Committing to publish one book means committing to spending or otherwise investing thousands of pounds/dollar/euros in advances, staff time, plant costs etc. with income from the book not expected for at least a year, if we’re talking of a ready-to-publish novel or even not for several, if we consider, for example, a non-fiction book proposal for a complicated project with an author who can’t start right away.
A publisher must be sure that an acquired book fits first within their budget then, of course, within their list: most companies plan on a certain number or novels and a certain number of picture books per season, for example.
Choosing the “wrong” book, means losing not only the money spent on that book, but also the opportunity to acquire a different one. Is it any wonder publishers take their time about it? Again, think about my comparison with big companies producing cars! Making an acquisition is not like gambling or making a bet, it cannot be since, as I’ve said in my previous post on the subject, too many things are at stake. A publisher attempts to minimise the risks through a careful acquisition process. Once acquired, most books will then go through to being published. Though books do get cancelled, this is fairly unusual and tends to happen only when a company is “downsizing” or, alas! an editor leaves.
Though the steps in the process vary, the acquisition process always begins with the moment when an editor decides that he or she (usually ‘she’, publishing is a girl thing) wants to publish a particular manuscript. This is an exciting moment for the editor! This moment is often presented as a eureka moment, in which the editor, as it were, falls in love with a manuscript, or at least with its potential. For an experienced editor, though, the passion is influenced by her knowledge of the market and her memories of what has worked in the past. The editor may not consciously focus on the market, but she has an intuitive sense of it, and needs to, or she would soon develop a reputation within her company for acquiring books that don’t sell.
The moment of inspiration over, she still has a lot of work ahead of her, before the acquisition can be completed.
At many companies the editor will first show the manuscript to others in the editorial department. She may ask a young editor to take a look and offer a second opinion. She may share it with her boss, if that’s what’s done at that company. Whoever she shows it to, this second opinion will either confirm her decision to acquire, and help her start to develop the arguments for acquiring it that she will present later, or give her second thoughts, causing her not to go ahead.
If she wants to go ahead, usually the painful second step is attending the infamous editorial meeting. All the editors at the imprint come to this meeting to present and discuss. This is the place to find out if there are any similar books in the works. This is the place to find out if there are any problems. This is the last check to make sure that the editor really wants to acquire the book, and that the head of the imprint will support her. Editorial meeting may also be a place to discuss manuscripts or book ideas that aren’t yet ready for acquisition (at some smaller companies, on the other hand books may be brought up “for discussion” at the acquisition meeting itself.)
The Acquisition Proposal and Acquisition Meeting
If the manuscript passes muster at the editorial meeting, the editor will usually, but not always, tell the writer that she is working on acquiring the book; she may do this earlier, or she may wait for it to be approved.
Either way, the next stage is creating and circulating the acquisition proposal (also known as the AP) itself. See my sample acquisition proposal for the details of what may be included in one. Of course, what’s in an acquisition proposal varies from company to company. Usually, there is a description of the book with reasons why it should be acquired; bios of the author and possible illustrator, if any; sales history, if the author has previous books; any previous sub-rights sales; a financial analysis (called the “P & L” for “profit and loss”).
Copies of the AP and the manuscript get sent to people who sign off on acquisitions and who attend all acquisition meetings; they are known as the acquisition committee or the publishing board. Members include the president of the division or company, the editorial head of the division (probably known as the publisher), and the heads of marketing, sales, subsidiary rights, and possibly others. The manuscript gets sent too, if it’s short, or a sample and a synopsis, if it’s not.
The book is now put on the agenda for the next acquisition meeting, which typically will be held weekly or every other week. Most of the time, an editor will present a manuscript at an acquisition meeting in a few weeks to at most a couple of months from the initial decision to acquire, but it may take longer if there’s a backlog, or her boss’s doubts have to be dispelled, or people are away. Before the meeting happens, the editor may do a little lobbying, if she is particularly excited about a book or feels that it needs an extra push. She may show it to some people she knows in other departments to get their take on it. Some companies may “field test” a manuscript with a bookseller or at a school or show a potentially best-selling project to a buyer at Barnes and Noble or a similar chain.
The acquisition meeting itself , also known as publishing meeting, can be a stressful experience for an editor, depending on the culture of the company and how it approaches acquisitions. Editors are called in in turn to present the books they want to acquire. Usually they will say a bit about them and present any visuals they may have, but not go over the AP in detail; it’s assumed that the publishing board has read all of the acquisition proposals. The board may then OK the acquisition with little discussion, or the editor may have to deal with questions and objections. Oddly enough, many books are approved with little discussion; a long discussion can mean that there isn’t solid support for a particular book, and if a discussion goes on for more than a few minutes, that may be a sign that the book is in trouble. However, at most companies, the overwhelming majority of books that get to acquisition meeting are approved. This does vary; if a company is trying to reduce the size of future lists, for example, then more proposals will be turned down.
The Other Way: The Editor’s Decision
A few companies still use a procedure for acquiring books that used to be much more common, but may now be associated with tweed jackets, handwritten notes, and other relics of long-ago publishing. In this procedure, the editor simply takes the manuscript she wants to acquire to the publisher, has a short chat about it, and then signs it up. This is the practice at Holiday House and Candlewick and may be elsewhere as well. It’s easy to romanticize this as the ideal process (I certainly tend to), but it also puts more responsibility on the editor. They have no backstop. If they don’t know their market, there will be problems down the road.
Completing the Acquisition
Whichever acquisition process is followed, before a contract can be created and sent to the author, the publisher must sign off. There is usually a signature line on an acquisition proposal for the publisher’s use; a few others may sign off as well, either at the acquisition meeting or later, if they hadn’t attended the meeting. But the publisher’s signature is what counts: the person with that title is the person authorized to make the decision to publish.
The acquisition will be complete when the author, or the author’s agent, agrees to and signs the contract for the book. Editors may run the terms that were agreed to at the publishing meeting by the author or agent. If they are OK, then the editor fills out a contract request form and sends it to the contract department so that they can generate the contract. The details of the contract negotiation process deserve their own article; I might be able to cover the subject with the aid of a literary agent.
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