Meet our Panellists – Helen Barton, Commissioning Editor

If you want to find out about a career from the people actually working in the industry, come to our event on 19th February. We’ve put together an event focused on three different industries where you get to ask the questions. This time, we’ll be exploring careers in…

  • Social Mission
  • Professional Business Services
  • Journalism, Publishing & Writing

Over the next three weeks in the lead up to the event, we’ll be sharing the profiles of our speakers so that you can find out a little bit more about them and how they got to where they are today.

First up is Helen Barton. Helen is Commissioning Editor, Language and Linguistics at Cambridge University Press.

I have worked for Cambridge University Press for the past two decades, the majority of that time (since 2007) as Commissioning Editor for language and linguistics books.  My role involves managing the entire publication process of a book, from discussing an author’s idea, to reviewing an initial book proposal and negotiating the contract terms, to guiding the author through the writing process, and finally overseeing the book’s production and publication.  It is interesting, varied and exciting work, and I am motivated by the fact that the books I work on, go on to help students in their education and to spark new research ideas.

I became interested in publishing during my A-levels, and took two years out before university (1997-1999), where I took administrative roles, first at a small educational publisher, and then at Cambridge University Press, where I supported three Commissioning Editors.  I then studied linguistics at university (1999-2002), after which Cambridge invited me back as an Editorial Assistant (covering the History editor’s maternity leave), then as an Editor for anthropology books.  I was promoted to Commissioning Editor, Language and Linguistics, in 2007.

There is no set path into publishing, and as it is a competitive industry, I recommend getting as much work experience as possible.  Try smaller publishing houses for work experience, as they might not have as many requests as the larger, well-known ones, and would better demonstrate a house’s work ‘as a whole’.  Be prepared to take a menial role at first, to get a ‘foot in the door’; a position from which you can learn.  Otherwise, a number of master’s programmes in publishing are available, with built-in placements, and some of the larger houses offer apprenticeships and graduate schemes.

A successful Commissioning Editor has multiple skills.  You have to see both the bigger picture, and the details, as the role involves keeping up with market trends in your field, and the publishing industry itself, as well as managing the intricacies of individual books.  You have to be organised, so as to manage multiple (sometimes hundreds) of book projects simultaneously.  Numeracy and business sense are just as important as literacy and academic knowledge; budgeting, sales forecasting and ensuring profitability, are central to the editor’s work.  Good communication skills are essential for liaising with authors and colleagues, and you should also love travelling; I attend numerous author meetings and conferences annually, across North America and Europe.

Helen has also featured on our podcast
What Do You Actually Do? – Get into book publishing, with Helen Barton