNSON| Web editor
Somewhat of a modern Jane Austen, Julie Klassen has written 11 historical fiction novels, four of which have won the Christy Award for excellence in Christian fiction. Readers know her for her historically rich settings, numerous characters, intriguing plot, and sweet romances. Klassen’s personal story reads like a dream come true for those wishing to become novelists but must first face the realities of getting a “real job” in the publishing world.
Could you tell me about your journey from working at Bethany House to writing full-time?
“I worked for Bethany House Publishers, a Christian publishing company, for 16 years. I worked first in advertising, in which I have a university degree, but volunteered for many editorial-related projects, simply because I loved reading. Later, after my children were born, and I was trying to decide whether to keep working or stay at home with them, Bethany House offered me a position in editorial, because the projects and reviews I’d done for them convinced them I had the ‘editorial eye.’ I was able to work as an editor primarily from home, which was a big blessing to me and my family, especially when our two boys were young.
“When I began working at Bethany House, my co-workers did not know I wanted to write. I was a ‘closet’ or secret writer. When I finally finished my first historical novel, I was torn. Bethany House was my ideal publisher; they are wonderful with historical fiction especially. But I feared submitting my novel there might be a conflict of interest. So I confessed to my boss in private that I had written a novel and asked if I should simply take it elsewhere.
“He said, ‘No. We want to look at it, but let’s send it around for review with a pseudonym so that the other editors will review it objectively.’
“And I thought, ‘Yes! And if they all think it’s ridiculous, which they probably will, I can still show my face at work the next day!’
“So that’s what we did. It was a nerve-wracking few weeks, waiting to hear back, but thankfully they liked it and wanted to publish it. Lady of Milkweed Manor came out in January 2008. After that, everyone knew I was a writer and I’ve been edited just as much as I ever edited anyone else!”
“For someone like me who loves books, it was a great job. I was like a kid in a candy store with all those authors to meet and new books to read.”
What did you do at Bethany House? What did your typical work day look like?
“As a new editor, I began by reviewing manuscripts to help decide which books Bethany House would publish, and to provide feedback to help other editors direct author revisions. Later, I began editing manuscripts for a few specific authors myself. I was primarily a big-picture editor. I provided feedback to authors on early drafts, including strengths as well as suggestions for improvement. After the author had made revisions and submitted their rewritten manuscript, I would then edit it, again primarily for content and clarity, always thankful that an eagle-eyed copy editor and proofreader would follow after me.
“I spent some days reading, others compiling feedback or corrections, others editing, others writing catalog or cover copy, others brainstorming plots, title ideas, etc. over the phone or in person with authors, and occasionally traveling with them on their book tours.
“I had the privilege of editing some very talented writers over the years. The most well-known author was Beverly Lewis. Others were Michael Phillips, Deeanne Gist, and Lisa Wingate. For someone like me who loves books, it was a great job. I was like a kid in a candy store with all those authors to meet and new books to read.”
What does a typical day look like for you now?
“My days now are similar, in that sometimes I’m writing, others I’m reading or editing my own work, and other days I do no writing at all, but spend time on publicity or promotions, or preparing for speaking events. The main difference, of course, is that now I am focusing on my own writing vs. other authors’ work.”
Do you have a mentor or someone who inspired/impacted your career?
“I’ve had the privilege of learning from several talented editors and authors over the years — all of whom have no doubt impacted my work. While I don’t have one specific mentor, I would name Carol Johnson, former VP of editorial for Bethany House as someone who took me under her wing when I was a young editor. And writing-wise, Beverly Lewis, Deeanne Gist, and Lynn Austin are three authors I’ve learned a lot from, and am blessed to call friends as well.”
What is/was your favorite part of your job as either a writer or editor? What is/was your least favorite part?
“Both as an editor and author, my favorites are the creative aspects: brainstorming plot ideas, working within the author-editor relationship to come up with solutions to story problems, strengthen characters, and improve a novel overall. My least favorite is what I call ‘death by details,’ the minutia of correcting grammar, fact-checking, and shoring up timelines. All necessary, but painful, too.”
Do you have an editing horror story?
“Yes. I missed a repeated word in a book once. In a novel of 100,000+ plus words that wouldn’t have been a big deal — usually a small mistake or two make it into every full-length novel. But this was in a children’s picture book with only a few sentences on a page, and printed in full color at great expense overseas. Ouch. Everyone was kind about it, but I felt terrible, and hated to cost the company money to reprint.”
“Ongoing friendships with authors I once edited is the kind of success I treasure most.”
Do you have an editing success story?
“Before I answer this question, I feel I should clarify that editors work behind the scenes, and their contributions are better the more seamlessly done and less noticeable they are. I have heard some authors in the industry complain about editors whom they view as trying to ‘mess with their story’ or ‘change their voice.’ But most author-editor relationships I’m aware of are mutually respectful. I am grateful for my editors, and would never want to publish a book without a skilled editor to prod me to improve!
“Success-wise, I know I have helped make books better, which is satisfying. And I’ve had a book dedicated to me by Beverly Lewis, which was fun. But ongoing friendships with authors I once edited is the kind of success I treasure most.”
What advice do you have for college students starting to pursue internships/experience in the publishing world?
“Editing jobs are hard to come by — at least book editing. More opportunities are available in say, New York, than in Minneapolis, of course. There is also a great deal of competition for internships — though do apply for them, because they’re a great way to get started. Failing that, the best advice I can offer is to get your foot in the door at a publishing house any way you can — even if it’s as a receptionist.
“Once hired, offer to review manuscripts, and anything else you can on your own time. Most professional editors I know did not start out as editors, nor do they have degrees in it. However, most publishers require three to five years’ experience for even an entry-level editor. How do you get that experience? The good news is, in this age when so many authors are publishing their own books, many are hiring freelance editors as well, which makes it easier for young editors to get experience that will later help them land an editorial job. Local writers’ groups and online author loops would be a good place to offer your services as a starting place.”
“I was still surprised at how much work it is. It is a lot easier to edit a book than to write one!”
How did your editing feed your writing? Or did it?
“My years as an editor were a godsend and no doubt impact my writing to this day. For example, one of my early tasks was abridging books for audio production, from about 100,000 to 33,000 words back in the days of two-cassette audio recordings. Learning how to maintain the essence of the story in one-third of the words? What a training ground. (Though my books tend to run a bit long. So apparently I still have more to learn…)
“And as an author, I still have to do many of the things I did as an editor: edit, input corrections, write cover copy, etc.
“Also, having worked in publishing, I was aware of some realities that often surprise new authors: things like how long it takes for a book to be published, that it is normal for editors to ask you to revise your book, and that most authors don’t become rich, etc. So I had a more realistic idea of the process and sales numbers. But I was still surprised at how much work it is. It is a lot easier to edit a book than to write one!
“Lastly, working on both sides of the desk helped me become a better and gentler editor and critiquer. I learned the art of framing criticism constructively and bookending it with praise, which we all need. This is a skill that would help future editors as well as every reader who writes stinging Amazon reviews.”
Do you have any advice for those looking to pursue something they enjoy as a career?
“Realize you may need to do something else first. I had a wise college adviser who told me, basically, ‘It’s nice that you want to write stories, but you’re going to need a real job first.’ And he was right. Thankfully, he directed me into advertising which had creative aspects, while allowing me to be employable. Did I enjoy it? Not thoroughly. But it gave me experience and opened doors which led to an editorial job, which I enjoyed more, and finally, to becoming a full-time author — which is my lifelong dream come true.”
Julie Klassen helps me remember that editing does not occur in a bubble. She didn’t receive a manuscript, sit in a cubicle until she finished finding all the mistakes, and then send it off again. She interacted with authors. She helped them brainstorm plot points and character development. In fact, forming relationships with the authors was her favorite part of the job, and now she has her own editor to work stories with.
Klassen also taught me, whether she meant to or not, the importance of being brave. Had she not trusted her adviser to pursue a major in something she didn’t thoroughly enjoy at the time, she might not have landed in publishing. She honored her passion for reading by crossing the divide from advertising to editing. She continued writing, something that must have been difficult to maintain while working with so many books, and had the courage to submit her work to her peers. She also encourages up-and-coming editors/writers to be both realistic about their expectations of the publishing world and bold with presented opportunities. Just looking at where she is now amazes and inspires me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.