Editors at Work: Cengage Learning (2)

Peter McGahey is a senior content development editor, focusing on physics and chemistry textbooks, at Cengage Learning.

What does your job as a content development editor entail?

When people hear editing, they think we’re looking line by line at what an author gives us and then moving forward. A lot of our job is taking the vision of the author, which is usually very localized to their students and their school and people in their discipline, and trying to create that into an item that can be used by students in every academic level and doing that for a national audience. I am involved in a lot of the drudgery of editorial work that you don’t realize is there. How much money can we spend on this? If the budget can only be this big, how are we going to distribute that through this? We are shifting heavily into digital platforms, especially in the sciences. They are a much more effective way to learn. All of this is happening before you have even gotten to the content that is going to be delivered to the customer.

How did you end up working with textbooks?

I took a bachelor’s degree at LaSalle University in English and philosophy. I was out of school for a couple of years and then went to the University of Connecticut for my master’s degree in English. Along the way, I had done a variety of different things in publishing. I came home from graduate school and ran into Ed Dodd, who I knew, at a barbeque for a police academy graduation. He told me that there was an opening at Saunders College Publishing. Here I am, nearly 20 years later. We all started out as editorial assistants, which back then was a lot of photocopying and moving paper around. Openings came here and there, sort of a zig-zaggy path.

What skills would someone going into development work need?

Attention to detail­, for one. Follow-through is also good. If we discuss a revision to a product family, you’ll ensure it is executed in the textbook, the online homework system, the instructor support books and PowerPoint slides, etc. Creativity is important. Whether it is words, art, animations or photos, the best way to convey a concept may require stepping back and determining a novel way to present it. Project management is important as well. There may be several dozen balls in the air at one time, and you can’t drop any of them. I want to see an ability to adapt. There are trends in education, and we need to recognize them and revise our content to accommodate them.

Do you recommend getting a master’s degree?

For educational publishing many people do graduate work first. You likely will feel underemployed with your master’s degree and a low-level job, but the upward path is much quicker with the degree. Some positions just won’t be possible without one when competing for promotions with people who have master’s and doctoral degrees. This decision also depends on the kind of publishing you want to get into. The situation is different in trade or periodicals.

So what should we be doing now?

For any publishing job, a goal should be to establish as much experience as you can as early as you can, volunteer work, internships, work-study, part-time or gig work, etc. Much of what you need to know to be a good editor is gleaned by doing the jobs, not taught per se.


Think you might want to work behind-the-scenes on those textbooks you use in class? Visit Cengage’s careers website for information about internship and job opportunities. 

Mark De Leon, ’17