The ins and outs of a publishing house

Posted on September 12, 2008 in News & Reviews

A tale of two sides 

This extract is taken from The Writer’s Handbook 2010, edited by Barry Turner, which can be purchased from SYP Members are entitled to a 50% discount off the R.R.P., more details on our members offers page online.

The publishing house can often seem cloaked in mystery to many new authors – as well as to aspiring publishing professionals, who also make use of The Writer’s Handbook – so we’ve prepared a helpful guide to the average publishing house with Jon Slack, the former Chair of the Society of Young Publishers.

The many sectors
Trade (consumer) publishers produce books found in high street retail outlets. The books are separated into fiction and non-fiction.

Children’s publishing is a lively and growing sector of trade publishing, and ranges from baby through to young adult.

Educational and academic publishers produce high-level titles aimed at students, academics and researchers for niche bookshops, libraries and educational institutions.

STM (scientific, technical, medical) publishers manage publications in a range of specialized and often fast-moving fields.

Large vs small
Publishing houses offer advantages and drawbacks depending on their size.

Information for aspiring authors

Smaller publishing houses can mean you are given more individual treatment, rather than being one of many. But a larger publishing house probably has more expertise, and a bigger budget – although don’t forget that even they don’t give every book the star treatment. If you are in the enviable position of having the choice of publishers, decide what your priorities are and what’s best for you as a writer.

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

Working at a smaller house is the most effective way to learn the overall business, as you can often be involved in a number of different roles at once. It is also a great way to get a feel for which type of career you may wish to pursue.  Alternatively, larger houses tend to use more sophisticated systems and operate on a bigger scale, with larger lists and revenues to work with.

Who does what?


Commissioning or acquisition editors are responsible for acquiring or seeking out new titles, researching the market and often managing title budgets. Copy-editors have a keen eye to spot bad grammar, punctuation and inconsistencies.

Information for aspiring authors

Your editor will help you shape your manuscript. They will undoubtedly expect changes to be made, which can be hard to accept, but remember that they have many years’ experience and you hear of very few successful authors who look back and wish they hadn’t trusted their editor’s judgement. Having said that, if you do feel very strongly about a proposed change, do speak up, after all, it’s your name that is going to be on the front cover.

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

The position most jobseekers apply for, editors are broadly involved in both acquiring and shaping manuscripts. Most entry positions are for editorial assistant. A specialist role continues to grow for digital editors, converting archives and new titles into e-book format, and there is an increasing trend for them to be involved with e-books from a commissioning level. Other editorial positions can include acquiring picture rights and arranging layout, typesetting and proofreading services.

Marketing and publicity

This area of publishing helps bring the book to the masses. Traditionally defined separately as ‘marketing equals advertising’ and ‘publicity equals word of mouth’,  these departments are now increasingly integrated online. Smaller houses tend not to have a marketing budget, but publicists persuade journalists to arrange book reviews and features and author interviews, as well as to coordinate public events such as book signings and talks. Marketing departments, alternatively, tend to focus on paid advertising and building web presence, usually via author websites, social networks and other online communities.

Information for aspiring authors

Not all books are advertised on the billboards at the tube and train stations, or in the Sunday newspapers. If your book is one of the lucky few, it will be one of the publisher’s key titles and you may find yourself whisked around the country on book-signing tours and invited to attend a variety of events. For the rest, you can expect the marketing and publicity guys to be working creatively with small budgets to give your book the best opportunity to succeed.

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

Typically, entry-level positions are for marketing and/or publicity assistants, before progressing to marketing executive or publicity manager. To succeed in marketing you need to have creative ideas, know your market and have the ability to work to tight budgets. To climb to heady heights in publicity, you also need to be confident and persuasive enough to convince those coffee-fuelled journalists to profile the latest title, as well as being able to develop good relationships with writers and their agents.


Responsible for producing the final, physical book, production staff are continually involved throughout the process. At the commissioning stage they influence book schedules and budget, along with decisions such as the size of an initial print run. They liaise constantly with editors, printers and shipping to help get books printed on time and to a high standard. Today, production teams are under increasing pressure to ensure books are created with as little environmental impact as possible.

Information for aspiring authors

Authors tend not to have much contact with the production department, but if you have any queries your editor should be able to help.

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

To succeed in production you need to be a good project manager, someone who cares about the detail and be able to work under pressure.


This department makes sure the look and feel of your book suits the marketplace, but also grabs the attention of the consumer.

Information for aspiring authors

Most publishers have set page designs, so don’t be surprised if you can’t have much influence here. If you do have any particular requests or ideas, let your publisher know early on, so they can look to accommodate your requests. One of the most exciting things for many authors is getting the cover design in place. The designer should work with you, as well as your editor and marketing sponsors, to create something that you are all happy with. Always feel free to make your own suggestions.

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

For illustrated titles, a job in design means working with the editor and author in agreeing on a layout template, then arranging the text and images on the page. All books naturally need a jacket designer as well. In smaller companies this is usually freelanced out, but larger companies tend to keep this in-house. This is a very desirable job in publishing, so be prepared to come across a lot of competition if this is the job for you.

Sales and distribution

The two main positions in sales are representatives, or ‘reps’, and administrators. Sales reps visit bookstores within their allocated regions in the UK or internationally, and ‘sell in’ the next round of book titles to be released, typically several months in advance.

Information for aspiring authors

Most writers want (a) to get their writing out there in the world and/or (b) ideally to make a nice amount in royalties. Of course, none of this is possible without sales reps persuading bookshops – online and traditional bricks and mortar – to stock your book. With over 100,000 new titles published each year in the UK alone, shelf space is vital, and getting your book positioned face-out or on the enticing tables at the front of the store is the key to success.

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

The role of the rep is, in some way, being reduced as book chains consolidate their buying teams to head office. However, as retailers without a history in bookselling are now diversifying it’s an exciting time with lots of opportunities – did you really think ten years ago that today you’d be picking up books with your weekly shop or at the cinema? And, of course, much of the appeal of a role in sales is travel: either within the UK or elsewhere in the world. Sales administrators support reps by processing orders through distribution channels and preparing sales kits, so this can be a good first step into sales.

Rights and contracts

The majority of publishing profit is often made in selling publishing rights into external markets, such as the US or Europe. In larger houses rights staff will also look after serializations for newspapers and magazines, though in smaller houses this task usually falls to the publicity team.

In a small house contracts are often handled by senior editors, but in larger houses a separate department prepares the legal small print for agreements with authors and other publishers.

Information for aspiring authors

Effectively another type of sales, this team of people sell your content to foreign publishers. What works well in the UK doesn’t always work well in other countries or in different languages, but if your book does grab the attention of a foreign publishing house it can be extremely lucrative for you and your publisher.

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

Often an overlooked area of publishing by recent graduates, working in rights can be extremely rewarding. Much of your time is spent on activities surrounding the big international book fairs and brokering deals. The ability to speak multiple languages is extremely helpful, as is the ability to negotiate hard.


Th e financial backbone of any publishing operation, accountants employ similar skills here as they would in most other industries. They are responsible for managing accounts, customer credit, the staff payroll and author royalties.

Information for aspiring authors

Responsible for sending those precious royalty statements to you or your agent once or twice a year, the accounts department can make all the hard work worthwhile. Night on the town anyone?

Information for aspiring publishing professionals

Accounting in a publishing house could provide a great new role for those disheartened by the finance sector and wanting to be part of the creative industry – and who could blame them in the current climate?

Jon Slack is a freelance publisher who has previously worked in sales and publicity at Taschen publishers and Aurum Press, and prior to that spent some time working at Borders, South Australia. He was the 2008 Chair of the Society of Young Publishers and now works on special projects for the group.