Careers – The Publisher

Maartje Scheltens spent a year working in publishing, returned to University to do a PhD in seventeenth century literature,
and is now an Assistant Editor for the academic publishers Cambridge University Press.

Maartje at work at Cambridge University Press
Maartje at work at Cambridge University Press

What did you study at University?

I studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge. I was always interested in
publishing, so during the summer of my second year, I spent the summer doing
work experience at the publishers Faber and Faber. There’s a lot of competition
for these work experience places, so I was lucky to get a place – I think being
at Cambridge helped! The next year, after finishing my undergraduate degree,
I went back to work for Faber and Faber, at first on another work experience
place. After a while, they decided that they wanted to keep me on, and gave
me a job. But after a year, I decided that I wanted to continue studying, and
I went back to Cambridge to do an M.Phil – a one year postgraduate degree –
specialising in 17th century literature. Studying for an M.Phil is very different
to an undergraduate degree (a B.A.), because rather than being taught, and writing
an essay every week, you have to do your own research on a topic of your own
choice, which you write up into a long dissertation at the end of the year.
You have to spend a lot of time in the library! I enjoyed this, and then went
on to do a PhD – which was three more years reading dusty books in the university
library. I enjoyed the research, but didn’t enjoy writing it up so much – by
the end of the PhD, you’ve effectively written a book on your own research.
You have to spend a lot of time getting the phrases exactly right, and making
the language sound more elegant, which isn’t much fun.
(Maartje has also written an article
for the BBC’s history pages, which you can see here)

So what did you do after your PhD?

Well, as I said, I was always interested in publishing, and had already worked
for a year with a publishing company. So, with this experience and my PhD, I
applied for a job as an Associate Editor – this time at an academic publishing
company, Cambridge University Press. We don’t publish fiction, but specialise
in academic books – though that’s everything from science books for the general
public to detailed studies of Shakespeare for University students and lecturers.
We also do a lot of books for GCSE and A-level students, which I recommend!
(You can see them here).

What does your job consist of?

My job is to get the book from the author’s computer to the printing presses
and then the shops. You wouldn’t believe how many small things there are to
be decided in the process. The first problem is getting the author to
give me the final copy of their book – often they keep wanting to make little
changes. Then
I have to decide the cover design for the book, write the words for the back
of the cover, decide how the book will look on the inside, find out if the author
wants any illustrations… and of course, we have to make sure there are no
spelling or grammatical mistakes. I’m also there to help the author with any
worries, so I get a lot of emails. A lot of my authors live in the States, so
at least I don’t get many phone calls! One of the most difficult parts of the
job is to estimate when each book will be ready, so that the marketing department
can begin promoting it to the booksellers and magazines at the right time.

How has your English degree helped you with your job?

Well, I’m quite lucky, because I have an English degree and
work directly with the English books – a lot of people work with authors from
entirely different subjects. However, it’s very helpful, because it means I
understand exactly what the books are about, and the authors appreciate that.
More importantly, after an English degree, you become very good at writing in
a way which is clear and concise, but still gets the reader’s attention, and
that’s vital in my job, because I have to write the descriptions of the books
for back of the cover, for catalogues, for journalists and all sorts of other
places. It’s also very useful that I have such good spelling and grammar!

After working on my PhD for three years, it’s a nice change to work on other
people’s books. I know the difficulties that the authors are having from my
own experience, and it means that I can give much more constructive advice.
A PhD also makes you very organised – you have to be incredibly self-disciplined,
because you’re working entirely on your own.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Well, having
experienced all the difficulties of writing and research myself, I enjoy helping
the authors and making the process as smooth as possible for them. My aim is
to become a commissioning editor at some point, which would mean that I’d be
responsible for chosing which books to publish and giving the authors feedback
on how to improve them – I’d really enjoy that. Working in publishing, you also get books half-price!

What’s your advice to young people thinking about studying English?

While you’re at University, make sure you start thinking about what jobs you
might like to do eventually, and get work experience placements to find out
more. Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want to do – it’s worth
trying all sorts of things in order to get a clearer idea of what you enjoy.
It can be difficult finding work experience placements, so ask round everyone
you know. I was put in touch with Faber and Faber by my tutor at Newnham College.