Behind the Book: Q&A with Sunny Hwang, Senior Developmental Editor

In celebration of W. W. Norton & Company’s 100th year of publishing, we’re offering readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the bookmaking process—the people behind the books and the products we create! Through our Behind the Book blog series, discover who plays a role in creating a book, what daily life looks like at Norton, and what being part of an independent and employee-owned company means.

Image of article author Sunny Hwang in her office.
Sunny Hwang
Image Credit: Sunny Hwang

Sunny Hwang was a freelance developmental editor who worked on several college projects for Norton before being hired as a Developmental Editor in the College Manuscript Editing department in 2014. She was promoted to Senior Developmental Editor in 2022. She helps shape the content of several college textbooks a year, with a focus on science titles. 

What is your current role, and what part do you play in the book publishing process? 

I’m a Senior Developmental Editor in the College Manuscript Editing department, and I edit manuscripts, page proofs, and supplemental materials for college textbooks in both their early and final stages. As a developmental editor (DE), my main job is to look at the big picture: unlike a copyeditor or proofreader, I’m not as concerned about small details in grammar and style (although I check those too while I’m reading), but do make sure that the main ideas of a chapter are coming through and that the author’s argument makes sense. I get involved early in the writing of a book so that any big changes I suggest can be made with minimal disruption or reworking of other parts of the book (such as art or other chapters). But I also keep checking the book as it moves through production to make sure that any changes I’ve suggested are properly carried out and that the manuscript looks right as a fully typeset book. 

For your current role, what does an average day look like? 

I usually work on two or three books at a time, so I rotate through the different books depending on their schedules. For books that are in manuscript (ones actively being written), I will read the manuscript a chapter at a time, then I’ll read outside reviews (this way I’m not biased by outside opinions), and finally I’ll make recommendations based on my own assessment and comments that I’m seeing frequently from reviewers. I will often spot-check as I go, looking up a selection of the original literature that authors cite to see if they’re representing research correctly. For books that are in production (ones being typeset and made into an actual book), I will check page proofs to make sure that art is being rendered correctly, all text from the manuscript is making it into the book, and corrections from earlier proof stages are being applied. You often notice mistakes or better ways to present information when manuscript is typeset—seeing a book as a book makes it easier for your brain to make connections between art and text. 

What skills do you need to succeed in your job? Did any previous work or life experience help you in your role? 

You need to be organized, attentive to schedules, and detail-oriented, but at the same time be able to zoom out and see the big picture so that the basic structure of your books make sense. It’s helpful to have a good memory for things that you’ve seen in previous chapters so that you can point out if a book is getting repetitive or has gaps. Being able to put yourself into the shoes of the reader also helps you figure out if material is too hard or too easy. I have a PhD in paleontology and a BS in biomedical engineering, which is not at all typical or expected for DEs, but my science background gives me invaluable subject matter expertise that helps me understand the nuances of complex topics. My previous career as a college professor also gives me personal experience with what students and professors want in a book. 

What advice would you give someone just starting out in publishing? 

Talk to different people in different roles to see what job is your best fit. Even if you think you know what kind of job you like, there are many subspecialties that require different types of skills. For example, there are at least 5 different types of editors in Norton’s college department alone! 

How did you end up at Norton, or what enticed you to apply?

I first applied to an associate editor position for biology at Norton after I had been working as an editor for just one year, not knowing that these were usually in-house promotions. My resume caught someone’s eye and I was invited to apply to the media editor position in biology and psychology instead (editors Pete Lesser and Betsy Twitchell were the first Nortonians I ever met). I didn’t get the job, but a year later I applied for the media editor position in geology and biology. I didn’t get that job either, but I was introduced to the manuscript editing department and started doing freelance work for them. A few months later I was offered a full-time DE position, which is really the best job for me. Now that I know what the media editor positions are like, I would not be nearly as well suited for those positions or like doing them as much! See, it really is important to learn about different jobs! 

What have been some of your favorite projects?

I love working on first editions of textbooks. You really have a chance to make your mark on a book when it’s being published for the first time, and I enjoy the challenge of turning a rough manuscript into a fully formed book. Two of my favorite titles are Environmental Science and Sustainability and Ecology in a Changing World, which both aim to help students make a positive impact on an increasingly human-dominated Earth. 

What has kept you at Norton? What excites you about the future? 

Norton’s company culture is the best I’ve ever experienced. My colleagues are brilliant, kind, and collaborative, and my manager is amazingly supportive. The book teams I work with trust my judgment and appreciate my contributions. I work on beautiful, interesting books that include cutting-edge research, so I still keep my science brain sharp. It is so rare to love where you work, and I’d be a fool to give that up! 

Have you participated in any extracurricular programs at Norton?

I’m part of the Make Our Own Fun (MOOF) committee, and my proudest accomplishment is organizing the annual Norton Bake-off. Each year bakers from every part of Norton bring their best baked goods to the office to compete in four categories (cakes, cookies, pies, and savories). Everyone in the New York office is invited to taste the entries, and the tasters vote for the winners! It is so fun to gather with your friends and taste all the amazing creations. It’s great to be part of a committee whose sole purpose is to come up with fun things for the Norton community to do! 

Lastly, what do you like to do outside of work? Any fun hobbies or recent reads you would recommend? 

You might have guessed that I like to bake (4-time winner in 2 different bake-off categories!) and cook. For bakers of all levels, I recommend the cookbook Snacking Cakes by Yossy Arefi, which has easy recipes for no-fuss cakes. Everyone I’ve introduced to this book loves it; I baked every single cake in this book during the pandemic and only regretted maybe one or two. I also like crocheting, embroidery, and introducing my kids to good eats and different museums around the city. 

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