Week Three: List Building and List Management

List building and list management is the heart and soul of what a commissioning editor does. The essence of the job, were it another industry, might otherwise be described as business development.

List Building

List building is the sourcing of new authors and/or new titles for publication. It is therefore critical that a strategy is developed as an ongoing element of the job. This strategy is driven by the identity and brand of the publishing house, in this case Manchester University Press, and also there is a seven year cycle driven by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which stipulates that academics in the UK must publish a minimum of four academic monographs by the end of every seven year cycle.

For the sake of clarity a monograph is by definition a piece of work on a single research subject, and to qualify as authentic academic research it has to be a peer reviewed piece that is an original contribution to knowledge, or, more specifically, a contribution to the growth of the knowledge of the human race.

In order for a monograph to proceed to publication it must be peer reviewed by two academics currently working in the field (or a closely related one) and ideally both reviews must attest to the quality and originality of the work. One bad review might be cause to seek a third, two bad reviews are cause to send the monograph back with either a rejection or request for major corrections and amendments. Peer reviewers are paid in amounts that would barely pay for a night out, and the reviewers are typically anonymous to the author.

Manuscripts are ideally delivered on time and on word count although this rarely happens in practice. Real life, job related concerns, family issues and other issues such as writer’s block can all delay submission. A good editor will account for this and keep in regular contact with authors to check on progress. A ten percent overrun on word count is accepted and budgeted for, but anything more must be reduced, whereas anything that comes in ten percent under word count or worse might highlight cause for concern that it is not the book that was agreed upon at commissioning.

List Management

List management consists largely of managing existing content that has sold well previously. The key here is to monitor sales closely and to look for patterns. For example, a steady seller will require regular print runs to replenish stock. An explosion in sales might indicate a societal trend driving demand and therefore the editor will look to take advantage of that. A previous good seller that has dropped off a cliff in sales terms may require a new edition to reinvigorate sales, whereas a book that has turned out to be a turkey, for example stock of 500 copies and annual sales of 10-15 will result, regrettably, in pulping the book to make way for stock that will sell. Other issues might be due to the fact that sales of a hardback run has ground to a halt, therefore it is time for a paperback run to boost sales.

These are all key decisions that are made simpler and successful by diligent monitoring of sales and stock data. I personally concluded that a successful and profitable backlist is a data-driven enterprise, and this seems to me to be a huge part of the strategy of a good publishing house because this is easy money, so to speak, i.e. the first run is out of the way so it is something that can generate huge profits for little investment with the application of intelligent analysis of data. Since the initial risk is usually whether or not a book will make it’s productions back within the sales generated in the first print run, good backlist management can yield major profit returns against a minimal investment which is the nominal cost of the print run itself, and perhaps a little extra marketing push.

Thus, the business development element of the job is clear. Ignore the fact that this is the business of books and you have two parts: sourcing new business/clients and managing existing accounts. Exchange ‘business/clients’ and ‘accounts’ for ‘authors’ and ‘books and you have a similar proposition to a traditional account manager. The departure from this is found in the business of managing author expectations and, in this case, working with academic institutions, something of a different challenge to traditional B2B markets.


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