As part of our ongoing series on Team Tor jobs, I’m going to shine a bright light on some dark corners of publishing, perhaps banish a few myths and reveal some alternate realities. Or in other words, talk about being a senior commissioning editor in the field of science fiction and fantasy publishing. You’d think the clue would be in the job title, but these days “commissioning editor” implies a range of duties besides commissioning and editing. Some of those may even involve eating cake.
Tor UK’s editorial director Julie Crisp has already gone into the various aspects to being a commissioning editor, so I’ll run through these quickly here, before going into some more detail about some lesser-known parts of the job. The role does consist of many different aspects, so some rapid dashing from the left to right sides of the brain is needed on a daily (hourly?!) basis. It’s a position that combines creativity with the need to strategize and plan—as well as requiring you to unleash your inner pedant and pay attention to the details. But this is what keeps it exciting and every day is different.
A vital part of the job is to read from our tottering pile of submissions, something that generally happens in our own time, as we do all of the below during the day. And, every now and then, we absolutely fall in love with a manuscript. This is an amazing buzz which ignites the chain reaction that ends in a finished book. The next task is to present and discuss the business case for the book with Sales, Marketing and department heads, spark their excitement too, and then (fingers crossed) get permission to offer. Following agent negotiations, if you are lucky enough to secure the book(s), this cues another massive dose of excitement. Next stages include finessing your strategy for the books, then picture researching and talking to the author in order to brief the cover. Editors also generally come up with straplines and write cover copy. Plus there’s the editing too. The editing is an intense and cerebral process that starts with a careful read through, progresses to detailed notes and means you need to spot details (Wasn’t his sword of Japanese triple-woven steel at the start?) as well as hold themes and entire story arcs in your head in order check whether they’re working (and suggest solutions if not). An editor must also be an in-house advocate for their author at all times.
But, I want to talk about something else now. The mysterious beast that we call social media. As well as the usual range of commissioning editor jobs, I also run the Tor UK blog. I’m therefore a bit more immersed than most in social media. But being an external advocate, in addition to in-house champion, for the author has become an increasingly large part of the editorial role. We tend to know our authors a little better than everyone else, we already (ought to) have those copy-writing and creativity skills down and we are used to the role of advocate. But as a result, that line between content manager and content creator seems increasingly blurred.
As for why social media is necessary, these days people are exposed to more information than ever before, and spend more time online than attending to more traditional media such as print and outdoor advertising. Given this level of competition for a reader’s attention, and the fact that this attention is already often focused on social media platforms, an author needs to be on there to get noticed.
This part of the job means I create content grids for the blog every month, and we have meetings to brainstorm ideas based around what’s publishing at the time. We’ll then commission content from our authors, often generating interview questions or suggesting possible topics/ideas they may want to turn into prose pieces. It’s a lot of work for editor and author! These may end up on the blog, or perhaps be offered as exclusive content to key retailers or keen review sites. But managing the blog is a tricky business akin to slipping in the running of a small magazine into your day job. Content planned for months may evaporate on a Tuesday morning, prompting a scramble for new material. Or something might happen that needs to go up immediately, no matter what carefully-crafted work of genius was supposed to go up that day.
And as for picture posts… Well, I could probably have written my own book if I was given back the time I spent on them. Our blog uses Wordpress, and every time you amend a full stop, or missing word, it takes several seconds to refresh. If you think about the time if might take to select pictures, run them through a graphics programme to make them look their best, crop them, upload them onto the site, apply a border and get them to stick in the right place within the post ... Well. Did I mention the need for cake earlier? That comes in around about now. I also get a bit obsessive about checking how many people read our posts. This may involve weeping when the post that took hours gets small potatoes stats, and that easy infographic gets mega-hits.
But it’s not just about the blog. The content also needs to be fired out there into the interwebs, where it can do good work in the quest of informing readers about our beloved authors. So pithy hooks must be generated, links must be created and both must be added to the personal twitter feed, the Tor UK twitter account, personal Facebook page and Tor UK on Facebook… Oh and if you have any time—and why wouldn’t you, at 3 am after all this—you could send an email round the whole of Pan Macmillan urging them to spread the word too.
Things I haven’t covered include meetings, caffeine addiction, air-conditioning rage and bench-creep (where your colleague puts their book proofs on your side of desk—grrr). But I guess you can use your imaginations about those. I hope this Tour Tor has been helpful and look out for our next instalments on the arcane and wonderful business of publishing.
This post originally appeared on Torbooks.co.uk as part of Tor UK’s Tor Tour series—regular posts covering the varied publishing roles within the Tor imprint and across Pan Macmillan as a whole. These are the posts so far:
INTRODUCING TEAM TOR by Tor UK Editorial Director Julie Crisp
TOR TOUR: NOT JUST EDITING by Tor UK Editorial Director Julie Crisp
TOR TOUR: A PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT EXPOSÉ by Publicity Manager Sophie Portas
Bella Pagan is a Senior commissioning editor for Pan Macmillan’s Tor imprint in the UK, working on out-of-this world SF, fantasy and urban fantasy (plus other subdivisions, factions and associated areas). On twitter as @BellaPagan.