We drifted somewhere into the Heart

There are competing mastheads in the sea of light

It was both bright and it was full of sadness, yes?  The two of us sat there betting on the price of gold, would it rise?  You say it rises but I don’t believe you half the time.  Each of us had three computer monitors and access to a limited, and now dwindling, investment fund.  The passage to India was now navigated on a modem, then a fibreoptic and now perhaps just in the Cloud.  I didn’t stop for a Coca-Cola.  I didn’t halt when I pushed the button and pulled the plug and many other idioms.

There is a Peacocks in Valetta.
A Deichmann in East Ham.

Wide Open Spaces

An urban agglomeration such as Westfield Stratford City is of great interest to the author. Westfield Group is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and has a portfolio of properties with a market value of over £30bn. It is a growing force for change. As a group, it takes projects from planning, funding and concept to completion. It has created striking similar sites across the globe, from East London to Downtown Manhattan. Or FiDi, as New York would have it.

These sites are sites of mass movement: mass trade, and mass transit. The research that the group does works to funnel people in a way that is efficient for the shops and outlets on their sites. The Mall Theory of flagship anchor department stores at the corners if the triangle is adheres to. These sites heave with people, eager to buy, eager to eat. They give us what we appear to want. Shops, of many kinds, under a roof, so we can shop, forever, until we are utterly spent.

The infrastructure required for this is immense: it creates wide open spaces that are good to wander about in, devoid of intent. They are places to be a flaneur. These are our new margins. They exist inside and outside of the new concept if place in the post-commercial (Capitalism won, after all, hands down, as did neo-liberalism).  They are our playgrounds. Let us rejoice and spread the Word.

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)

Listening to Music on a Walkman Cassette Player

I write this on the second day of Spring 2013.  It is sunny, but cold.  Last year, I purchased a Walkman, because for a long time, I hadn’t listened to music on cassette.  It was a model bought from eBay and is a WM-36 with Dolby NR.  It wasn’t too expensive, but then the 3.5mm jack is a bit loose, and so it loses a lot of its portability.  It’s not in too bad a condition given that this Walkman is probably as old as me.  (Well, nearly.  The WM-36 model was released in 1987 and the GM Model was released in 1982.)  Here’s a picture.  In the background are a pair of Onitsuka Tigers that were first released in 1981:


According to some sites, it is a bit of ‘disappointing model’.  There is more detail here.  Its inside mechanics are based on the ‘lowly’ WM-33 and there’s quite a lot of hiss.  It has a metal tape door, and and decent heft.  It has a 5 band graphic equaliser and with the Dolby NR on the sound is reasonable but not spectacular.  There’s a Normal and Metal setting for the different types of tape ribbon.  Do you remembering trying to figure out with one was best?  Tinkering with the treble and bass sliders helps, and turning Dolby NR recovers a lot of the treble, but the hissssss –

I had missed it.  It is a softer, mellower sound than MP3 and CD.  It suits candlelight and red wine evenings.  It suits company.  Compact Disc is always bright and sharp and clean, and unrewarding when the stereo that you are playing it through doesn’t have a good amp.  On my Panasonic PM-20 my CDs sound okay, but lacking.  There are, I know, a whole range of frequencies not getting enough attention from the amplifier.

The hissssss reminds me of my youth.  It reminds me of taping songs from the radio, and of my first forays into a music player of my own (a 2W Matsui) and it reminds me of what felt like a simpler time.  Music was a rare commodity, to be treasured, to be played and replayed.  Tapes were worn out, distorted and in some ways, like vinyl, you were reminded of the impermanence of life.  I hope that isn’t too big a stretch for the reader but the storage mediums of cassette and vinyl didn’t have the capacity for endless replays.  There was something, then, of the actual quality of life transmitted in the replays.  Your favourite albums would degrade, in the same way that old friendships become deep, and pitted and filled with the patina of shared history and shared memory.  They say that so much of memory is a fiction: well when you’ve heard a taping of a song you recorded from the radio for the 100th time and it is basically just a set of droning noises that resembles in some way a ‘song’, you think of your friendships of many years.  They are relationships between people that resemble a friendship, but have far more encoded.  You see yourself in them.  They are mirrors, too, to an extent.

I have a CD Discman somewhere and I carried that around too, clutching at the mechanics, while at secondary school.  It technically belongs to my brother.  My grey Sony with reverse play is consigned to the dustbin of history somewhere and my AIWA was stamped on, deliberately, by my father, in a drunken rage.  It is something I have never forgiven him for, and never will.  On that day, in destroying something that I valued so highly for so petty a reason, he became something far less than a father figure and something of a persona to be witnessed and described and written about, a shambolic failure of manhood that I have spent my entire life, in some way, running from, because the basic genetic components are right here, in me, encoded.

My grey Sony eventually degraded, the plastic snapping in parts, the silver painted finish coming off, and as I sit and listen to U2’s ‘Lemon’ on a TDK D90, I turn off the Dolby NR and I’m back with you and we’re somewhere on a bus on the way to school and ultimately what you hold on to only has meaning if you can lose it

“And I feel like I’m drifting drifting drifting from the shore //
And I feel like I’m swimming out to her”

I am swimming out to you, my Love.

Me and Billy-Bob

“HIGH QUALTY TING DON’T RUST MON!” said Billy-Bob to me, drawing a rusty bread knife across his wrists.

I looked away, barely able to contain my apathy.  He loved the drama.

Years later we became the best of friends and co-authored a whimsical screenplay based on the Coldplay song, “Princess of China”.

Billy-Bob Baker died in a US bombing raid on Militarized Zone 1c, formerly known as ‘Kent’.