On Becoming A Commissioning Editor

A little something I wrote a while ago, for the Society of Young Publishers.  I am now Publisher for Linguistics and Philosophy at Bloomsbury Academic and can be reached at gurdeep dot mattu at gmail dot com or @gurdeepmattu


On Becoming a Commissioning Editor

I think that it is fair to say that almost all entrants into publishing, once they have chosen editorial from amongst the variety of jobs and roles in the trade, have as their medium-term aim ‘becoming a commissioning editor’. But how do you actually go about becoming a Commissioning Editor? I think in this era of publishing MAs, of graduate career schemes and the erosion of the old boy’s network, it isn’t fair to say that ‘editors are born, not made’ any more. It is a trade that you can learn, but there are certain attributes, and certain attitudes that will help you on the way.

In most sections of the trade, the books editorial ladder has its rungs fairly clearly marked – the editorial assistant progresses to the assistant editor, takes on more responsibility, learns from an editor and then either moves to a Development Editor or Publishing Editor role, or is promoted directly to Commissioning Editor. And rather than concentrate on the actual nature of the job – which I think its fair to say can be dealt with in a much better way by colleagues more experience than I am, I’d like to talk a little about the path to commissioning editor.

To sum up, it took me four years, a fact that I’m very proud of; I was a commissioning editor by the age of 24. But I did have to be very proactive to achieve this, and wrestle control of various aspects of lists that I worked on where the editor was willing to let it go, as well as developing various traits, skills and abilities. It is this that I’ll go on to cover, after a little bit of biographical detail to give you some context.

I started my publishing career working for Robert Hale Ltd as an editorial assistant, and I was the only one in the department. It was a small company that produced a range of fiction and non-fiction titles, and they also owned an equestrian imprint, J. A. Allen. I worked on westerns, crime and romance and read assorted general fiction. My duties were list admin, letters, the typescript database and so on, moving to the more interesting areas of reader’s reports and deciding on whether to buy UK rights for US titles. I also copyedited and handled author queries, something that I wouldn’t do in my next job, which was in academic publishing – as an Assistant Editor at SAGE Publications, on the media and education list.

Academic publishing isn’t the same as trade publishing, but in both of these routes you’ll need similar skills to become a Commissioning Editor. As Assistant Editor at SAGE, I handled a much greater volume of work than I did at Hale. I also worked for two remote editors, which turned out to be a clinching factor in rapid development, as I very quickly moved from just list admin and assistant duties to taking proposals to the board on behalf of my editor, meeting authors, doing journals publishing reports and working on list strategy. Being the in-office representative for two big lists meant that I had to very quickly learn how the publishing process worked, and what role editorial were expected to play, and got a good sense of the role that a commissioning editor has in this role.

My next job, and the one that I am currently in, is at Continuum Books, where I’m a Commissioning Editor in Language and Linguistics. It’s a big list – it has a turn over of just under half a million pounds, and we publish around 50 new books a year. It was a big leap from Assistant Editor, and that leap is one of the biggest to make on the editorial ladder. Soon enough I was immersed in the day to day running of the list, and the relief that you can hand the admin to your assistant is tempered by the sheer amount of admin that comes with the role. Yes, there’s just more of it as you rise.

Previously, I spoke of certain attributes, and certain attitudes that will help you on the way to becoming a Commissioning Editor. A HR style description might run as follows:

–         A good Commissioning Editor needs to be:

o       Target-driven

o       Organised

o       Good at project management

o       Strong communicator

o       Proactive

o       Confident

o       Creative, to a certain extent

o       Have commercial acumen


–         Most exciting elements of job are:


o       Working closely with authors

o       Developing new ideas

o       Seeing improvement in a manuscript after your feedback

o       Seeing the finished product

o       Getting out and about to conferences, visiting people, networking

Whilst these are all true, this is quite a vague list of abilities that could fit many jobs. Most media professionals have to be confident and creative. Most professionals have to be proactive. And anyone working in an office would do well to be organised. It is a list that you should work towards, by all means, and by the time you are at the level of a Commissioning Editor, you should be able to demonstrate all of these. But what can you do to help yourself learn on the job, and not have to attend courses and follow HR manuals? How do you actually make the leap and become a commissioning editor?

One important bit of advice is to listen carefully and ask to shadow colleagues. Whilst shadowing production and marketing will help you to understand the publishing process better, shadowing your editor, going to meetings, listening to the board’s feedback on proposals, going to meet authors and offering to do the publishing reports and to write the pitch in the proposal documentation will all help. If you have an editor with a proven track record, they are the best resource you’ll have. Ask them questions. Since my two bosses worked remotely, they were more than happy in most cases to cede some of the work to me. If your boss is in the office, chances are they’ll be even busier than a remote editor, as they are on hand to be cornered by people needing answers right away. So try to take the heat off them.

Be efficient. Nothing impresses as much as effortless efficiency, so learn the shortcuts, learn how to use Excel, learn how to use Word, learn how to crunch all your admin into mail merges and e-merges. It’s the only way to free up enough time to actually learn and do interesting stuff like proposals and market research. You can be diligent and work long hours, but learn how to do things accurately and quickly, and you can make time to go to the pub at lunch – much more interesting.

Learn the market. It doesn’t matter if you’re publishing in chick lit or philosophy, you need to know who is out there who might buy the books, how of many of these you intend to capture in terms of sales for your books, what figures work and what figures don’t. A core text for example, needs to take around a ten percent share of the market. In sales terms, it needs to shift around about 10000 copies in paperback a year if there are 100000 studies in the field, and it needs to do this at around £19.99. It’s only by learning the market and the market dynamics that you’ll understand what’s going on in the board meetings (as an Assistant as well as when you are a Commissioning Editor).

Be omnivorous. If you’re in the academic publishing sector, follow the blogs, read the papers (The Bookseller and the Publishing News as well as the THES and the TLS.) and understand the debates. You need to know about POD, about eBooks, about Open Access and ‘free at the point of use’ work. You need to know this because these are the concerns that face the Commissioning Editor in publishing, as well as the commercial concerns of having a list that makes money and achieves its targets, and if you can demonstrate this at interview and in your career as an Assistant, you’ll be known for being knowledgeable.

Get practice. There’s route one – the interview, getting the job – but there are other ways. Chip away at your editor’s workload – they are bound to be overworked, underpaid and under a pile of paper – you need to bring their excess to you. Ask to do the new edition proposal, to work with an author on a revised edition, and start to think about asking to handle reprints. In doing reprints, you’re doing ideal practice runs for costing a new book, without the risk factor. Try to get a journal if you can, or a series, or a small sub-sector. Don’t be shy in asking; they will probably be relieved. Get it listed as one of your objectives and do it in quantitative terms – ask them to add ‘commission two books, one new edition, and one new project’. Work with your marketing department, give input when asked in your bosses stead, do the competitor grids (because they are as dull as anything and a tiresome task). If you do all this, you might achieve route two – the path to Associate Editor, with a list of your own as well as the Assistant admin. It’s a tough way to do it, but when opportunities are limited, it’s worth a shot. However, be careful of being overloaded, and also of not being adequately compensated for the rise in responsibility.

Be aware of opportunities. The SYP is a great example of this. It is a way to hear about jobs and meet people in publishing. But it isn’t the only way. Go to the pub with work colleagues, find out who is likely to be leaving or is definitely staying. Ask for more responsibility over a bottle of wine or two – it usually works better. Meet other academic publishers who might know of coming list splits and list mergers – is a publisher about to acquire a list, will they need a new editor? An editor needs to be a ‘strong communicator’ and ‘proactive’ but this doesn’t mean just sending well-written, engaged emails. It means just that – listen, and act upon what you hear.

To sum up then, it isn’t all about ticking off a list of qualities and objectives. This is an important part of the job, but if you turn up at the interview with all those qualities, but know nothing about the trade, don’t understand the market, and haven’t commissioned any titles, you’re losing out to someone who will have done these things. If you’ve effectively been running a small part of the list for a while, you’ll just need to demonstrate an expanded scope and aims to show that you are right for the job.

To further add to this as a talk, I’ve included some documents that list what an editor might do, day to day, and the kinds of tasks expected of an editor from their publishing house. This is, in effect, the schematic of the job, and what I’ve covered above is a way to quickly and efficiently render the graphics around it.

Gurdeep Mattu

(London, Sept 2007)

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