The changing role of the commissioning editor


Gone are the days when commissioning editors were in the limelight, while other departments faded into the background. Ebooks and social media are changing the reading experience and roles within the industry have to adapt. The rise of ereading and online publications is pushing designers and producers to find innovative ways of displaying content, in various formats. And the use of social media, blogs and author websites has transformed sales and marketing strategies as writers and publishers engage directly with their readers. With other departments now sharing centre-stage, where does the commissioning editor fit in? Kingston University MA Publishing student Samantha Perkins shares her views below.

A recent Women in Publishing (WIP) event hosted guest speakers Rukhsana Yasmin (@rukhsanayasmin) and Kirsty Schaper (@OlympicKirsty), from Saqi and Bloomsbury, discussing the role of the commissioning editor. They highlighted two key changes in recent years:

1. Greater involvement with other departments

Yasmin noted that as marketing budgets get tighter, editors often take on some of the marketing tasks – particularly social media. Also, the range of formats being used mean that the editor’s input is required more frequently. While this eats into a lot of their time, both speakers agreed that when you’re passionate about your book then you will do as much as possible to make it a success, stating:

 “It’s all about collaboration in commissioning the right book.”

In a digital world, editors need to collaborate with a range of colleagues and partners

In a digital world, editors need to collaborate with a range of colleagues and partners

2. Increased workloads within their own department

Schaper stated that authors’ and publishers’ direct contact with the consumer, as well as formats such as the enhanced ebook, make the organisation of videos, photoshoots and illustrations increasingly necessary. This greater workload is likely to continue as budgets remain tight and the digital technology and use continues to evolve.

While an editor’s use of various platforms and the understanding of new and emerging formats is vital, it may not be enough. Kingston lecturer Anna Faherty’s  Building Publishers of the Future article identifies large skill gaps within the industry – primarily those with “technical nous and business savvy”.

3. Increased skill sets

The  Society of Young Publishers Chair Lottie Chase also reports that “there are huge skill gaps which are becoming more evident as the digital landscape progresses. Social marketing, coding and software programming are just a few of the areas opening up”. So the future role of the commissioning editor may, in fact, look something similar to this (where UX is the user experience):

Courtesy Martin Eriksson

Expecting editors to be experts in all these areas is optimistic, but a thorough understanding will become increasingly important for new and existing editors alike. Chase advises potential publishers to “Attend events, watch YouTube clips and read blogs, immerse yourself in the new technology and you will learn as things go along”.

What Next?

For an industry undergoing such a transformation, it is hard to predict the future role of the commissioning editor. Collaboration with other departments and direct engagement with the reader is set to continue; yet uncertainty and further change appear to be the only constants. Rather than view this negatively, publishers should embrace this exciting transition as we forge the future path of the industry.

sam perkinsSamantha Perkins is just starting the second year of her part-time MA Publishing at Kingston University.

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