The role of the editor: publisher perspectives

Reeve, K (2018) The role of the editor: publisher perspectives. UCL Press, London.


This report, the result of a small-scale study, seeks to uncover the experiences and practices of one group of key players in academic publishing: commissioning (or acquisition) editors. It is informed by the responses of a selection of UK and US publishers directly involved with the commissioning and management of academic arts and humanities books across a wide range of subject areas, and a small number of independent academic and industry commentators involved in discussions of the editorial role and open access. This study has been developed as part of the two-year project, The Academic Book of the Future, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in collaboration with the British Library, and led by Dr Samantha Rayner of University College London. It aims to encourage a better understanding of the value of editors’ roles now and in the future, highlighting their impact on the curating, shaping and dissemination of research-based books, and exploring the challenges, difficulties and opportunities of the role moving forwards. There exist a number of general reports into the state of the academic publishing industry and a growing sense of the need for collaboration (rather than the sense of competition prevalent in some early open access debates) in the face of the challenges posed by economic and technological factors to the continued quality and maintenance of academic publishing and publications. I have been impressed by the willingness of the arts, humanities and social science community to engage with me. It is important that this engagement continues, because there is much to be gained by working with the grain, and much to be lost by not doing so. (Crossick, 2015, p. 70) In order to work ‘with the grain’ with publishers in addressing the future of the academic book, we need to understand what publishing is, who the key players are, what they do, and the value they add. This report focuses on the role of the academic commissioning editor: those who initiate and develop new publications, which provide the content for publishing houses. John B. Thompson and other sources referred to in this report (such as Richard Guthrie) highlight the importance of the editor (specifically the commissioning editor): ‘Editors who have the right combination of judgement, taste, social flair and financial nous are highly valued assets’. (2012, p. 7) This report provides an analytical summary of the responses of leading UK and US academic book commissioning editors and publishers to questions surrounding the current and future role of the editor in academic arts and humanities publishing – including both university press and commercial academic publishers, large and small. Twenty-two editors or publishers, freed of constraints in expressing their views by the anonymisation of published comments, have helped to construct this snapshot of the position and practice of the editor in academic publishing. Drawing on their experience and wide-ranging subject specialisms, the report considers various aspects of the editor’s role – its status, value, quality assurance, engagement with digital technology and contribution to the university-publishing ecosystem and ultimately, the knowledge economy. The editors approached during the course of this study reported feeling strongly about the importance of the work they do, and cared about the sustained development of their subject areas. They were adamant that quality checks for books remain rigorous and note that they are in a unique position to manage this, having broad field knowledge and a deep understanding of academic book publishing and its readers; something that should place them at the centre of any developments involving content and format in academic publishing. It was found that across the various academic publishing companies there is a diverse range of working practices, as well as editorial and business priorities, business models, job titles and interpretations of the editor role. Some editors were found to contribute transformational ideas early on in the process relating to the direction of a book or its approach in helping it succeed in the market, while others are additionally ‘hands-on’ in terms of shaping the final manuscript ready for publication. Some are dissuaded from being closely involved with individual books and authors beyond the contract stage. There was a clear distinction between commercial and university press publishers in terms of remit, levels of editorial intervention and the metrics upon which editors were assessed. All actively engaged in the digital dissemination of their titles and content to libraries and scholars; few created innovative new approaches to digital content development – and very few editors interviewed were involved in such practice. The editors consulted for this report suggested a lack of involvement with, and in some cases a sense of fear of, digital technology together with a distinct lack of knowledge of this area. No single idea emerged as to what the academic book of the future might look like, but there was interest in being directly involved in it, and enthusiasm for new ways of working with a range of stakeholders, including readers. Through a survey of the literature and consultation with the industry, the editor emerges as the creative powerhouse of academic publishing and a potential collaborator for academics wishing to understand how to share their research more widely, in more innovative forms. As academic publishing and universities face the challenges and opportunities of huge change in how they operate, this could be the moment to work towards developing a blueprint for the twenty-first-century commissioning editor (see 5.5 New approaches to publishing research) and a new, enhanced approach to content and knowledge development and production.

Item Type: Commissioned Report

Research report on publishing commissioned by AHRC/BL Academic Book of the Future. The full report is available to read at the URL below.

This report on the role of the commissioning editor in academic publishing aims to encourage a better understanding of the value of the role now and in the future. It highlights commissioning editors' impact on the curating, shaping and dissemination of research-based books, and explores the challenges, difficulties and opportunities of the role.

Keywords: Publishing, commissioning editor, editor, editorial, book publishing, book editor, academic publishing, open access, university press
Subjects: A General Works > AZ History of Scholarship The Humanities
N Fine Arts > NE Print media
Z Bibliography. Library Science. Information Resources > Z004 Books. Writing. Paleography
Z Bibliography. Library Science. Information Resources > Z665 Library Science. Information Science
Divisions: College of Liberal Arts
Related URLs:
Date Deposited: 16 Apr 2018 10:49
Last Modified: 16 Apr 2018 10:50
References: Bibliography Athill, Diana Stet: An Editor’s Life. London: Granta, 2000. Bhaskar, Michael Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess London: Piaktus, 2016 Bhaskar, Michael The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network London: Anthem Press, 2013 Campbell, Robert, Pentz, Ed, and Borthwick, Ian (eds.) Academic and Professional Publishing Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2012 Darnton, Robert The Case for Books New York: Public Affairs, 2009. Davies, Gill Book Commissioning and Acquisition 2nd edn. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. Eve, Martin (2014). Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at [Accessed: 1 December 2014] Fincklestein, David and McCleery, Alastair (eds.) The Book History Reader Abingdon: Routledge, 2006 (see chapters: Adams, Thomas R. and Barker, Nicholas ‘A Potencie of Life: Books in Society’ and Darnton, Robert ‘What is the History of Books’) Fincklestein, David and McCleery, Alastair An Introduction to Book History Abingdon: Routledge, 2013 (2nd ed.) Fitzpatrick, Kathleen Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy New York: NYU Press, 2011. Website: Germano, William Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2nd edn. 2008; 3rd edn. 2016. Greenberg, Susan Editors Talk About Editing New York: Peter Lang, 2015. Guthrie, Richard Publishing Principles and Practice London: Sage, 2011 Johns, Adrian The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 Hall, Frania ‘The Changing Role of the Editor: Editors Past, Present, and Future’ chapter in A Companion to Creative Writing Chichester, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2013 Lewis, Jeremy Kindred Spirits: Adrift in Literary London London: HarperCollins 1995 Rabiner, Susan and Fortunate, Alfred Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Nonfiction and Get it Published New York: Norton, 2003. Thompson, J. B. Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005. Thompson, J. B. Merchants of Culture. The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Reports Association of Art Historians (2013). ‘AAH Response to HEFCE consultation on Open Access’. Online. Available from: [Accessed: 4 September 2014] Crossick, Geoffrey ‘Monographs and Open Access: A report to HEFCE’ HEFCE January 2015 Finch, J. et al. (2012). ‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings’. Online. Available from: [Accessed: 21 October 2014] HEFCE (2014). ‘Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework’ Online. Available from: [Accessed: 8 October 2015] OAPEN-UK (2014) ‘Survey of use of monographs by academics – as authors and readers’ Online. Available from: 2014/ [Accessed 21 October 2014] Showers, Ben A National Strategy Monograph Roadmap. London: Jisc, September 2014 Articles Baverstock, A, Blackburn, R, & Iskandarova, M, ‘How the role of the independent editor is changing in relation to traditional and self-publishing’, Learned Publishing, 28, 2, pp. 125; 128–9 (2015) Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File, EBSCOhost, viewed 9 October 2015. Dodds, Francis ‘Does the commissioning editor have a future?’ adapted from ‘Changes in the role of the commissioning editor in academic book publishing’, Learned Publishing Volume 28, Number 1, January 2015, pp. 35–42 Dodds, Francis ‘Understanding end-users in academic publishing’ Learned Publishing, Volume 28, Number 3, July 2015, pp. 205-214 Hussey, Marina, ‘Challenging tradition: what skills are trending now’ The Bookseller online, news report on London Book Fair seminar session, April 2015 ( Lambert, Craig. ‘The “Wild West” of Academic Publishing: The troubled present and promising future of scholarly communication’ The Harvard Magazine, January-February 2015 ( Mangen et al, ‘Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension’ International Journal of Educational Research 01/2013; 58:61–8. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002 Terras Melissa ‘Want to be taken seriously as scholar in the humanities? Publish a monograph’ The Guardian, 30 September 2014
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