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.
Melissa Atkin joined W. W. Norton & Company in March 2008 as a project editor in the Manuscript Editing Department, working on college textbooks. After three years in that role, she was promoted to senior project editor, and then in 2018, was promoted to associate managing editor. Based in the New York City area, she project edits books from a variety of academic disciplines, mainly history, English literature, and composition. Melissa collaborates closely with Norton’s High School Group, using her former experience as an A.P.® English Language teacher and high school debate coach.
What is your current role and what part do you play in the book-publishing process?
As an associate managing editor in the Manuscript Editing Department, I oversee an author’s manuscript through copyediting, into page proofs, and finally to the bound-book stage. I oversee anywhere from three to five books’ manuscripts at a time. These books are for college and high school, both digital and print, and for a variety of academic disciplines.
For your current role, what does an average day look like?
An average day involves analyzing book schedules and budgets; touching base with Norton teammates in different departments, such as production, editorial, permissions, and design; managing freelance copyeditors, proofreaders, and indexers; and reviewing manuscript files and page proofs.
What skills do you need to succeed in your job? Did any previous work or life experience help you in your role?
Before I came to work at 500 Fifth Avenue in March 2008, I was a high school English teacher in Savannah, Georgia. During that time, I juggled numerous tasks with tons of unexpected classroom disruptions, while making sure my students stayed engaged and productive. I learned the importance of educational resources, especially student textbooks and instructor manuals, and I learned the basics of editing and project-managing.
What has been one of your favorite projects?
After working at Norton a few months, I was having lunch with a colleague. She asked where I attended college, as we had both grown up in the South. When I said I attended Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, she said, “Well, you must have heard of Dr. David Emory Shi, one of Norton’s most beloved authors!” Long story short, I reached out to Dr. Shi, who was the university president during the time I was a student there. And from that coincidental connection, I had the privilege to project edit six editions of his best-selling textbook, America, A Narrative.
How has your current job/role changed while you’ve worked at Norton?
When I first started at Norton, 15 years ago, I had knee-high (sometimes higher), multiple stacks of manuscripts and proofs in my office. White Out®, red pencils, pica rulers, and rubber thumbs were standard components in any editor’s toolbox (or desk drawer). And much of my days were spent photocopying or scanning “master” manuscripts or proofs just in case they got lost in the mail (not email) to the copyeditors, proofreaders, or authors. The Manuscript Editing Department was much smaller, and we worked only on print products. Something that has not changed in the way Nortonians make books, however, is that we see bookmaking more as a craft than just a process. We take pride in the details, such as the paper stock, the color of thread used for the binding, the sources of our materials, the quality of our maps and infographics, the expertise and enthusiasm of our professor authors, and the positive collaboration among colleagues.
What has kept you at Norton? What excites you about the future?
When I was first hired at Norton, I had a lot of mentors. I was relatively new to publishing and needed the guidance. However, what I have noticed recently, as my roots grow deeper, is that I still have many mentors, but I now also have the opportunity to mentor others. Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to hire dozens of interns for the Manuscript Editing Department, and I have seen many of them go on to have successful careers elsewhere and many of them stay at Norton to become full-time employees who now teach me new aspects of the industry. In many ways, it reminds me of my years as a high school teacher, when my students would leave the classroom and go on to achieve all kinds of impressive goals, and then return to share their experience and knowledge. There is a beauty in how the internship program at Norton comes full circle in that way. And now that the program can be either in-person or remote, I have enjoyed working with interns from across our country.
Have you participated in any extracurricular programs at Norton?
One of my favorite Norton extracurricular programs is Read Ahead. Through this program, I have the opportunity to mentor an incredible second-grader at a nearby NYC public school. Every other Thursday, he and I read together. Watching his reading level improve and his love of books grow brings me such joy. In March 2022, I ran in the New York City Half Marathon with Team Read Ahead, and I was able to raise over $1,500, largely thanks to my Norton colleagues’ contributions, for this nonprofit organization.
What advice would you give someone just starting out in publishing?
Explore every nook and cranny of the publishing industry! Attend industry networking events, or try to intern at a publishing house to learn more about production, editorial, sales, permissions, design, legal, printed text, digital text, trade books, textbooks, academic journals, etc. Study the history of publishing. Visit a museum that has famous manuscripts on display. Go to a public book reading. Get familiar with your local independent bookstores. Borrow a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, read as much of it as you can, and practice using some copyediting and proofreading marks for fun.
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