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9 commissioning tips: educational, non-fiction trade and all-rounders

Becky Lovell has been a Commissioning Editor for 6 years across both educational and non-fiction trade publishing. She is currently Commissioning Editor for the international Humanities list in the education team at Cambridge University Press.Here are some tips that she’s picked up over the years.

Adaptability is a useful skill for a commissioning editor. Being able to respond to differing customers and markets is important. The following core principles have really helped me to manage a variety of lists in different publishing sectors.

Top 3 things to share from educational commissioning

1) Know what you’re up against

In order to create USPs that are genuinely ‘U’, you need to know what the competition is doing and how you stand out from them. Educational publishing is highly competitive with publishers often targeting the same customers at the same time, so honed USPs are critical. Get stuck in; in addition to keeping spreadsheets tracking competitor products, I have a bookshelf of key competitor titles that I can flick through and evaluate.

2) Help keep projects on track

Everyone in educational publishing is racing to publish before competitors. If you achieve this, you should see increased sales, but the process is rarely easy! Commissioning is only one link in the chain and so regular communication with the rest of the product team is essential. Brief authors clearly, contract them swiftly and help the production team where you can.

3) Overcome any fear of data

Number crunching doesn’t come naturally to me – I’m a literature graduate. But I’ve learned that sound data analysis is a great tool to back up your proposals and guide your thinking. It’s easy to get a bit lost in numbers, so stick to the data that will help you make effective decisions or ‘tell the story’ behind product proposals – namely the numbers that tell you how big the potential market is, and how well (or not) you may already be selling to these customers.

Top 3 things to share from non-fiction trade commissioning

1) Understand the power of good marketing

You could commission the best book in the world but it will ultimately be unsuccessful if nobody knows it exists. Your product should jump out at customers, especially if you are targeting ‘browsers’ rather than ‘searchers’. Grab customers’ attention with striking cover design (I’ll admit to frequently judging a book by its cover) and copy that pops. Collaborate with the marketing and design teams to make sure that customers understand what you are offering them.

2) Don’t neglect your backlist

The temptation with commissioning is to get caught up developing new concepts. But don’t do this at the cost of neglecting your backlist. A brand new travel guide on Bhutan, whilst fascinating to work on, is unlikely to bring in as much revenue as an updated edition of a Paris guidebook. Be aware of your bestsellers and water your backlist to reap a steady revenue stream which will allow you to explore and invest in those exciting new opportunities.

3) Think beyond traditional authoring

There are now many ways to write and publish. Whilst you should always maintain a pool of tried-and-tested book authors, consider approaching appropriate bloggers for discrete, low stakes projects. Recruiting a more modern breed of writer can build flex into your author pool and widen your contact list.

And what never changes…

1) Appreciate your authors

Always cultivate good relationships with your authors, no matter what sector you work in. Spend time earning their trust and the whole process will be much easier.

2) Keep it all in focus

Knowing what not to commission is as important as knowing what to commission. Any new product proposals must be in keeping with your list strategy.

3) Do your research

Market research methods vary across sectors, but any way to gain insight into who your customer is and what kind of products they want to see will always be valuable.

Becky Lovell, Commissioning, Commissioning editor, editorial, educational publishing, non fiction

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