Books and publishing

5 Things Publishing Involves that Aren't Proofreading

My Mum had her sixtieth birthday recently, and threw a party for about sixty guests. Six months in the planning, it was a titanic organisational affair — but, thank God, it went well. It was the kind of party in which I spoke to dozens of people who last knew me as a baby or child, and who were keen to know what I’ve done with my life. And for the first time I can remember, I was able to give a stable, settled answer. “I have a great job; a house in north London; a boyfriend and mates and hobbies: everything’s alright.”

When I said I worked in publishing, each person, without fail, said “Oh: so you do editorial? Proofreading?”

The majority of people I tell about my job think working in publishing means spending 9-5 reading the books we’re going to publish, perhaps on a sofa with some grapes nearby. And there is so much more to getting a book on a shelf (or an Amazon listing) than that. I thought I’d make a list of five things publishers do that doesn’t involve poring over the books. (Although it goes without saying, of course, that that’s a highlight).

  1. Commissioning Editor

This means finding books to publish. Making friends with agents and getting them to send you their best manuscripts; going to book fairs; reading through the dozens of submissions you receive. You need to know which manuscripts are good, and which will also sell. The latter means that you need to know the market inside out. What books are doing well right now? You shouldn’t publish anything too unusual if you want it to be successful, but you also don’t want to publish the same stuff as everyone else.

Once you find a great manuscript, you have to put together the contract, get it signed, and keep the agent and author happy so that they deliver the book on time. You need to make sure the author feels looked after and supported and that they produce the best work. It’s the role I reckon requires the best people skills.

I would be awful at it.

  1. Managing Editor

This is what I think people think publishers do all day?

Once you have a Word document full of tens of thousands of words, you need to turn that into something that can be printed on a printing press and put in a shop. And for that you use a Managing Editor.

The editor’s job was to make the argument or the story as good as it could be, so the Word document has some kickass words in there, but there are also spelling mistakes, clumsy sentences, and the Word document looks ugly. So it’s got to be cleaned up. This means copyeditors (sorting out the clumsy sentences), proof-readers (sorting out the spelling mistakes), and typesetters (making it look beautiful, using InDesign, not Word). If there are pictures, you need permission to use them. The book might need an index, or a glossary, or footnotes and references.

Incidentally, good typesetters are wizards. Here is an example of the first page of a book which is typeset really well.

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The Managing Editor doesn’t do all those things per se: they send the manuscript to the people that do them, they check that the things have been done properly, and they keep track of the stage that the manuscript is at so that it’ll be ready in time to go off to be printed. Project management. And they have the best eye for detail of anyone.

  1. Cover design

Words cannot describe my admiration for the Design department and the outrageously beautiful covers they produce. People assume covers sort of pop up fully formed, but they don’t. The designers make some covers and then everyone rips them apart and tells them to try again. Sales might think it doesn’t look distinctive enough to be noticed in a shop. Editorial might think it doesn’t match the book’s content. Marketing might think it doesn’t pack the right punch for the market the book is intended for. So the designers try again and eventually make a cover people are happy with: but as I say, it is not easy. And often the process is re-started from scratch when the book comes out in paperback.

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Big-think book about economics and finance; historical literary novel (a crowded field); nature book. All need to appeal to totally different people.

It’s not unlike a commissioning editor’s job: you need to be aware of the current successful covers for that genre of book, so the right type of reader notices it, but you also need something that stands out, so that the reader then picks it up.

Here’s an example of the amount of effort that goes into a single book cover, from Steve, one of the designers where I work.

  1. Sales

The sales that I do is eBook sales. Every single book published gets uploaded to all eBook retailers, but they’re each just a drop in the ocean. My job is to get the eBook retailers to support them by putting them in a prominent position on the website. You can do this yourself by having good metadata for your books, so that when people search for any term related to the subject, the book will show up in search terms. Doing this was a key part of my previous job. But it only goes so far.

Print books’ sales is harder. You have to work out how many books retailers will order, and order that amount. Excess stock means storage costs and eventually pulping costs. Each month you present your best books to the Waterstones and WHSmith buyers, and you tell them how great the books are and that they should order them. You need to know what the retailers are likely to want, and be able to shape the book’s development — even whether to acquire it or not — based on this knowledge. You might have the greatest book ever written, but if the sell-in doesn’t go well; if you don’t press the buyers’ buttons; they won’t buy any to put in their shops and no one will read it.

Obviously marketing and publicity (see below) shape this too, and produce plenty of things that you can point to that will impress buyers. But it can be something as simple as a book coming out at the wrong time of year, and therefore not fitting into any of the current promotional slots, that prevent it from being a bestseller.

  1. Publicity

Books’ coverage in newspapers and magazines is hard-fought. With fewer and fewer columns inches in most papers being dedicated to books, it’s harder and harder to get your book to appear, let alone to stand out. Every time you see a review, whether it’s online, in the paper, or in a magazine — even if it’s just ten words long — a publicist has sent a free copy of the book to the exact journalist at that outle, and has chased via email at least once. Interviews with the author, features (where an article is written about the issues covered in the book) or serial (where the book is extracted straight into the paper/magazine) are even harder to get.

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Being a Beast by Charles Foster had truly outstanding publicity coverage.

To be a good publicist means knowing the British media back-to-front, being good at making and maintaining contacts, and most importantly being able to research the media effectively and target exactly the right people. It’s a bit like sales, but you’re selling coverage of the book rather than the book itself. You can have a fantastic book and get no publicity for it, or vice versa, and it may not be your fault at all.

You have to have so much information in your head. And when you’re responsible for three books a month, every month, you need to do it again and again, and remember all the previous books’ information.


This list is not even slightly exhaustive. There’s also marketing, eBook conversion, royalties, production, and all the things that ordinary companies have like HR and finance and systems analysis and so on.

When people say “I want to work in publishing”, they often worry that they might not be successful if they can’t read fast or if they don’t have perfect spelling. I hope this has shown that saying “I want to work in publishing” can mean so much more, and that there’s something to suit every skill-set.