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Rebecca Lane on publishing

By Rebecca Lane


As an English graduate, publishing seemed a natural choice when I started my job hunt. However, I little thought I would one day be commissioning Oxford Companions and Oxford Paperback Reference books — two series that helped me immensely during my studies. When I first met the author of The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, I effusively thanked him for a writing book that I had relied on from AS-level through to my master’s degree, and I only just stopped short of asking him to sign my (somewhat dog-eared) copy.

I started as a summer intern at Oxford University Press (OUP) and quickly knew that I wanted to stay beyond the two month internship. Academic publishing is about ensuring students, academics, and anyone interested in a particular subject have quality and reliable resources available. That’s something I felt strongly about — and still do. After temping at the Press whilst waiting for the right role to come up, I started in the Reference Department as an Assistant Editor and I have remained in that department ever since. Studying English was useful for my job in editorial as it had given me a relatively solid grasp of the language and an eye for detail, but I found that the role substantially depended on other skills learnt through previous office jobs, e.g. working as part of a department, dealing with customer queries, and — crucially — being organized!

Rebecca Lane

I am now a Commissioning Editor and my role is to find authors to write A-Z content on a wide variety of subjects, from Wine to Physics, from Ecology to Place-Names. Our books are designed to be useful for students, academics, and anyone looking for authoritative information on a specific subject. I spend a lot of time developing proposals with authors and editors for new books and for new editions of current publications. I also work with new authors on how to write dictionary definitions, as for most people it’s a new style of writing. With proposals, we assess them to ensure that the scope of the new book or the new edition is realistic and that the book will be useful to the majority of students of that subject. When a proposal is ready, I take it through the OUP approvals process — one of the most rigorous of any academic publishers. It takes some time to move from idea stage through to signing a contract with an author, but the thorough process, which involves seeking expert reviews and gathering feedback from OUP’s sales and marketing teams, means that the final typescript will be well-considered, pitched at the right level, and published in the right format.

I have been at OUP for six years and it has been a fascinating period to be involved in publishing. With the shift from print to ‘e’ we have had to change processes and adapt quickly to new technology to ensure our readers can find the content they want and in the format in which they want it. There’s still some way to go, as technology continues to develop and people’s reading habits and studying methods are changing, but it’s an exciting time to act on the new publishing opportunities they bring. Lots of people are concerned about the decline of the print book, but in many cases because of the revenue now brought in through digital channels, we are able to support print editions of certain works for much longer than would previously have been possible. And developments have not been restricted to electronic publishing: it’s worth pointing out how quickly the machines and processes behind the concept of ‘print on demand’ have been refined. It is now possible to keep certain books available to customers (literally printing a single copy as soon as the book has been ordered) long after these books have ceased to be viable to reprint in large quantities and traditionally would have to be put out of print.

Technological developments, whether in print or digital publishing, are important for OUP as we have a chance to make our content available to more people than ever before in more formats than ever before. And whilst the the speed of change that affects our industry can sometimes be a little daunting, I deal with this by re-focussing on the main purpose of my job: to ensure that we have reliable, useful and expert reference content to publish. (And I keep my dog-eared Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms as a motivating reminder of how useful that content can be!)

Rebecca Lane is a Commissioning Editor in General Reference at Oxford University Press. She loves working with reference books, but wishes she had a better memory for the content so that she would be more useful in pub quizzes.

From Jacques Derridas différance to Henry James’s ficelle, the vocabulary of literary theory and criticism can seem difficult if not opaque. To help remedy the average readers bafflement, the Third Edition of Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms provides succinct and often witty explanations of almost twelve hundred terms, covering everything from the ancient dithyramb to the contemporary dub poetry, from the popular bodice-ripper to the aristocratic masque, and from the social realism of Stalins era to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Image Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Lane

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