Publishing at Derby

As a topic for study publishing at the university has come a long way. As we approach our third anniversary, I thought it might be interesting and informative to describe our journey.

(All of the programmes of study we now offer are still accepting applications for September start! Wherever you’re from – be it Nottingham or New York; Melbourne (either the one near Derby or the other one farther away) or Mumbai – your application to study with us will be welcome.)

(NB This is a personal blog and the views and recollections are my own: Alistair)

Publishing and the UoD final report, front cover

Small beginnings …

In April 2015 a report was delivered to the University of Derby, a modern (post-1992) university with large ambitions, an excellent reputation for teaching, and great student experience. Entitled Publishing and the University of Derby, it was printed and bound (as any good report about publishing should be) in the form of a full-colour book. I had been commissioned by the Deputy VC to research academic provision here, and to him, at our Buxton campus, I duly delivered 12 bound copies of my final report.

In that report I contended that Derby could be an ideal nucleus of publishing education, the first in the Midlands. The university’s ethos of real-world learning, and its experience of courses that are designed with a balance of academic and professional elements, would be ideal for publishing courses, I argued. We could, perhaps, build a suite of programmes at different levels, base our teaching on the twin foundations of research and industry experience, and tap into the growing demand for professional training among those who want to embark on careers in the creative industries.

Let’s start with a postgraduate taught Masters in Publishing, I contended, then think about developing some undergraduate courses, then maybe some online delivery. Perhaps some Ph.D. students …

And how about starting up our own in-house publishing unit to give our students some realistic experience of how exciting, creative and stimulating it can be to work with authors, to edit and typeset text, to market and sell books, and become real publishers? All within their courses of study. That sounded difficult to achieve, but definitely do-able.

Small beginnings … but it’s remarkable and gratifying that most of what we set out to build has already been created, thanks in large part to continuing support from college and university, and the immeasurable input from large numbers of experienced academics, industry professionals, and students.

First, we validated our MA Publishing, and we welcomed our first cohort of students, all 26 of them (the understandably cautious accountants in the college thought we might attract five … five!) in September 2016. What a bunch of terrific, enthusiastic and talented book lovers and aspiring publishers they were (photographed here at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, at the start of their course).


On this degree our students learn and gain experience about every aspect of book and magazine publishing, including Editorial and advanced English; Print and Digital Production (in which they all produce fully functioning ebooks from scratch); Marketing and Sales taught brilliantly by Dr Alison Lawson from the Business School; Legal Frameworks; and principles of business leadership and management.

By this time publishing at the University of Derby had got off to a flying start, and somewhat self-consciously I and others recorded some videos of what we had been up to … (the students’ contributions are terrific and worth watching).

(Note to all: applications for the MA Publishing for September 2018 start will be accepted throughout the spring and summer. Please do apply.)

Undergraduate courses …

Following the success of the MA I was asked to develop not one, but two, new undergraduate programmes. With nothing much else on my plate at the time (spring 2017), I set to work …

The first, a three-year Joint Honours Publishing course, was fairly straightforward in concept: students are now able to study Publishing alongside almost any other subject, including English, History, Journalism, Business, and so on.

The second new undergraduate degree was not my idea, but that of our Head of Department, who persuaded me that we could combine parts of our existing Creative & Professional Writing degree, with relevant bits of publishing, to create a coherent, bespoke new course.

I poked around for inspiration. I thought long and hard about what students with a love of writing and books might need to study. I scratched my head, consulted lots of students and industry professionals, scratched my head again, and along with Dr David Barker, our then recently appointed Senior Lecturer in Publishing, began putting pen to paper in what was to become (almost certainly the world’s first) BA Writing and Publishing. And so, exactly a year after our MA started we welcomed 14 wonderful students on to the first year of this great new course (which, by the way, deserves to be much better and more widely known, so spread the word please: applications for September start still being accepted!).

The idea for this degree, elegantly simple, is that anyone who aspires to work with books – to write them, edit them, publish or promote them, to become an author, a literary agent, an editor, a publisher, or set up a business in any part of the literary industries – will come to understand the whole process of writing and publishing from every angle. The degree offers a holistic overview of the entire process of literary creation and curation (to use the current buzzword coined or popularised – I’m not sure which – by Dr Michael Bhaskar).

By this time (Autumn 2017) we had already successfully recruited three more academic staff, one of whom, Dr Matthew Cheeseman, was asked to lead the new Writing and Publishing programme, which he has done with considerable aplomb (the students are absolutely loving the course). Other academic staff contribute their specialist experience in areas such as Law, Business, and advanced English, with the result that the students on our publishing courses are taught by no fewer than nine academic staff. And among those, there is almost 80 years’ experience of working in the publishing industry (mind you, I alone account for 34 of those!).

A publishing unit …

And what of the real-world publishing unit? We set it up and named it ‘Peregrine’. We even have a logo:

peregrine logoand we have released our first major book (June 2017), published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Derby becoming a city:

Yearbook cover

Every part of The Derby Yearbook was done by our publishing students, from commissioning the text (forty authors, about forty subjects, for the fortieth anniversary … clever), to finding the illustrations, designing the cover, typesetting and editing the book, and organising the book launch. (Not surprisingly, the managing editor of this project, one of our MA Publishing students who graduated with a Distinction in October 2017, was quickly snapped up by Penguin Random House, where he now works.)

And why the name ‘Peregrine’? Well, peregrine falcons nest on the tower of Derby Cathedral; but the main reason was to follow in the footsteps of Allen Lane’s famous twentieth-century publishing brands that were each named after bird species: Penguin; Pelican; Puffin. Well, now we have Peregrine, and, being a raptor, it will devour all of the others!

Now the next major project for Peregrine is already well in hand, with Dr David Barker (formerly of Bloomsbury Academic but now Senior Lecturer in Publishing with us) helping a group of students to publish in June 2018 an illustrated children’s edition of the story Fox 8 by the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner, George Saunders.

Other publishing-related developments …

What else to report about our breathless first two-and-a-bit years here at the University of Derby?

Well, we have developed links with regional and national publishers and literary organisations. We have appointed the marvellously talented and experienced Dr Alison Baverstock (Kingston University) as Visiting Professor in Publishing. And last October (2017) the university bestowed an honorary doctorate on Stephen Page, CEO of the most famous (and best) literary house in the world, Faber & Faber. Public lectures will surely follow …

Recently, too, Matthew Cheeseman has led a development team from Creative & Professional Writing and Publishing to create an all-new MA Creative Writing (which also has a Publishing pathway, so that students can study MA Creative Writing with Publishing). This new programme is already attracting lots of interest and will welcome its first students in September 2018.

And please don’t form the impression that it has all been about new degrees and teaching. We have also embarked upon an ambitious programme of research, with no fewer than four staff seeking to contribute to our institutional submission for the next Research Excellence Framework, and several already busy writing books or articles. We now have three research-active Ph.D.-qualified academics within the discipline of Publishing, and we are currently (spring 2018) advertising for a post-doctoral research fellow in the History of Publishing. The aspiration is to develop this growing team into a nationally significant centre of publishing research, with specialisms in the history and culture of publishing, the future of publishing, and international/global publishing. Thanks to Dr Paul Elliott for helping steer us in the right directions.

Next on the horizon? Some of our better ideas will remain under wraps … for now.

April 2015 was when I delivered my little report. As we approach the third anniversary of that, my reflections combine a chunk of pride in what we’ve already achieved, a great deal of gratitude to all those at the university who have made it possible, considerable admiration for the myriad achievements of our students, and a strong sense of optimism that the next three years may be even more exciting (though hopefully less breathless) than the first.

Do join us: as undergrad, as postgrad, as Ph.D. student, as post-doc research fellow. If you have any queries drop me a line at

(NB This is a personal blog and the views are very much my own.)

Print and Digital Production

As part of the MA Publishing at the University of Derby I teach a module entitled Print and Digital production. The students cover all sorts of stuff, including design theory, typesetting, typography, project management, print technologies, how to make ebooks, etc.

Over the years I’ve drawn hundreds of maps of various sorts. I used to do these literally by hand, using graphic artists’ pens for the lines and then typesetting labels. Then in the late 1980s we progressed on to computer-based map-making, first with CorelDraw 5 (anyone remember that?). Nowadays Adobe’s Illustrator software is perhaps the most common format for drawing things like this.

Below is a low-resolution version of one map I did in 2013 to illustrate a lavishly illustrated book on the history of London. This was intended to show the concentration of industry and work-related activity in part of London’s East End, including the docklands in the Victorian era, just at the time when Brunel was about to build the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs riverbank. Based on a map of 1851 the map also shows how important the river was in terms of trade and traffic. While the docks were heavily used, so were the many river-side wharves (each marked with small dots).

High-quality illustrated books are making quite a comeback in today’s publishing industry, and it can be one of the most interesting, stimulating and absorbing sectors in which to work.

How I drew this map was to scan the original map, place it on the background layer of Illustrator, and then build up each element in layers, tracing the lines and typing labels. Time-consuming but quite rewarding.

London docks from Stanford map

There are godzillions of different careers that you could follow after studying on our MA Publishing. Becoming a freelance illustrator is just one of them. For more information on publishing careers or our Publishing courses (both undergraduate and postgraduate), drop me a line at I’m always happy to talk to people interesting in publishing as a career, and in particular to those interested in studying publishing at university.

At the University of Derby we offer a range of courses, including an innovative new BA Writing and Publishing, Joint Honours Publishing, and the hugely-popular-in-its-first-year MA Publishing.

So you want to be an editor?

The editorial function is central to a publisher’s activities. To work in editorial is to act at centre stage, to help steer the publishing output of the company while at the same time exhorting, supporting and standing up for the interests of the authors whose intellectual output represents the sole reason for the company’s existence.

What do editors do? A simple question that requires a few paragraphs to answer … If you’re thinking of a career in Editorial, this blog might be of some use or interest. Please feel free to share, tweet, or post to anyone who you think might find it useful. (I teach Publishing, including Editing, at the University of Derby, but the views here are my own.)

Being an editor is widely considered one of the most desirable roles in publishing. Yet the word can mean different things to different people, and ‘editors’ can assume various forms. Experienced publishers may understand the subtle semantic differences, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some novitiates of the industry find it slightly baffling. So, then, what is an editor?

But, I hear you cry, we all know what editing is … it’s correcting someone else’s manuscript, or changing the text somehow in preparation for submission or publication. If you ask a friend, colleague or fellow student to edit your work, you’re usually asking them to be on the look-out for spelling errors, mistakes, inconsistencies, or  ‘howlers’. Within the profession these are some of the tasks undertaken by in-house or freelance copy-editors (in UK newspapers and magazine publishing they’re usually termed sub-editors).

A good copy-editor will indeed spot such infelicities in your use of language, as well as smooth out some of the wrinkles in your syntax and grammar, highlight factual errors or contradictions, suggest rewordings in order to remove ambiguity or improve clarity, or point out any number of textual problems that need addressing. (Experienced editors are often themselves good or even excellent writers.)

As the late, great copy-editor of Cambridge University Press, Judith Butcher, wrote, ‘The main aims of copy-editing are to remove any obstacles between the reader and what the author wants to convey and to find and solve any problems before the book goes to the typesetter, so that production can go ahead without interruption or unnecessary expense.’

A really good editor will go further, drawing attention, perhaps, to logical fallacies, problems of plot or characterisation, or errors of fact. He or she might help you, for instance, avoid unintentional pleonasm; query your use (or over-use) of cliché; gently dissuade you from deploying alliterative tricolons so often (but I do like them so …); suggest that you vary or reduce your sentence lengths; point out inconsistencies in your spelling or capitalisation, or hyphenation … and so on, and so on.

In such ways the very best editors can enhance and add real value to an author’s work, improving the flow of the narrative or the ‘quality’ (however one defines that) of the writing. Indeed, one aspect of recent arguments surrounding self-publishing is that authors might be well advised to avail themselves of the services of an editor and sign up with a publisher under a traditional contract. This is where, it is argued, publishers can really contribute in a tangible and meaningful way to the success of an author’s labours.

All right, then … that all seems clear enough. Alas, no, not quite.

An editor is much more than this. If one makes reference, for example, to the editor of a fiction house one is really talking about the publisher, the literary manager, the commissioning editor, the head, the chief, the boss, the person who decides what will get published and which authors will be commissioned to write what for the imprint. People in such lofty roles are unlikely to work with the actual texts, or to copy-edit what they publish. Rightly they will be more concerned with running the business, strategising, compiling shareholders’ reports, or sipping Prosecco with a favoured author at one of those delightful publisher’s lunches.

Just to be sure, at this point I decided to consult the oracle. I own five English dictionaries: a Collins; a Chambers; and three by Oxford University Press. (I like these best.) One of these is the Shorter (2 volume: A–Markworthy; Marl–Z plus Addenda), purchased in 1981 and on my desk every day since; another (which I rarely use) is the single-volume Concise; and the third is the Compact (whose sense of ironic whimsy brought us such wildly inaccurate names?). Of this last publication mine is the ‘micrographically reproduced’ edition in 21,300 pages in 2-point type (complete with magnifying glass), and I have just consulted this edition to try to discover the definitive meaning of ‘editor’ (or at least the meaning that was current when the lexicographers had arrived finally, bleary-eyed, at this part of the letter ‘e’).

There, we do indeed find the two definitions noted above: on the one hand, an editor is

‘one who prepares the literary work or another person, or number of persons, for publication, by selecting, revising, and arranging the material; also, one who prepares an edition of any literary work’.

Yet this is the second of the dictionary definitions. The first is more concise and quite to the point. Citing an early use of the word in this sense in 1649, the Compact OED says that an editor is

‘the publisher of a book (cf. Fr. éditeur)’.

Now this is very interesting. Are the terms ‘publisher’ and ‘editor’ coterminous? Interchangeable? In theory, more or less, yes. But in practice not always, for in my experience most senior industry executives describe themselves as ‘publisher’, or CEO, or whatever, rather than ‘editor’. In this, the book industry differs markedly from the newspaper press and magazines, where the term ‘editor’ still retains its original French- and Latin-derived meaning, and where editors still write sometimes highly influential and thoughtful ‘editorial’ pieces. And thus we come to the third main meaning of ‘editor’ in the Compact OED:

a. ‘One who conducts a newspaper or periodical publication.’ b. ‘A person in charge of a particular section of a newspaper, e.g. of the financial news (City editor).’

In newspapers and magazines, the boss is indeed often known as the editor … The editor of publications such as The Times or the Guardian leads the editorial direction of the paper to a degree that is much more discernible and overt than in book publishing. To be sure, book publishers may choose which books they will publish on the basis of their own predilections, priorities and preferences. (Oh no, not another alliterative tricolon … I need an editor to stop me!) I’m not sure, though, that the reputation of a particular publishing house is principally dependent upon or derived from the political or moral stance of its proprietor. (Discuss …)

Fuzzy meanings

So, then, an editor can be the senior publisher who decides what will be published; or an editor (particularly a line editor, or a copy-editor, or in newspapers a sub-editor) can, alternatively, be someone who corrects a text in preparation for publication; or a newspaper or magazine proprietor.

Perhaps the very word has its own mystique, its own cachet. For these days it is also applied to a variety of roles that seemingly bear little resemblance to the dictionary definitions. Perhaps the title ‘commissioning editor’ is close enough to ‘publisher of a book’ to pass the semantic test. But what about the ‘production editor’ or ‘project editor’, who doesn’t edit text, but rather deals mainly with project management, often related to the organisation of workflows through freelance copy-editors, proofreaders, typesetters, designers, indexers, etc. Such ‘editors’ may, in fact, know more about critical path analysis and Gantt charts than about the finer points of language, style or syntax. Further, a glance through the publishing job advertisements will find a fairly liberal and loose use of the term: a ‘B2B [business to business] Editor’, for example, whose principal responsibilities are to ‘commission articles and features and report on market news’. Perhaps the reality is that in publishing everyone wants to have ‘editor’ somewhere in their job title?

So you want to be one?

I enjoy editing in both of its principal senses within book publishing. There is no better sensation than assisting, guiding and supporting an author to bring forth successfully the manuscript that you asked him or her to write. Senior publishers or commissioning editors with vision, sensitivity and real market nous can build and enhance the reputation of a publishing house – no matter if it’s scholarly or trade, fiction or non-fiction – and, despite the frequent frustrations and occasional failures inherent in the job, being a senior publishing editor can be a tremendously satisfying activity, one that lies right at the heart of the creative process.

Perhaps equally satisfying, in a different way, is to edit an author’s script and work with them to improve their writing, to make suggestions on style, punctuation or expression, and to help them project their own voice clearly. I know a large number of copy-editors who thoroughly enjoy this aspect of their work.

Writing style has been a concern of writers, editors and theorists since ancient times. Isocrates (436–338 BC) wrote a definitive guide to how one might structure a piece of writing for maximum effect (and his structure serves well to this day, especially for polemics, political writings, or student dissertations), while he described rhetoric (or ‘advanced style’) as ‘that endowment of our human nature which raises us above mere animality and enables us to live the civilised life’.

Tudor rhetorician George Puttenham (The Arte of English Poesie, 1588, much consulted by Shakespeare) knew just as well as his ancient counterparts, Aristotle and Cicero, that an appropriate choice of style, as well as sophisticated use of stylistic figures, is fundamental to truly effective writing. For, to be an effective and knowledgeable editor one has to understand all the figures, tropes and schemes that good authors deploy – and have always deployed – in their writing.

So, if you do decide that you’d like to be an editor, I hope that this article has helped you decide what type of editor you’d most like to be … commissioning new books, or working with authors to prepare their works for publication. In small companies you might even get a chance to do both. Perhaps many will start as one and work toward the other.

So, how does one become an editor? What skills, knowledge and attributes does one need? That, of course, will depend on which sector you’re interested in: fiction or non-fiction; scholarly, professional or trade; general audience or children’s. For my answers to all these questions, you have a choice: enrol, today (!) on the MA Publishing at the University of Derby, where the two modules ‘Editorial’ and ‘English for Editors’ deal in depth with the two types of editing described above; await a further blog post that I will try to complete this spring (to anyone I’ve taught over the years, or to anyone who knows me, it won’t come as a great surprise to learn that English language skills will feature high on that list); or read about the subject in one of the many books available. You may also join a growing range of publishing organisations in this field, such as BookMachine, or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

Happy editing (whatever that means).

Why you should study our MA Publishing

This article is addressed to graduates who have a good first degree and who are interested in pursuing a career in publishing and who are weighing up their options. Now that Student Finance is available for postgraduate study, we are seeing good take-up of the University of Derby’ MA Publishing. If you’re wondering what the benefits might be of studying this programme, read on …

You’ve already studied three years for a university degree, and on the top shelf of your wardrobe your mortar board hasn’t yet had time to accumulate even a thin coating of dust. Naturally you turn your attention to your curriculum vitae, to honing your interview skills, and to improving your cover-letter writing techniques. You google Random Penguin, peruse some jobs sites, chat to a careers adviser, and let fly a volley of applications …

Many aspirant publishers, editorial assistants and marketing executives will find success in this way. Others will gain their foothold by first securing an internship. Historically, as I note elsewhere, the latter is a well-recognised path to enter the industry. So does one need an MA Publishing to get a job in this industry? The simple answer is no. One doesn’t.

First, and most obviously, a specific qualification is not required: unlike a lawyer, a surgeon, or an airline pilot, a publisher or an editor doesn’t need to be accredited as such. No licence, specific knowledge or even documented English language skills are required to edit or publish the work of another (don’t tell authors this, by the way). And, second, the vast majority of people working in publishing don’t have any kind of specific publishing qualification (although that is changing, and most do have a degree of some sort, often in English or the Humanities). I entered the industry a third of a century ago (!), long before publishing qualifications had even been dreamed of.

So why do some students decide to delay their entry to the jobs market and choose to go on for one more year of study? Why attain a ‘Level 7’ qualification if none is technically required? Why study a Master’s in Publishing?

Funnily enough I don’t believe there is a large corpus of objective research that can give a definitive answer on the benefits of an MA in subjects such as Publishing (although some might become available in a year or two). What we have is a range of evidence – from personal narratives, individual career trajectories, and a host of anecdotal information – that can give some general clues about what a Master’s might be able to do for your career. Some aspects are fairly simple to document or quantify; others are more elusive, while yet others are almost philosophical or life-changing in nature, as we shall see.

The straightforward benefits of an MA

If we begin with the simple ones: a specific postgraduate programme in this area will ‘teach’ you industry-specific knowledge. I use quotation marks around the word teach because one of the qualitative differences between postgraduate and undergraduate study is that good Master’s programmes (such as the Derby MA, which I designed: ahem!) put student learning, rather than teaching per se, at the heart of their curricula. This quote from J. Biggs (Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2003) puts it quite well:

As we learn [at university level] our conceptions of phenomena change, and we see the world differently. The acquisition of information itself does not bring about such a change, but the way we structure that information and think with it does. … Education is about conceptual change, not just the acquisition of knowledge.

Thus, as students acquire knowledge, they change the way they think, and that’s when the real learning takes place (it’s sometimes termed ‘deep’ learning). And meanings are not merely transmitted through instruction: rather, students pass through a number of stages in a process in which meanings are constructed in relation to previous knowledge. If this is true of university study, it is doubly true of a Master’s. Read on.

Back to the straightforward benefits of Master’s study. As well as industry-specific knowledge – what publishers do; the argot and the lexicon of publishing; what an ebook is, etc. – students will, or certainly should, be taught industry-specific skills, such as how to design and lay out books in page layout software, or how to construct a marketing pitch to book buyers, or how to build and validate ONIX-ready metadata.

Such things are, of course, immensely valuable. If you arrive at a job interview with the confidence that you already know a lot about the industry, you are sure to compare favourably to a similar candidate with no such knowledge. So much seems beyond contestation or reasonable challenge.

The less tangible, yet more significant, benefits

So far, so good. But knowledge and skills are not enough and, as we’ve seen, a good Master’s education should give you so much more. An MA, for example, will only be awarded to a student who has demonstrated (objectively and rigorously), among other things, ‘a systematic understanding of knowledge, and a critical awareness of current problems and/or new insights, much of which is at, or informed by, the forefront of their academic discipline …’. (You may download the full Master’s descriptor here.) Further, you’ll be able to ‘deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively, make sound judgements in the absence of complete data, and communicate [your] conclusions clearly’; ‘demonstrate self-direction and originality in … solving problems, and act autonomously in planning and implementing tasks in a professional manner’. And you’ll have the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment that requires advanced levels of critical thinking and analysis.

Think about it. These are precisely a) the attributes that only a Master’s is specifically designed to help you develop; b) the attributes that every single employer in the world is looking for; and c) the attributes that will help you not only get a job but advance your career quickly once you are in post.

How, specifically, will a Master’s help?

A Master’s should help you get an interview

Many employers will say – not unreasonably – that they shortlist based on an applicant’s overall CV, and that a Publishing MA in itself does not guarantee selection for interview. On the other hand, there does appear to be fairly strong circumstantial and anecdotal evidence to suggest that an MA a) shows your strong commitment to your chosen career; b) shows that you have achieved a very high academic standard; and c) the work-related experience on your Master’s improves your portfolio and your CV. On balance, if you hope to have a successful professional career in publishing it is not unreasonable to assume that a good professional qualification will be of benefit.

A Master’s should help you during the interview

Of course, this is difficult to prove. … Some people do better at interviews than others. However, a good Master’s programme of study will give you so many opportunities to hone your skills of communication and oral presentation that it can hardly fail to be of benefit. Further, you will know the industry and will immediately understand when the interviewer asks you searching questions about medium-term business strategies, or the impact of Moral Rights legislation, or digital piracy, or DRM, xml, blah, blah, blah. And you’ll remain calm, and answer assuredly, because you not only know about such things, but can also apply your Master’s-level skills of analysis and critical thinking to impress your new boss! (A few hours after this blog post was first published the Times Higher Education published this article which gives some strong support to the concept that a higher level degree is of direct benefit to students.)

A Master’s will help your career take off

Strangely, perhaps, I feel on more certain ground here. Research does need to be done to confirm whether this really is the case, and to quantify its extent, but I’ve heard of so many MA Publishing graduates being promoted quickly that it must have a basis in fact. Think about it: as a new recruit you are asked to perform a task and, instead of doing that task without question, you do the task efficiently and then do some thinking (Master’s-level critical thinking, naturally) and a little research, and then compose a nicely worded email to your boss outlining your idea, all carefully referenced and argued, for a new way of accomplishing said task more efficiently. That is the type of thing that leads to the promotion fast-track.

A Master’s will help you attain a professional-level job

Recently some research was published that reinforces the point that a Master’s will help people attain higher positions. Figures from 2015 show that ‘87 per cent of master’s graduates currently obtain “professional level” jobs, compared with just 68.2 per cent of their first-degree counterparts’.

A Master’s will prepare you for life

A Master’s is a higher level degree and, as we have seen, it expands your horizons in many different ways. A good programme should do more than ‘teach you things’ to get you a job. Rather, it shows you how to learn for yourself; how to research and analyse; how to be objective and professional when forming opinions about the issues and questions you encounter; how to be quietly sceptical until you see hard evidence; how to be reflective; how to be an independent learner and thinker; how to identify when something you hear or read ‘doesn’t sound quite right’ and how to investigate it in more detail for yourself.

What all of this also means is that once you have followed a good Master’s programme of study, you will be much better qualified for a much broader range of career paths, such as setting up in business rather than working for an employer, or working as a consultant, or as a freelancer (of which there are godzillions in publishing). It will also help you change path mid-career because you’ll have that solid core of criticality and analysis to fall back upon.

If you have a good first degree then you will already have begun to acquire all of these attributes, but the very nature of a Master’s programme will develop your skills and attributes to a whole new level.

I graduated with my Master’s (St Andrews) in 1980. At the time my father, who had left school aged fourteen at the outbreak of war, strongly questioned the value of my university degree. But, hand on heart, the way in which St Andrews changed the way in which I thought about the world – the conceptual change noted above – was the most important learning experience of my life.

So yes, a Master’s may well help get you an interview; it will probably help you perform better at interview; and it almost certainly will help your career progress.

But it will also set you up for the rest of your life. Whatever you decide to do as a career.

Alistair helped develop and validate the new MA Publishing for the University of Derby, and during that process researched, discussed and reflected on the questions outlined in this article.

Feel free to comment or email the author at

Apostrophe’s aint important?


The English Language evolves. It moves with the times. Writers and others are constantly bending the language, adding new words, and creating new forms: ‘How very dare they?’

But can punctuation be adapted at will, in any circumstance? Have apostrophes had their day? Why, there’s even a website named killtheapostrophe (please don’t google it).

I am prompted to write this diatribe (sorry, objective and calmly argued opinion piece …) by the recent redecoration of the façade of our local bookshop. I noticed it while driving to the railway station the other day and I was saddened to be reminded that four years ago – almost to the day – Waterstone’s decided that it would be ‘a more versatile and practical’ spelling of their company name if the apostrophe were dropped. The façade now reads Waterstones.

Now I actually don’t mind too much in the case of a company name (think Toys’R’Us, revenues $12.4bn …). But in general writing, and certainly in the worlds of publishing and editing, I would argue, the apostrophe should be protected, defended, safeguarded.

My position is not one of grammatical pedantry or Luddism, for I am a firm believer in allowing the language to develop, to adapt, and to reflect the societies in which it is used. It is simply that if apostrophes are not used in the standard manner, then readers are quite likely to get the wrong end of the stick, which helps no one.

A simple example – albeit one that appears to condone polygamy – comes from Kingsley Amis:

Those things are my husband’s [i.e. Those things belong to my husband]
Those things are my husbands’ [i.e. Those things belong to several husbands of mine]
Those things are my husbands. [I’m married to those men].

The position of an apostrophe can change the meaning completely:

We should preserve the people’s customs.
We should preserve the peoples’ customs.

In many such cases (not all, I admit) apostrophes clarify and they render unambiguous. And by doing so they allow a reader to follow a writer’s train accurately and seamlessly, without confusion, pause or interruption.

Some people do get in a muddle with apostrophes. I was, perhaps, lucky to have a very straight-forward and articulate English teacher at Glenbervie Primary School, for it was he, Mr Alastair McCorquodale (splendid Scottish name), who taught me all I needed to know about apostrophes. ‘It’s very simple,’ he said, ‘you use an apostrophe when you omit some letters, as in don’t or shouldn’t, or you use one to indicate the possessive case, as in a soldier’s uniform. … That’s it. All you need to know.’

Perhaps, of course, we can allow occasional lapses? I wouldn’t want to upbraid greengrocers every time I see their advertisements for courgette’s or banana’s. This has become part of the national culture, an error so deeply ingrained that it would be a great shame to lose it. (By the way, I think the nicest example I have ever seen of the stallholder’s art was at a Lancashire market around 1983, where one confectioner was doing a roaring trade in Mar’s Bar’s.)

Inserting apostrophes in simple plurals is nothing new. People have been making this particular mistake for centuries. In Kendal in 1806, for example, an advertisement in the local newspaper tells us that one James Newby had recently set up a shop ‘where he Makes, Sells and Repairs all kinds Of Watch’s & Clock’s … and sells all sorts of Gold, Silver Plate &c. &c. in the Newest Fashion’s …’

So, the apostrophe is, and has long been, a character misused, misplaced and misunderstood. Does this really matter now, any more than in Kendal in 1806?

I believe it does matter. Having been an editor and publisher for the majority of my years since leaving Glenbervie I believe that ‘incorrect’ (I prefer the term ‘non-standard’) punctuation can say a lot about a writer. I do know, for instance, that when interviewing candidates for publishing jobs it’s one of the things that recruiters notice. It might not be crucial to their decision, but they do notice.

So if you work with words, or if you’re in publishing … if you aspire to become an editor, or if you’re writing an application letter for a new job … if you’re composing a report for your new boss, or even if you’re updating your social media profile, I think it is worth taking the trouble to check that your apostrophes are all present and correct.

Thank you, Mr McCorquodale. And, please, let’s hear no more about the redundancy of apostrophes.


Getting a job in publishing

A typical publisher of old might appear in one’s mind’s eye as a middle-aged, bespectacled man, perhaps in a faded smoking jacket, eccentric, with ink-stained forefinger and thumb. He sits behind a mahogany desk that is groaning sadly out of shape after years of service supporting an improbably large pile of musty manuscripts, each bound loosely but carefully with tape. He will be located in a hard to find, dimly lit office (oak-panelled, or with peeling plaster), perhaps in the vicinity of St Paul’s churchyard in the City, at one time the haunt of nearly all of Britain’s book-dealers and publisher–entrepreneurs, or perhaps above a clothes shop in Edinburgh’s New Town, or behind the porter’s office of an august Oxford college.

Occasionally, the said publisher might consent to take in an eager and earnest well-read son or daughter of a friend-of-a-friend, as a lowly paid apprentice (nowadays, ‘intern’). After many years of loyal and uncomplaining service, editing the copy, marking up the proofs, or sending out notices of new publications to book dealers or private clients, the apprentice would gradually metamorphose into his now aged employer, metaphorically if not literally donning his smoking jacket, adopting his mannerisms, and inheriting the pile (perhaps even the same pile?) of scripts.

And that’s how people got into publishing …

Behind such stereotypes there is often a grain of truth: until the 1980s the recruitment culture within the narrow world of book publishing could be somewhat amateur, the mechanisms by which many young people gained entry to the industry informal or nepotistic. At a London Book Fair seminar two or three years ago, the senior industry figures on the panel shared their experiences of gaining their first publishing job. Nearly all of their stories shared a narrative: ‘I didn’t have any qualifications. I just sort of fell into it.’

In recent decades, however, the industry has become ever more professional and in many ways more conventional: more like other ‘professions’. It is also more international and global in outlook and reach. And, while internships and work placements are still widespread in the industry, there is a growing trend toward paying interns and, overall, a more professional approach toward staff recruitment.

The corollary of this is that new staff are increasingly required or expected to have some form of industry-specific training or experience: a good Honours degree, even a First, can be regarded as a bare minimum. The gradual expansion of publishing courses, particularly in the Higher Education sector, is a reflection of this increasing professionalism.

Recently I have been busy researching this whole topic while helping to design and develop a new Master’s programme.

Here I do not intend to compile a checklist of dos and don’ts for applying for publishing jobs. Although I have interviewed many candidates for my own publishing business over the years, I am no recruitment expert, and there is plenty of general advice available elsewhere.

The tips that I would give here are:

learn about the industry:

When one thinks casually about ‘publishing’, one tends to think of the latest fiction bestseller, such as Harry Potter, or that much derided E.L. James novel. Books such as these can sell so many copies that they can single-handedly distort the bestseller lists, and they can generate enormous amounts of media coverage, turning their authors into global celebrities. Fiction sales of UK-published books, stand at almost £600 million per annum. However, according to statistics published by the Publishers Association, the turnover of fiction titles represents just 18 per cent of total book sales, and it is dwarfed by the £1.082 billion sales (32 per cent of total book sales) achieved by the academic and professional sector.

Overall, significantly more than two-thirds of British publishing is of non-fiction titles, ranging from academic and professional, to biography, to cookery, reference, children’s and schoolbooks, textbooks, travel books, self-help books, etc.

Realise that publishing is a business. Almost all of British publishing is in the private sector, and these business are responsible to their shareholders. If you learn about business (and the legal aspects of business), you’ll have skills that are in demand.

learn about different roles:

You could be a commissioning editor (by the way, almost every job role has the word ‘editor’ in it somewhere, even if precious little editing is done in that role), helping to develop new lists, negotiating with authors and driving the business forward.

You could be a literary agent.

You could become a book designer, a jacket designer, a typesetter.

You could become a production editor (that word again …), helping to organise the production and ‘content development’ phase.

You could become a social media marketer, or a publicity officer.

You could work in sales, or ebooks, or work in a publisher’s legal department drawing up contracts.

You could work freelance (as many do), as an editor, indexer, proofreader, designer, whatever.

You could set up a new publishing business (this is remarkably easy, as you don’t need a licence, nor to pass any exams).

Research and read lots. And use online resources such as


Go to literary events, book fairs, book launches, etc.

Put together a neat LinkedIn profile and connect (judiciously: you don’t want to bother people too much) with industry professionals.

Get to know people on both sides of the industry: authors as well as publishers.

Join an organisation such as the Society of Young Publishers.

explore gaining a specific qualification:

If you have a degree (in any subject), you might consider one of the excellent post-graduate MAs that are available. Obviously, I’d recommend the new one at Derby that I’ve designed, but a quick internet search will show you that there are several good ones in London and Oxford.

If you are thinking of going to university for the first time, there are one or two institutions that offer English and Publishing, or just Publishing, as a first degree.

Gaining a specific qualification such as a BA or an MA is not essential, but it will certainly help your chances, and it will make it more likely that you’ll advance more quickly once you do find a position.

Good luck. Publishing is a wonderfully stimulating and rewarding career.

A publisher’s blurb

First things first: allow me, please, to apologize for beginning this blog with an Americanism. (I cannot be feeling quite myself.) For, according to the Shorter Oxford ED, ‘blurb’, meaning ‘a publisher’s commendatory advertisement of a book’ entered the language there (in 1924).

Frustrating and fascinating, this language of ours, is it not? It keeps changing. And adding new words: at the latest count the full Oxford English Dictionary has over 301,000 principal entries. In 2015 the lexicon was expanded by several hundred more. Apparently ‘manspreading’, whatever that is, now warrants an entry. As does ‘wine o’clock’, much more to my taste (Brunello di Montalcino or Barbera d’Asti please …).

Anyway, I digress, for my bright, shiny new blog is not about the English language. Well, not entirely anyway. What it is really about it the world of publishing today … the writing, editing and designing of books. And about publishing as a career.

There will be serious posts, for sure, but also some whimsy. For now, and lest you get bored, I leave you with my absolutely favourite history ‘howler’ of all time:

‘Queen Elizabeth I found it difficult to concentrate on foreign policy with Mary Queen of Scots hoovering in the background.’