Commissioning Editors – an overview

Have you ever wondered what an editor is exactly? Maybe they spend their time diligently pruning manuscripts or maybe they lounge around in coffee shops with authors until ideas come bright and hard. Well, no. Unfortunately.

To start with, there isn’t just one type of editor: there are commissioning editors, production editors, copyeditors, line editors, structural editors, content editors … names and job duties change depending on the size of the publishing house and what market the publisher is in.

Today we’ll be looking at commissioning editors, who play an important and well-respected role within publishing houses.

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Skip to:

  1. Commissioning Editors – an overview
  2. Relevant weekly news
  3. This week’s concepts and facts
  4. Further reading

Commissioning Editor (UK term), Acquisitions Editor (US term)

So, what is a commissioning editor (CE) exactly? And what do they do all day?

  • a CE has to primarily think about revenue and targets
  • a CE builds a list of titles and draws up projected revenues for each title
  • a CE looks back at past performance, seeing what sold well, what didn’t, and if the projected revenue came through

List-building is important and each publisher’s list will have a distinctive style. (We’ll be looking at list-building in more detail next week.)

What CEs don’t do:

  • go through the manuscript and make it consistent with the house style (as a copyeditor would)
  • check the manuscript for typographical errors (as a line editor or proofreader would)
  • oversee the production of the manuscript from the time it’s accepted to the final file ready for publication (as a production or project editor might)

The job of a CE is all about title management: it’s important to have the right list for the market. There are different ways to go about commissioning titles and building a good list.

Every publisher has different business and strategy models depending on their products, market share, and market audience. Academic publishers, for examples,  print monographs (which are specialist and niche) and textbooks (which sell better).

Business sense is a big part of publishing and something even authors have to think about.

Will my book sell? To whom? What is its Unique Selling Point/Unique Sales Proposal (USP)?

Manchester University Press (MUP), an academic publisher, has proposal guidelines that include a “Marketing and competition” section, where author must think if MUP is the right publisher for the book, who their intended audience is, who they think will buy it, how it fills a gap, and if there are any special marketing routes they see for their book.

When looking over book proposals, an editor also has to consider whether the author is personable/marketable.

Once the CE decides a title is viable the book doesn’t go straight to production. It first has to go through an acquisitions meeting, where the other departments, namely Marketing and Sales, have to give the greenlight.

Within publishing, Marketing and Sales are usually the biggest departments, such is the case at MUP where Marketing and Sales employ 8 people (full-time equivalent 7.4), followed by  Editorial (6 people), and then Production (4 people). (See their organisational chart for more details.)

But a good CE won’t just wait for book proposals to come coming in. There are three ways of commissioning titles:

  • proactive: contacting experts in their field with an idea they think will do well based on intuition/market research
  • reactive: ready-made proposals sent to them
  • collaborative: people coming to them and the CE making suggestions based on their list and market knowledge

Tony Mason, Senior Commissioning Editor at MUP, says that the best type of commissioning, for academic publishing, is the collaborative type where it’s especially important to build a good relationship with the author.

CEs have to get authors to deliver copy on time, within budget, and at the same time manage their expectations. CEs have to be the author’s internal and external champion (whether or not you like them), so that they’ll come back, speak well of you and recommend the publishing house to others.

How to find authors: at conferences, in magazines, through literary agents (in trade and fiction), looking within reputed university departments (which means making visits to universities), looking at who is being published by competitors, competitions/awards, existing authors might recommend other authors, creative writing schools.

To recap, amongst other things, a CE has to:

  • be flexible to market conditions
  • be organized
  • be approachable
  • be business-oriented
  • be the author’s champion in-house
  • do their research and know the market
  • network at conferences, universities, and other events
  • be professional and diplomatic
  • make decisions about putting books out of print or ordering a new print run
Relevant weekly news

Books are my bag, also known as Super Thursday is happening on October 8. “This year 503 books will be published in hardback on Super Thursday, twice as many as in an average week, and 300 more than than in the following week” (Source: The Guardian). This is an important event on the publishing calendar, and one for CEs to keep in mind when setting publication dates.

When making the decision to commission or acquire a title, it’s important to keep in mind publishing cycles and dates. If your product needs to be there for the Christmas market, then it needs to launch in late September/early October. Textbooks generally need to be ready by March-April, so that teachers can prepare their reading lists for the coming school year. An editor might want their title published in time for other events, such as conferences, and significant dates, such as the anniversary of Word War I.

From October 1, Waterstones is running a Buy Books for Syria campaign in partnership with authors and publishers, 100% of the proceeds will be donated to Oxfam. “The original idea for the campaign came from Profile editor Mark Ellingham.” (Source: The Bookseller) – which goes to show how an editor has to be proactive, keep up with world news, and take advantage of publishing opportunities. The campaign will offer both “frontlist and backlist titles” (Source: The Bookseller), and some thought must have been put into exactly what titles would go on the campaign list and some great networking and organizational skills, to get publishers, authors, and booksellers (and in this case the charity Oxfam) on the same page.

Businesses can raise their public profile by participating in charitable ventures. Even when donating the proceeds of the sale, booksellers can still raise footfall in their stores, publishers can still sell copies of their books (whilst donating only the unit cost) meaning their books will climb higher on bestseller lists, and authors get a free publicity boost and are associated with a good cause.

This week’s concepts and facts
  • the value chain: publishers add value at every step of the production process, getting the book from the author to the consumer.
  • SWOT analysis (of a list): Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats
  • slush pile: a stack of unsolicited manuscripts. No slush pile in academia, but in trade (especially poetry) they sometimes take things off the slush pile.
  • it takes about a year to produce a book.
Recommended reading

Inside Book Publishing, Chapter 7 on Commissioning Editing

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