A Solitary Journey In Publishing

Oxford was publishing central as far as I was concerned, and Oxford University Press was It.  The bees knees. Starting out in publishing as  Journals Editorial Assistant for EMBO (the European Molecular Biology Organisation, now published by Nature), it took us 10 weeks from receipt of manuscript to publishing a chunky fortnightly journal, despite my lack of proofreading and copyediting skills.  After a year or so I got fidgety and moved departments to start work in Science and Medical Books.oup-walton-street

They were a mad lot, working all hours while introducing me to many of the Oxford pubs and how not to play pool (UK rules).  They were managed by JM, a forward thinking Publishing Director who started the Oxford Handbook Series including the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine with the then Commissioning Editor.  That’s my only claim to fame – fame by faint association.  My job, much later and in the lower echelons as Development Editor, was to take a raw manuscript and manage its production into a bona fide book.  Amongst the Editors muttering into their beards in the Dictionary Department, and Professors deliberating about their ideas for the Royal Society I learned about the Oxford Comma and that it took 7 full months to publish a book.  I also learned about unspoken publishing territories – when phoning an author to ask to see him about queries on his manuscript the Commissioning Editor put in a complaint – how dare I consider visiting her author. To this day I have never figured out the concept Editors have about owning Authors.

At OUP Commissioning Editors stay in their jobs for approximately 42 years, these are coveted roles and if you want to progress in Editorial you move to another publishing company. So, despite my fondness for that great Publishing Institution I began work at a small medical publisher, Radcliffe Medical Press (now Radcliffe Publishing) as a medical Commissioning Editor – and learnt how to publish on a hunch, gut feel (at OUP, there were several rounds of meetings to go through before a proposal saw the light of day, not to mention The Delegates [you have to read ‘The Delegates’ in hushed tones], who often had the final say on a publishing idea). By contrast, Radcliffe was a small, nimble company and I had a Manager who tried new ideas suggested to her by maverick General Practitioner Authors, to the consternation of her co-Directors and to my benefit – it was a great way to learn what Commissioning books was all about.

Then a move to Elsevier and Publishing in a global company both in Oxford and Sydney. I learnt how authors and their work travel across countries and boundaries, markets and languages, and watched as my expectations as Publisher as well as those of Authors grew and changed, as Authors rightly seek more autonomy in an industry looking to adapt.


An ‘academic’ Publisher often negotiates on the Authors behalf with the Publishing House (different from ‘Trade’ Publishing where Authors tend to have an Agent). As publishing changed I found my role also developing – whereas before I had clear ideas on the pros and cons of copyright, electronic rights, translations etc, I found these altered as individual publishing became easier, information became more accessible online, and the need for traditional publishing altered.  For the last few months I have asked this question:

‘What is it that I actually do?’

Whereas previously I facilitated a publishing process and provided added benefit for an Author trying to get their work into print, now there are many different ways to publish with a far wider choice. This is a good development in my opinion.

Quality information, ideas, at many different levels are widely available, easier to access and I experience, for the first time, being part of a global diverse community, without hierarchy, part of sharing ideas and information with people who I would not otherwise have got to interact with. In answer to my question ‘what is it that I actually do?’ I still facilitate, but now

I facilitate new ways of sharing content based on conversations happening in the community I am part of

At a recent conference in Sydney, wandering through the various exhibitor stands, I met a couple of Editors and while we chatted I admired their four colour books on Australia flora and fauna (and wondered how on earth do they afford to print them) – and I hear they’ve got a great manager who came over from Oxford, JM is his name.  So, it seems I had come full circle.

I wrote, and tentatively asked if he remembered me, (wonder of wonders – yes) and when I look him up 15 years later, he is the same – a brain the size of a planet with a wry sense of humour, and I am still in awe of him.  And we begin to talk about our journey in Publishing, and onto new developments, open source content, dissemination of information, and I introduce him to my new community including my twitter friends and they respond.  A new era, for both of us.
Now it is time to move on.  My love of publishing is still the same and I am taking a peek round the corner to see what will happen next.