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Thoughts from 3 months of commissioning

Little, Brown office
Little, Brown arrival space at Carmelite House

I’ve just passed my probation period at my new job — commissioning business books for Piatkus, an imprint of Little, Brown. Hurrah! Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.

1. It can be easier to ‘grow up’ professionally if you change companies. I started at my previous employer as an intern with no experience of anything book-related (except lots of experience of reading, which turned out to be no primer at all). I interned for nearly a year there and then got a job on the lowest rung of the editorial department as an editorial assistant, and eventually became an assistant editor. But I never really stopped feeling like the intern! I was worried that the first impression that most of my colleagues had had of me years ago — slightly timid, quiet, doesn’t know her stet from her PLC — was sticking, though I’m sure they would say it didn’t. Still, it feels great to start somewhere new, having already gained experience, skills and confidence.

2. Challenges are there to be enjoyed. Someone wrote in my leaving card, ‘Enjoy the challenge’, which turns out to be a great way of looking at it. I was at my previous job for slightly too long to have been learning very many new things by the end, which tends to make you a bit complacent. In contrast, being thrown at the bottom end of a learning curve again can feel absolutely terrifying. You’ve forgotten how to learn! Lack of exercise has rotted your brain for good! When this was about to happen to me, I thought of ‘enjoy the challenge’ and like many good mottoes it helped me change perspective. How many times did I use to feel frustrated at the lack of challenge before? Well, here it is — enjoy it!

3. It’s worth trying to work with books that you would read yourself. I used to work with cookery and gardening books, and thought that the fact I don’t cook or garden gave me a healthy distance to my work. Now I get to work with books where I’m actually the target market, and it does make a big difference. It hardly feels like work to meet an author for lunch and talk about ideas that interest both of you. Or catching up on reading backlist titles that you might buy if you weren’t getting them for free. It deflects stress and greatly promotes job satisfaction, so far.

4. Text-only publishing is nothing like illustrated publishing. I’ve gone from editing InDesign files on the fly to marking up stacks of proofs for the typesetter. I took a proofreading course a while back and remember thinking that a lot of it didn’t seem to apply to my job at the time, so, unfortunately, I let some of it go out the other ear! Now it all makes sense. If only I could remember all the rules… Here’s my first set of marked-up proofs:

Set of proofs

And then there are things I’m still in the process of learning:

How do you set aside your personal preferences when commissioning?
I’m not generally a ‘gatekeeper’ type — I don’t see publishers as having a moral duty to only putting out good books that benefit the public. But every now and then I see a proposal which I think would help propagate the wrong ideas in the world (‘wrong ideas’ according to me). Sometimes at the same time they seem like something that would sell, which surely should be my priority. I haven’t figured out yet how much I’m going to let my personal beliefs and opinions colour what I would like to commission. On the one hand it would be great to have a list which is popular among readers — on the other it would feel better to have a list with integrity.

Is it better to only bid for a book when it’s obviously a brilliant hit, or bid for many things that are only okay?
Apparently Warren Buffett only invests in something every once in a blue moon, when he finds something amazing, and then he pours a ton of money into it. Apparently this works better than the traditional philosophy of spreading out your investments into many different areas and hoping that on balance it will yield a profit. I’ve been thinking about the relevance of this for book publishing. Should you jump on every proposal that seems like a fit for your list, and then spread your resources (marketing, publicity, editorial attention, etc) that much more thinly on all of them? Or should you bide your time, wait until you see something utterly fantastic and then put on that all the money and resources you didn’t spend on the ‘okay’ books? Taking the risk that no super amazing proposals come along.

How do you create relationships that will last for possibly decades to come?
Provided I never change careers into something not-publishing, I will likely be working with various combinations of the same people I’m meeting now for most of my career. Publishing is small, and especially in a niche part of it like business books, the same faces will turn up again and again. So it’s obviously important to start off on the right foot. My best trick so far is to try and call people rather than emailing — it’s more memorable, more friendly and more likely to lead to those moments that start, ‘by the way, now that I have you on the line…’ But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t acutely aware of the importance of these first few months of a working relationship. My natural tendency is always to turn inwards, but I’m determined to train myself out of it. You can take the girl out of Finland, and you can damn well take Finland out of the girl, too…

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