Commissioning editors need to have market knowledge of the latest trends as well as a critical eye for spotting what looks good and what does not
Commissioning editors buy authors, book titles or ideas for publication. Their aim is to build up a publisher's list and secure profitable material. They commission work by finding authors or responding to book proposals from authors and agents. Their role is rather like that of a buyer.
They also ensure authors deliver typescripts to specification and on time.
The role is most associated with book publishing. In magazine publishing, commissioning editors commission writers to produce articles and features.
This occupation is a mid/senior-level post requiring suitable experience and ability. An initial entrant is likely to be recruited into a more junior position, such as editorial assistant, which may then lead on to a career as a commissioning editor.
Commissioning editors are involved with a project at every stage. They are the key link between the initial proposal for a book or product and the published work.
To develop their publisher's list, commissioning editors research their field in order to learn about trends and gaps in the market. For this purpose, they:
- attend book fairs
- conduct internet research
- draw up surveys to identify demand
- attend relevant conferences.
Typical work activities involve:
- building up a publisher's list of titles for a specific genre
- managing the list in the current market as well as identifying future markets and new products and titles with commercial potential
- researching developing market trends on a national and international level
- identifying, developing and supporting projects and authors
- meeting with other commissioning editors and senior editors to discuss new proposals
- reading and evaluating book proposals and manuscripts offered by authors and agents, as well as assessing their suitability for the list
- negotiating contract terms with authors and agents
- liaising with authors and reviewers throughout the production
- maintaining a book-publishing programme and monitoring progress throughout the publication process
- organising book launches and signings
- working with administration, finance, budgets and strategy
- providing data and contributing to marketing and sales activities
- managing the 'back-list' (titles already published) and making decisions on whether to reprint, revise, make a new edition or put out of print.
- The average salary for an editorial assistant is £20,000 to £24,000. This is often the entry-level position for aspiring commissioning editors.
- Commissioning editors can expect to earn in the region of £28,000 to £40,000, depending on experience and seniority.
Salaries at senior level are competitive and may be negotiable.
It is common for commissioning roles to attract a performance or profit-related bonus.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours typically include extra hours, although weekend work is rare except when travelling or attending meetings or conferences.
What to expect
- Work is mainly office-based with some outside visits to authors and to conferences or book fairs.
- Working practices are increasingly dependent on the internet and web-based technologies.
- Self-employment or freelance work is sometimes possible for those with experience and contacts in publishing.
- Most opportunities are in London and the South East. Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh are also important centres.
- The work can be pressurised at times when dealing with financial budgets and working to tight deadlines.
- The job involves close liaison with literary agents and editorial, marketing and design colleagues.
- You should expect occasional travel within a working day and absence from home overnight to attend conferences.
- Overseas work or travel may be required by some publishers.
This area of work is open to all graduates, although academic, professional and scientific publishers may prefer graduates with subject-specific expertise.
A degree in publishing may increase your chances but is not essential.
Entry with an HND only is not normally sufficient and a degree is usually a prerequisite for commissioning editors.
A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not a requirement, although a Masters degree in publishing may improve your chances.
Masters and diploma courses are available in areas such as publishing, digital publishing and international publishing. Research courses thoroughly, considering carefully which ones would be most relevant to your requirements.
You will need to show:
- interpersonal and communication skills
- planning and organisational skills
- negotiating skills
- research skills
- tact and diplomacy
- the ability to think creatively and commercially
- the capability to work to tight deadlines
- a proactive approach to work
- tenacity and self-motivation
- financial management skills
- the ability to work well in a team
- an aptitude for project management
- competence in IT.
A high level of specialist knowledge is often required for commissioning editors involved with academic and professional publishing, as well as the ability to research new and developing markets.
It is essential to have a network of contacts in order to source potential authors and reviewers.
Getting a first job in the industry requires real determination. Experience of writing or editing a university magazine is useful. Learn as much as possible about publishing from people in the industry and keep up to date with current news and views trade magazines and information sites such as:
Relevant pre-entry work experience is strongly recommended. General office administration experience may also be considered valuable. Try approaching smaller publishing companies and networking at events put on by organisations such as The Society of Young Publishers (SYP). This is also a good way to make contacts within the industry.
General publishing work placements, internships and voluntary opportunities are advertised through a number of sources, including BookCareers and the SYP. Applications for work experience should be taken as seriously as a job application.
Many publishing jobs are not formally advertised. People are recruited to trainee positions through contacts (which you can develop by visiting book fairs, work shadowing and talking to people in publishing), from specialist training courses or because they have made direct contact at the right time. Speculative applications have a greater chance of success if you have already made contact with someone in the company.
You may need to consider part-time or temporary work. This will demonstrate your commitment and show you're serious about your career. You may need to apply for a range of jobs initially, rather than focusing solely on commissioning.
Commissioning editors are usually graduates with a number of years' experience in publishing. Traditionally, a new entrant begins as an editorial assistant, working on:
- writing book cover texts
- list administration
- managing correspondence
- working with authors
- administration support on contracts.
They then may progress to assistant editor or associate editor and eventually to commissioning editor. However, there are exceptions:
- Some enter from a publishing, sales and marketing, or contracts and rights background.
- In academic publishing, academics with specialist subject knowledge may be recruited directly into a commissioning editorship.
- In magazine publishing, a magazine journalist can progress to commissioning editor.
The publishing industry is made up of different sectors including:
- business media
- news agencies
Publishers range in size from large companies to small independents.
The book publishing industry can be split into the following categories:
- consumer, general or trade (includes fiction, non-fiction and children's) with some publishers specialising in different genres, e.g. crime, romance, science fiction or horror
- STM (scientific, technical, medical), professional, journals
- online, digital publishing and e-books.
Directory and database publishing is an active and growing sector. These providers publish commercial, scientific and professional information in print and electronic form. The information can then be used by firms to market their goods and services to businesses and the general public.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP)
- The Bookseller
- Equip (Equality in Publishing) - sign up to view jobs
- Independent Publishers' Guild (IPG)
- The Society of Young Publishers (SYP) - only members can view jobs
- national press, particularly Guardian Jobs
- local press in areas where publishing companies are concentrated, e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Bristol.
Larger publishing companies tend to advertise vacancies on their websites, so it is worth checking these on a regular basis. There are a small number of specialist recruitment agencies though not all offer entry-level vacancies, for example:
To research types of publishers for work experience and employment opportunities, use resources such as the:
- Directory of Publishing: United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland
- Publishing Scotland Yearbook.
These publications are usually available either within your university careers service or in your university library.
Few structured graduate training schemes exist in book and magazine publishing, although publishing companies are keen to employ graduates. Training is mainly on the job, supported by short courses run by organisations such as the:
Larger organisations often take a more structured approach to training and have more substantial training budgets.
Postgraduate and professional training courses can provide a valuable background to the world of publishing and may also provide useful contacts. Most publishing courses available through training providers, universities and colleges tend to cover areas such as proofreading, editing and production.
The Publishing Training Centre offers a range of short courses in editorial management and commissioning skills. Subjects covered include:
- commissioning and list management
- editorial project management
- managing publishing strategy
- publishing in the digital age
- working with authors.
Courses in commissioning content and journal editorial management are also provided by the ALPSP.
Skill areas such as editorial, marketing and design are covered by courses run by Publishing Scotland.
Generally, it is the responsibility of individuals to progress their own continuing professional development (CPD) by gaining as much valuable experience as possible and working towards making new contacts.
Keeping up to date with industry trends is a more informal element of professional training, with part of this process being membership of bodies such as the:
A commissioning editor post is not normally achievable without at least a few years' experience in publishing. New entrants generally start in junior roles.
Opportunities for progression often depend on the size of the company. A small publishing company may offer early exposure across a range of editing, production, marketing and business management areas, while larger companies may offer the opportunity to specialise earlier, with a clear structure and more opportunity for promotion.
In larger publishing companies, a clear career structure exists from junior editorial level through to senior commissioning editor. Promotion, however, is not automatic and is very competitive.
Breadth and variety of experience in one or more organisations may increase your chances of career development. Jobs also tend to be concentrated around Edinburgh, London, Oxford, Cambridge, and the South East, so geographical mobility is important.
A vital part of career development is to continue to make new contacts and keep up to date with changes and developments in the publishing industry.
Commissioning editors are generally assessed on results, e.g. how much profit is brought in by their books, number of titles commissioned, although this is not the only marker of success. It is quite a specialist role with not much opportunity for progression beyond a certain level - not everyone wants to manage.
Successful commissioning editors can progress to become publishers with control over the whole editorial function or move sideways and look after another part of the list.
Others may decide to move to a larger publishing company or magazine for additional income and responsibility.
A commissioning editor may also become self-employed, either as a literary agent or by setting up their own publishing company.