What Do You Actually Do!? Episode 15: Helen Barton, Commissioning Editor

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on publishing. We interviewed Helen Barton, who works as a commissioning editor for Cambridge University Press.

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About Helen

Helen graduated from University College London with a Linguistics degree in 2002, and joined Cambridge University Press as an Assistant Editor. She is now a Commissioning Editor, responsible for the acquisition, development and publication of books in language and linguistics at all academic levels.

Helen Barton

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For more info on Cambridge University Press: www.cambridge.org



Hello & welcome to this episode of what do you actually do? My name is Kate Morris and I will be your host today. In today’s episode we will be talking about the publishing sector. Today we are joined by Helen Barton who works for Cambridge University Press as a commissioning editor. So Helen, what do you actually do?


So, as a commissioning editor, my role is to look after and manage the entire publication process of a book from start to finish. It is everything from the initial stages of coming up with an idea for a book and helping the author to put together their proposal for that book, and advising them on the writing process, through to getting a contract for that author, negotiating the contract terms, and then from that point when the author is writing the book, I am involved in overseeing that, guiding them through the writing process, advising them as they write the book, right up until the point at which they deliver the finished manuscript for the book. From there on, starts the production process which is the actual process of creating the published book from the manuscript. That is a whole stage of production, design, layout, content management, until the book is actually published. Alongside that we have a process of marketing and selling the book to make sure it reaches the end user, so there are lots of negotiations with sales and marketing people at the same time as the book goes through the production process. I am also overseeing the whole marketing and sales process through the life of the book, to then managing and overseeing the production of the book, to things like sales & distribution, deciding when to print it, when to bring it out in paperback, translations. It is basically overseeing the entire process of publishing a book from start to finish.


Are you literally doing all those things, or are you liaising with colleagues in the marketing departments, in the design department – how does that work? Are you having to do it all or are you doing a lot of teamwork?


There is a lot of teamwork involved. So my role is kind of like a project manager. So I would say I am overseeing the whole process from start to finish, but it is certainly a team effort. I’m working with different people at every stage, so I am working directly with the author at first, but from the moment I am bringing the book forward to be approved when we actually say yes we are going to publish this book, I’m already in negotiations with sales & marketing because they have to give their input into whether that is a marketable, viable book project. Then, through the writing stage and at the end of the writing stage, when the book is going into production, I’m dealing with a lot of colleagues from production and the design department, and they have their input in actually producing the book.


How many books do you have on the go at one time, because that sounds like a huge amount of work must go into each book, so is it one takes over your focus for a while, then you move onto another project, or are you balancing quite a few books at different stages?


I’m actually balancing many books at different stages. If you count everything from books that I currently have under the discussion & initial review stage before we have got to the contract stage (which is most of them) and those which are under contract and the author is getting on with writing them, I keep in touch with them from time to time, and then all the books that are currently in production and all the books that I am managing that are at the end of the production stage, we have start to market and sell them. I have over 500 different ones to my name, which sounds like a lot, but I am by no means working on all of them at once, so the most work is involved in the beginning of the process, because there are new book ideas which I am discussing with authors, then at some point after the initial discussion stage, the author puts together a formal proposal for the book, which I then have to assess and evaluate in terms of whether it is something we are going to go on to publish. I do that by seeking advice from other people who are experts on the same topic as that book, so they give me feedback as to whether that is a viable product. There is a whole review process and once we are satisfied and confident that it is something that we do want to publish, that is the point that we negotiate the contract. So, the books at that initial stage of discussion are what I am doing the most work on at any one time. Once the book is under contract and the author is writing it, I am not as involved, maybe the author is in touch with me from time to time, or I am chasing them up to find how they are getting on with it, but it is not really until the end of the process that my work kicks in again, when they have written the book. At that point I’ve got several, probably 20 or 30 at any one time, that myself and my assistant editor are preparing for production. So we are much more hands on when working with the author on those. The ones that are in production – so we have got the manuscript and we are developing, putting it through the production process, getting it ready for printing and binding, copy editing, although I am not actually involved in that work, I am overseeing it, so my work kicks in quite a lot at that stage. Books towards the end of that process, I am working with the marketing & sales team, feeding them information about those books. So I am not working on all 500 books at once, but I’m having to do something with each of them at some point.


So you’ve got the power?


In a way, although I don’t have the final say because I work for a university press, actually Cambridge University itself has the final say. Everything I want to publish, I have to bring forward to the university itself for their approval to publish. Then I can offer the author a contract.


Do you have to build a case for it then?


Yes, because it’s academic, we have to seek advice from other scholars working in the field. They write reports for us on whether they think the book is of a high enough quality. I also have to consult with my marketing & sales colleagues to make sure it is a marketable, viable project. All of that information ultimately comes together, then I have to make a case to our governing body at Cambridge University that we should be publishing this book, why we should be publishing it, who it is written for, why the right time is now for a book about this particular topic. All of that has to go forward in a case which I make for every single book I want to publish. Then the governing body at the university might say to me ‘yes go ahead’, then we issue a contract to the author.


What was your starting point – how did you break into the sector and decide that editing was the role that you wanted to have within publishing?


It was almost a series of coincidental events. I didn’t go to university straight after finishing a-levels and I didn’t even apply for university, or anything like that which I know is quite unusual. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I decided to take some time out and get some work experience. I started working for a really small publishing company, and I was doing mail orders, stuffing books in envelopes, driving books to the post office in a van, so it was quite a menial first job. That got me interested in publishing, then I went to work at Cambridge University Press where I still am now, as an admin assistant. In that role I supported the commissioning editors, doing all the admin work that supported their role, so I really got to know what commissioning editors were doing, and I got to see what their role involved, the way they interacted with authors, and that’s how I got invested in it. I thought this looks really interesting, really diverse and there is a lot involved in it, they seem to travel a lot. It was at that point that I decided to go to university. I studied linguistics as that was the subject which I was interested in, and that is one of the subject areas that if you want to go into publishing, is kind of an obvious fit. Because I had already worked for Cambridge University Press, I thought it might be a smart thing to do to stay in touch with them. That is the biggest piece of advice I would offer to students today wanting to go into publishing – just keep knocking on doors, get your name known, because I kept going back to work for them in the holidays, doing filing or anything that they wanted me to do. Just as I graduated, one of the editors went on maternity leave and I was asked to cover her leave, so that is how I got in. I did that on a temporary basis for about six months. The linguistics editor at the time then changed roles to go and work on some other kind of book products, and that left an opening for an editor with experience in linguistics which I had. That is how I got my job, so that was about 15 years ago and I went from being an assistant editor to a commissioning editor from there. It was kind of a case of being in the right place at the right time in many ways. There is no set way to get into publishing, it can happen through any series of events.


It sounds like getting work experience was pivotal in working out whether that was the career for you & building up your CV. It allowed you to be in the right place at the right time – that is so important to help you keep in touch with the people you have met, who are interested in your progress, it shows that you are really keen.


Yes, you have to show that you are keen because publishing is quite a competitive industry to get into, and you have to keep your name known. Ultimately, people will then remember you so that when opportunities come up, you are ‘at the top of their pile’ so to speak.


What is a decent starting point for a recent graduate looking to break into the sector? I’ve met people who have gone in doing an administrative job, maybe being P.A to a children’s editor, because they want to be an editor in the future. Is that still the same?


Yes, definitely. Be open minded – never be afraid to do anything which is seemingly too menial. If you can get a job in a publishing company doing just about anything, whether it be working as a P.A, secretary, doing an admin assistant job, there are so many assistant level jobs. You can assist an editor, you can be an assistant to a production person, a marketing person, at quite a low level – doing admin support, photocopying, filing, looking after things in the office. Those kind of jobs are the best jobs to get because they are quite readily available as they have a high turnover, with graduates constantly going into them. It is the best place to be to learn as much as you can about publishing, because you have got yourself into the industry, you are working with people who have a career in publishing, you are able to watch what they do and ask questions. You can get as much out of it as you want to in that sense. When all the internal vacancies come up, you are in a place to apply for them and you’ve started to get the experience and knowledge that you need as well.


What would you say are the key skills and personal qualities that someone needs to have in order to make a good commissioning editor?


You need to be a people person. First & foremost that is probably one of the biggest things. You are constantly talking to people. You are going out into universities, talking to people about their research, their teaching, and you want to be able to bring out of people what they are passionate about, what they want to write about. So, you have to be really interactive with that person and be able to explain and communicate to them really clearly what you can offer them, what the publishing process is, and once you have an idea for a book and are working on it, you have to then work with a number of different people. You have to present your ideas quite clearly to marketing & sales teams, you have to pitch your book to its audience, you are constantly negotiating with different colleagues in your industry. It’s all about communicating an idea and developing a project through multiple negotiations. The second thing is you must be super-organised. Working on different projects all at once, you have to be able to juggle them, prioritizing which ones are important, you have to manage your time very well. You have to work to deadlines quite often. You have to also be a mixture of a details-person and a bigger picture person. One day you will be working on the intricate details of a book, what the design has got to look like, making sure there is no mistakes in it – that kind of thing. You’ve also got to be able to zoom out, looking at the whole wood as well as the trees, so you have to look at the market, what kinds of books are needed, what the readership wants, what trends there are in the market & industry, what do you need to be aware of? It’s constantly the bigger picture, the details and zooming between the two all of the time.


I guess having that creative insight and passionate interest in books, but also having that commercial side to your thinking to know what is going to be viable is important. Someone might have a fantastic idea but it’s just not a popular one at the moment.


Exactly! You always have to bear in mind that although you are working on a creative project that is really interesting and it is something that both you and the author are passionate about, yes, ultimately the thing that you have to consider above all of that is – is this going to sell, is this going to make you money? That is the reason you are doing it. It is a commercial business – it needs to be profitable and cost-effective. The main sector that most people come into publishing from is the humanities, so they are very interested in the creative arts and that is very important for publishing, but actually you have to have quite good numeracy skills and that was an area that I struggled with at first, because I was never a ‘maths kind of person.’ You do have to think about your profit margins – how much am I spending on this book? How much revenue is it going to bring in? Will I be making this book less profitable if I allow the author to write too much? I’ve got to manage their expectations – no you can’t write 150,000 words when your contract said write 100,000 because that is going to cost too much to produce, we are going to have to price it too highly and your readers might not be able to afford it. So yes, you have to work in a very commercial sense.


Is there anything that people should bear in mind for the sector that might be an issue in a few years’ time when they are trying to break in?


Yes! The biggest and most obvious one is the move towards digital. We have always traditionally thought of a book as a printed product that you read and thumb through the pages from start to finish, and that’s still the case and print books are still alive and well, but nowadays so much content is accessed through digital media, through Kindle, through downloading e-books and accessing e-books online. There are a whole bunch of other implications involved in that. For example, it is much more difficult to make money out of e-books because people pay less for them, there are a lot more technical jobs coming up in the industry because of the trend towards publishing things in the right format that are going to be compatible with a range of different e-products. Everything is now available online, there is an expectation among our readers that much of what is published will be available for free or very cheap. We have gone from charging per book, to a bit like Spotify, where our readers are paying subscriptions to access a whole collection of books online, but then of course the unit price that we are making back per book becomes a lot less. We have been looking at other models whereby authors pay us to publish the book, and then the viewer accesses it for free. This is affecting academic publishing, especially with the open research, open access movement, so we then have to think of ways to make that work because that has implications for marketing & sales. How are we going to market and sell a book when we have already got money for it? So there is all those kinds of questions. The whole digital revolution has turned everything on its head.


Any final bits of advice for students who are wanting to break into the sector and build up experience?


I would say just knock on as many doors as possible. It is a difficult industry to break into and you have to be quite determined. One useful piece of advice – I started working in a very small publishing company which only had around 12 people working for them when I was working in the warehouse. Everybody thinks of the big publishing houses – Cambridge University Press, Random House or Harper Collins and so on, but the thing is, they are inundated with requests for work experience because they are the ones everybody thinks of. There are so many small publishing companies around the country that may be just publishing a small periodical newsletter or something and they might only have five or six people working for them. You are more likely to get experience at those places because they haven’t got a tonne of people trying to get work experience, and they will also have more for you to do because they are smaller. The work is divided between fewer people than if you go and work at somewhere like Cambridge University Press which has 600 people working in the office, so you would be a tiny fish in a big pond, only getting to see a small part of it, whereas a small publishing company, you would get to see the whole thing in one go. I would always advise looking up on Google for small publishers in your area and trying to get work experience with them first. Once you’ve got that behind you, it shows the prospective employers that you have got some kind of willingness to work in the industry, you’ve built up a bit of knowledge that will stand you in good stead for maybe getting an introductory role in a bigger publishing company.


So don’t wait for a scheme to be advertised – physically knock on those doors or do some speculative applications?


Absolutely, and that’s not to say don’t apply for the schemes when they are there because there are lots of graduate schemes which publishers offer, in fact Cambridge offers one. The problem with those schemes is that lots of people apply for them and they are very competitive. By all means go for them because they are a great way to train in the industry, but it is definitely not the only way in.


Great. From today’s episode, any students who want to know more, they can find that out, but thank you so much for joining us today Helen, it has been very interesting.


Thank you for having me! I hope it’s useful to your students.


Thanks for joining us this week on what do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, edited by Raquel Bartra, and produced by both of us. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers & Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers & Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers.