How Words Get Good by Rebecca Lee review – the secret life of books

An editorial manager at Penguin tells the inside story of how an idea gets from an author’s head onto your bookshelves

If you were writing a satirical guide to the deadening jargon of university research assessments, you might well advise your reader: “Words must be conceived thoughtfully and birthed precisely for maximum narrative impact.” But it comes as a surprise to meet that disturbing sentence in Rebecca Lee’s otherwise jolly and friendly guide to everything that must happen behind the scenes before a book is published.

As an editorial manager at Penguin Random House, Lee is someone with long experience in instructing copy-editors, proofreaders, indexers, printers and all the other unsung heroes who, if they do their job well, invisibly make the author’s glory seem effortlessly attained. It doesn’t always go well, though; disarmingly, Lee admits to having been “part of a team that managed to print 20,000 copies of The Importance of Being Ernest”.

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