Case study

Commissioning editor — Phoebe Morgan

Phoebe studied English Language and Literature at the University of Leeds. After trying out a journalism career she now works as a commissioning editor within the Avon team at HarperCollins

How did you get your job?

I trained to be a journalist directly after finishing my degree, and got a job as a reporter on a local newspaper. However, it wasn't for me, and after about six months I began applying for editorial assistant jobs in publishing houses. It can be pretty competitive to get into publishing, so I was open to anything as long as it would get my foot in the door.

I was lucky to secure a role at Octopus Books (part of Hachette UK) as a publishing assistant, working on non-fiction books, and I was then promoted up to editor at that company.

I then felt that I wanted to pursue my publishing dream, which was to work in fiction. I was offered a role as editor at HarperCollins. Since then, I've progressed to commissioning editor within the Avon team, working on commercial fiction, including everything from crime thriller to women's fiction and saga.

What's a typical day like as a commissioning editor?

My job is very varied, which is one of my favourite things about it. A lot of my time is spent working with authors - I have a list of around 16. I read through their manuscripts, make structural edits, then more detailed line edits, and support them through the somewhat daunting publishing process.

I also brief their book jackets to designers, and work closely with our marketing and publicity team to ensure each novel has a strong campaign around it. We want readers to sit up and notice our books. I also liaise with the sales team to find out how my books are performing in the market, and relay all information to my authors. An editor is usually the first point of contact within a publishing house for the author, so any queries come to me too.

Another part of my job is finding new talent, so I read new manuscripts that have been sent to me by literary agents, and make the decision as to whether we should reject them or try to buy them. If we want to buy them, I need to take the book to an acquisitions meeting, then make an offer to the agent. This usually involves quite a lot of negotiating, and can be a tough but exciting part of the role. My day is usually a mix of all of the above.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I absolutely love finding new authors. There is nothing like the thrill of securing a deal and knowing you have made a writer very happy. It's lovely to bring new books out and see it all come together.

I also really like working closely on manuscripts, brainstorming ideas with authors and making suggestions, which I hope will improve their novel.

What are the challenges?

It can be difficult turning down books. I always feel guilty and wish I could take on more authors.

It can also be a huge amount of reading, so keeping up with new submissions does take up a lot of time. I'm usually always reading at home and on my way to work - there isn't enough time to read new submissions during the working day.

In what way is your degree relevant?

My English degree certainly prepared me for an awful lot of reading. I think analysing books (like I did at Leeds) has prepared me well for the analytical head you need to have as an editor - you need to be able to distance yourself from manuscripts and figure out what is working and what isn't.

I also studied contemporary literature at university for a while, and this helps with having a wider understanding of what else is out there. I wish there was more contemporary fiction on university syllabuses today, though.

How has your role developed?

My role has developed from assistant to senior commissioning editor, and in the future I hope to continue progressing in fiction. The next step on the traditional ladder is editorial director, so that's something for me to consider over the next few years.

How do I get into publishing?

It can be a very competitive job market, but my advice would be to not be too specific about which entry-level job you take. I started in non-fiction and was able to move across into fiction, and I know many people who have done similar. You will learn a huge amount no matter what part of publishing you start off in, and most of the skills are transferable.

To be a commissioning editor, you also need to read a lot, and have a strong sense of current bestsellers. Make sure you know the market, you know what's dominating the Kindle charts and you know who's making the Sunday Times lists. You'll be expected to have an understanding of the wider market in a job interview.

Thirdly, try to find ways to make yourself stand out. This could be doing something extra-curricular like a blog or a book club, or a publishing society - there are tons including the Society of Young Publishers (SYP), which I currently help to run - or making yourself more of a presence on social media. This allows employees to find you more easily, and could lead to opportunities.

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