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Book editing and publishing: A scientific book worm’s dream job

There is no such thing as a typical day for Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). His primary responsibilities include finding authors and editors to write new academic books and book series, managing the portfolio of already published works and seeking out opportunities for new publishing products.

I met Merlin at PittCon 2011 this past March, where he was scoping out potential new book opportunities, and I soon found out he was a chemist-turned-book editor. Fascinating, I thought to myself, tell me more!

Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Courtesy photo.

Merlin’s background is in biology (B.Sc.), applied environmental science (M.Sc.), and agricultural sciences (Ph.D.). His graduate research and ensuing post-doctoral work were focused on environmental/analytical chemistry and biogeochemistry.

So, how did the transition into publishing happen? Well, after his post-doc, Merlin landed a spot in the RSC graduate programme, where his job was to handle the peer review process for journal articles. After 18 months in that position, an opportunity to work in books came along and he took it.

Since he was always interested in books and had research experience, he felt the two viable career paths for him after his Ph.D. were publishing or working in a lab. He chose the former and says he doesn’t regret that decision.

Although the graduate and post-graduate work weren’t required to get into publishing, he said he is glad to have gotten the additional training in teamwork, keeping to budgets, and working on a set timeframe– all transferable skills that he carries on with him as he pursues his non-traditional science career path.

“A book can take two years to write and needs dedication and focus – much like a long project or Ph.D., so yes, I think having a Ph.D. lends some empathy to what authors are doing – as well as a better understanding of what academic life is like,” he said.

What Merlin likes most about his job is being able to travel and meet new people, as well as having the security of a permanent job. But he occasionally misses being in the lab, especially when he visits a chemistry department.

Merlin’s environmental and biogeochemistry graduate work was largely composed of fieldwork in the great outdoors. While he doesn’t do this type of research anymore, he finds other ways to satisfy his craving to explore nature.

“I grow vegetables at home and do voluntary conservation work most weekends, so I’m still getting outdoors,” he said.

Merlin said it is satisfying to see a book he worked on finally come out in print and to see it on the shelf at a bookstore. He also loves learning about all kinds of science and meeting interesting and clever people in science, including Nobel Laureates.

The most challenging part is when a book project gets cancelled—but fortunately that doesn’t happen often.

For chemists and others out there interested in publishing, Merlin says: “Get talking to publishers! They are usually at conferences.”

Merlin says one of the highlights of his job is seeing a book he worked on for years finally make it onto the shelf in a bookstore. Photo credit: flickr user boopsie.daisy.

So, next time you’re at a conference, scope out the booths at the Expo’s, the huge area where companies come out and set up their booths and demo their new products. Book publishers can often be found there, and with a little bit of investigative work, you should be able to find them.

As far as getting jobs in the book publishing industry, Merlin said there is certainly some tough competition, especially for the more senior jobs, but it helps to develop a good network with other publishers.

Regarding the whole ongoing transition of books from print to electronic, he said it may not be such a terrible thing for those in publishing.

“The recession is beginning to impact publishers as library budgets begin to feel the pinch, but the growth of electronic publishing, and broader acceptance of eBooks, means there are exciting times ahead,” he said.

So is Merlin happy with his decision to pursue this career path?

“Oh yes, I love science and have always loved books and reading,” he said. “It’s great to be part of communicating science.”

Find out more about the graduate programme offered by the RSC online.

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