Brown Ticks and Spotty Monsters

I first thought of 'going into publishing' while writing up my PhD thesis. As I glanced through the back pages of New Scientist in that what-am-I-going-to-do-next blind panic, I realised that the adverts I was reading were not those that my PhD had officially trained me for. Instead I was reading the adverts for science communication, science writing, and publishing jobs. But I was a scientist. Surely my skills lay in labelling Epindorff tubes and I had little to take to a job in the 'real world'?

Out of curiosity, and the need for a new challenge, I applied for the graduate trainee scheme at Cambridge University Press and was offered a job, based in the science group. Along with three fellow trainees, I spent 10 months learning about the publishing process, from book concept to printing and sales. At times this was frustrating. You never somehow imagine that your post-PhD career will consist of packing books into boxes, or watching other people answer the phones in a customer service department! However, it was also fun, and everything I learnt in the process proved to be invaluable once I began working back in the science group.

I now work as a Biological Sciences Editor. I have quickly learnt that being a good editor involves juggling a multitude of tasks, from commissioning books to nurturing authors through the writing process, coordinating the production of the book, working with designers to develop effective and appropriate covers, and briefing marketing and sales teams on new titles. You need to be a team-worker, a motivator, a negotiator, a researcher, a mediator, a coordinator, and a problem-solver to be an effective editor.

Cambridge University Press is an academic publisher and publishes across the full range of academic levels, from reading schemes for schools to advanced academic monographs. The first book I worked on was called A Guide to the Brown Ticks of the World, and I have to confess to always being slightly jealous of one of my fellow trainees who spent her time on Three Spotty Monsters and The Runaway Chapati! However, science editors do work on the full range of academic titles, from undergraduate textbooks to research-level books and popular science, so there is plenty of room for creativity.

Editors are given a great deal of freedom to explore and develop the book list in their own subject area, and this allows you to maintain links with academics and research, through your network of authors and advisors. Attending conferences and visiting academics are also a crucial part of the job, both as a sales and marketing opportunity and also editorially, to meet current and potential authors, and to get an invaluable feel for the needs of academics and the current hot topics.

Back in the office, an editor is responsible for reviewing book proposals. We depend on expert reviewers to comment on proposals in terms of their content, writing style, and market, but we also rely on our own knowledge and consult with marketing and sales colleagues. Once a publisher has decided to publish a book, the editor negotiates the terms and conditions of a contract with the author.

What happens after the contract has been signed varies greatly. Some authors like to go away and quietly write their masterpiece and then submit their manuscript, complete and in the format requested, exactly on the submission date agreed. There are not many of these! Usually there is a great deal more badgering and chivvying from the editor and a great deal more prevarication from the author. I decided recently that one of my colleagues has a suitably effective style of persuasion when an enormous floral arrangement arrived at her desk one afternoon. The reason? One of her authors was apologising for submitting his manuscript late. How late? Twenty-four hours! I am not worthy!

So, an indeterminate amount of time passes, and a great weight of manuscript arrives on your desk. It is down to the editor to check that the manuscript delivered is actually what it should be and then to decide what the final book should look like. What feel should it have and hence what kind of design and cover should it have? Even high-level books can be greatly enhanced and their market more clearly defined by a good cover carrying a punchy blurb, which summarises the book's content and intended readership.

As a book trundles through the production process, from copy-editing to type-setting and finally printing and binding, it is up to the editor to keep an eye on the process and smooth out any difficulties which arise. Is the book being produced to budget? Will this allow you to price the book at a level you know the intended reader will be willing to pay? Will the books be ready in time for that key conference in Rio that you have persuaded your boss it is essential that you attend?!

Of course, for a book to be successful, whether it be an advanced level reference book on the genus Rhipicephalus (that's brown ticks to you and me!), or part of a school reading scheme, people need to know about the book and want to buy it. Enter the marketing and sales departments. Their job is to inform wholesalers, bookshops, and individual buyers of books and to organise catalogues, promotions, review copies, advertisements, and publicity at conferences and so on. An editor's job also extends to briefing teams of reps at sales conferences about forthcoming books. It can certainly be a challenge to get reps excited about science books without actually mentioning any science.

So how does being a science editor compare to working in a lab? For me, the appeal of my job comes mainly from having the opportunity to use imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills in developing new books and coordinating their production. As a bonus, my job provides me with a fairly unique opportunity to work on a list of books related to the subject area I studied and enjoy, namely microbiology, immunology, and the rapidly expanding areas of bioinformatics and genomics. I am expected to keep up to date, but to see the big picture, rather than getting bogged down in the detail. My job gives me the opportunity to travel and meet some fascinating people along the way. So, while it may not have the lure of the multicoloured Epindorff tube, or the glamour of fiction publishing (the life of an academic book editor is certainly not one long launch party), I wouldn't want to do anything else ... well, except maybe work with those spotty monsters!

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