UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Publishing Case Study

Helen Barton

Commissioning Editor, Linguistics

Cambridge University Press


Route into publishing

I finished my A-levels not knowing what I wanted to do, so I didn’t apply to go to university straightaway; instead I did a range of jobs, including working in a shop and a bank, and finally a small family-run publishing company, where my role involved working in a warehouse, packing books into mail order envelopes and delivering them to the post office each day in a van. It was during that job that I became interested in book publishing for the first time, and decided to pursue it further. I successfully applied for an administrative job at Cambridge University Press, in which I supported three Commissioning Editors, carrying out work such as managing their diaries, filing, photocopying, and drafting author contracts.

After deciding during my time at Cambridge University Press that I definitely wanted to become a Commissioning Editor, I went to UCL as a ‘mature’ student (at least in official terms), at the age of 21. I chose to study linguistics because it was a subject that interested me, and I’d been advised by colleagues at Cambridge to get a degree in a solid academic subject. During my time at UCL I continued to work for Cambridge University Press during the summer holidays, mainly in a data-entry role, making records of old book projects.

Just before my graduation from UCL, the Commissioning Editor for history books went on maternity leave, and the Director of Publishing called me to ask if I would like to cover her for the six months. I accepted, and took on the role of managing her desk while she was away, during which time I had a taster of what it would be like to run a publishing programme of books in an academic subject.

When the History Editor returned, I successfully applied for a job as an Assistant Editor for Linguistics books, and was subsequently promoted to Editor, Linguistics, and then Commissioning Editor, Linguistics - a role I’ve been in for the past six years.

Current Role

Being a Commissioning Editor involves managing book projects from start to finish; I have a hand in every process from going out and finding potential authors, and developing book ideas with them, to overseeing the review process of book proposals, the contract process, the writing process, the production process, and finally working with sales and marketing to promote the book when it is published. After publication I make decisions on reprinting, paperbacking, and second editions. I currently have around 400 different book projects under my name, all at different stages of the process.

I have to be very organised in my work, because I am constantly juggling lots of different projects all at once. I also have to do a lot of communicating, both with authors and with colleagues in-house, and in doing so have to be flexible, adaptable, and good at working with a range of people in a range of roles. Being a Commissioning Editor requires accuracy and attention to the small details of the project, but also the ability to ‘zoom out’ to the bigger picture, noticing trends in the field, and also changes and developments in the academic publishing industry itself. The role is creative in that I help develop new book ideas, but I also have to have a commercial sense, and there are a lot of figures involved in processes such as forecasting sales, and working out production budgets and profit margins. As I manage my own list of books, I largely work alone; however at the same time I am very much part of a team, as I work with my Assistant Editor and also colleagues in production, sales and marketing, to bring book projects to fruition and make sure that they effectively reach their readership.

My role also involves a lot of travelling, as I visit universities on a regular basis, catching up with existing authors and finding new ones. I spend four weeks in every year on campuses in the United States and Canada, and several days in each month in the UK and in mainland Europe – both visiting universities and attending academic conferences. It is a great opportunity to see the world while working.

Tips for getting into publishing

The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to try and get as much work experience as you possibly can. Don’t be afraid to write to a range of publishing companies, big and small, to find out whether they would offer a short-term work-experience placement. If someone offers you work, be prepared to carry out the most menial of roles (including working in the post room or making the tea!), because it is still a step in the door, and something to put onto your C.V. to show that you are keen.

I would also recommend reading widely on the industry; for example looking at publications such as Bookseller and searching the internet, to find out the latest trends and issues affecting the industry. This will demonstrate that you have a good business sense and are genuinely interested in publishing as a vocation, rather than just having a love of books (which is also important!). If you are called to an interview, find out as much as you can about the company specifically, to show that you are aware of how they work, what their key products are, and what your skills and experience could offer them.

Nowadays several UK colleges and institutions (including UCL) offer Masters programmes in publishing, which include built-in work experience placements, and give students a solid overview of working in the industry.

Observations about the way the industry is going

Electronic (e)-publishing is now very important, and we currently having to change the way we do things in order to embrace and be a part of the digital world; for example most of our books at Cambridge are now available in electronic format, and we are developing interactive websites to accompany many of our books. We are facing questions such as whether, ten years from now, the printed book will exist at all, and whether the concept of a ‘book’ as currently known may disappear altogether, as consumers think in terms of ‘content’ and ‘information’ – and a range of new ways of accessing this – rather than ‘books’. We are currently looking into models for allowing customers to buy single chapters, and single journal articles, to make up their own tailor-made information packages (akin to downloading individual songs on iTunes and making a playlist), rather than buying a single book. Due to all of these rapid developments, publishing is currently a very exciting industry to be working in.