Greetings writerly people!
I’m so happy to be here in this great community my friend Nathan has built to offer semi-regular posts about the publishing industry. For the last two decades, I’ve worked as a book editor at various Big Five houses, as a freelance editor and ghostwriter, and in October will be publishing my first novel, We Are Not Like Them.
I wear a lot of hats which means I have a lot to share when it comes to what’s happening behind the scenes in the publishing world.
Many people have confessed to me that the industry can feel opaque and intimidating. Writers can spend a lot of time trying to get in the heads of agents and editors to work out what they’re thinking, doing, and expecting and what it then means for your career or work in progress.
My goal is to give you insider insights and knowledge about the industry and tips and lessons about craft. I’m a firm believer that the more you know, the better you’re able to put your best foot forward in creating a saleable project, getting an agent, working with an editor, networking in the publishing community, and, ultimately, setting yourself up for publishing success.
In this post I’m going to cover:
- What it’s like working at a publishing house
- The agent to editor submission process
- What catches an editor’s eye
- Why an editor passes
- How an editor gets approval to acquire a book
- Negotiating a book deal
What it’s like working at a publishing house
When you think of the world of New York book publishing, perhaps you picture three martini lunches in New York’s hottest restaurants, editors gliding down quaint book-lined halls in beautiful clothes, and parties in penthouses where everyone quotes Pynchon and celebrates spending a million dollars on the hottest young writer in town.
In other words, maybe you’re imagining an episode of Younger. (I only wish I had Hilary Duff’s wardrobe!) I can assure you, it’s a lot less glamorous. Think lots of canvas totes, sad desk salads from Au Bon Pain, bland conference rooms, and sensible cardigans.
Despite the relative lack of glamour, publishing folks are the smartest, most curious, most passionate people you could meet–it’s a good part of why I love what I do so much. W And we truly want to be your champion and discover and nurture new writing talent.
It’s so often said that we’re gatekeepers, which is true, but it’s important to remember that the whole thing falls apart without YOU, which is to say writers. So though it seems like we wield a lot of power in deciding whose writing dreams come true, and who gets to have a voice (which is true and something we shouldn’t take lightly!), it’s worth remembering we also need you as much as you need us. Without that, after all, there’s nothing to actually acquire!
With that said, let’s do a dive into the acquisitions process, shall we?
The acquisitions process starts with submissions
Editors acquiring books and bringing them to shelves is the cornerstone of the whole ecosystem, so it’s helpful to start there and understand just what’s involved in that process.
Our journey begins with a writer (like you!) having secured a wonderful agent (congrats!) who’s ready to submit the book to publishers. What happens from here?
The agent (let’s call her Sue to make this feel a bit more personal) submits the project to a curated group of editors at various publishing houses for consideration. Sue has identified these particular editors as being primed to like a project of this sort based on the editors’ personal interests and expertise.
All editors typically specialize in certain types of books—in my case, for example, women’s centered memoir, commercial fiction and inspirational narratives. Agents and editors form personal relationships over time (okay this part might involve a boozy lunch or two) to get to know the types of books that will appeal to them, especially as they relate to personal quirks.
Sue, for instance, will know I love books that make me cry, or remember that I grew up in Silver Spring, MD, or that I’ve always wanted to go to a dude ranch, and may then send me projects connected to a particular interest even beyond those broad categories I mentioned. Which is why you want to find an agent who has a deep and wide relationships with editors.
Sue has crafted a beautiful submission letter to send with your project— a pitch that’s very similar to the query letter you wrote to secure Sue in the first place. It outlines what the book is and why an editor like me would love it. It makes a compelling case for its marketplace potential.
The average editor gets about 10-15 new submissions per week from agents. That’s a lot of reading! So we have to prioritize which submissions we’re going to read in what order. An effective pitch can make a difference. Sue’s goal is to entice the editor to put your project on the top of the pile and feel excited to dive in.
Your book goes into the editor’s canvas tote to read at home. (Editors mainly do their reading at home in the evenings and on weekends since much of the workday is devoted to meetings.)
What attracts an editor
Here’s a dirty secret: when an editor settles in to read your manuscript, she’s making a very (very) fast decision, usually based on the first 25 or so pages. If she’s hooked from there, she’ll keep reading, but if it doesn’t grab in that window it’s dead in the water. There are just too many other projects to get to. Which is a plug to make sure your opening pages are stellar!
So this begs the question: what is going to grab an editor? It’s worth spending some time here because isn’t this the million dollar quest? How to get an editor to fall in love!
We editors use that term all the time…”we just want to fall in love.” How vague is that? Annoyingly so. But there is a gut reaction involved. You’ve probably experienced it as a reader. You start reading a book and you love it in ways you may not be able to concretely articulate. You fall for the character, you dig the voice or the shimmering prose, you’re hooked by the tension, or you’re learning about a subject or a world you didn’t know about.
But from a more practical vantage, editors are looking for projects that feel fresh and original. Bring us something unique! Because it can get to the point in this business where you feel like you’ve seen the same stories and ideas over and over. It’s really electric when a writing style or a structure or premise breaks through the noise.
We also want writers who are uniquely positioned to tell a particular story—be it because of an extraordinary personal experience, deep expertise, or a vivid imagination that conjures such a specific world or storyline that no one else could do it.
In short: we want to be wowed! I know, I know, that all sounds like a tall order…because it is.
Why an editor might pass
The reality is that competition is fierce. Publishers can only publish so many books per year so we have to take bets on ones we feel are going to work in a big way. Meaning: sell lots of copies.
This means we’re looking for books with mass appeal and commercial angle: a hot social or political topic, a high concept premise, a unique character, a juicy premise that book clubs will want to discuss, and/or a remarkable personal experience/story. And just good old knockout talent–a writer’s ability to spin a beautiful sentence, conjure a description, and offer keen observations about life and humanity.
Beyond just not having that elusive feeling of falling in love, there are a lot of reasons an editor may pass on a book that has nothing to do with its quality: the imprint already published something too similar, or the imprint is moving away from a certain type of book, etc. In any of these cases, the editor will write a nice rejection letter to Sue explaining why she is passing on the opportunity to publish this book.
For the sake of continuing on our acquisitions journey, let’s say that the editor has fallen in love with your book (of course she has!). What happens then?
What happens when an editor wants to acquire a book
The next step is for the editor to get her colleagues and boss(es) excited about the project and on board to spend money to acquire it. We have to rely on the heads of our companies to open the purse strings. We also need our colleagues to be excited about the book—especially those in publicity and marketing—because everyone will have a role in championing it.
An editor’s chance to make a case for a book happens at the editorial meeting, usually held once a week, where the editor will pitch the book to colleagues and explain why she wants to publish the book.
If everyone else agrees on its potential, the editor will be authorized to offer a certain amount for an advance, an amount to pay to the author for the rights to publish the work. Advances are typically paid in three parts: a third when you sign the contract, a third at D&A (when the manuscript is editorially accepted), and a third when the book is published.
We come up with this number by doing a P&L, which is a projection of how many copies we think we might sell over time based on comp titles. Comp titles are other books that have been published recently that could have a similar audience. It’s really helpful if you and your agent work together to come up with comp titles, which Sue can include in the submission—making our job easier makes your project all the more appealing.
This is a good time for a reminder about something very important: publishing is a business. Yes, we love art and ideas and contributing to the cultural landscape and so forth, but at the end of the day, it’s a capitalistic enterprise with the goal of making money.
Editors don’t get to keep their jobs if they don’t make money over time. So you have to be careful with your investments.
How an editor negotiates a book deal
Once the editor comes up with an approved amount–say, $200,000–she’ll call Sue to make an offer.
One question I get a lot: what is the average book advance? The truth is it varies too much for there to be an average. A book could sell to a publisher for $2,000 or $65 million (looking at you Barack Obama).
Sue may want to accept the editor’s offer, or if other editors are also interested in the project, Sue may decide to hold an auction (which is exactly what it sounds like) and each interested editor will have a turn to bid on the book until Sue decides to accept the highest offer.
And then Sue and a lucky editor will have a deal to publish your book. Happy dance! (And yes there may be a boozy celebratory lunch involved here).
Then we move on to the next phase: publishing the book. The editor becomes a project manager of sorts through this stage, embarking on an editorial process to help make the best book possible and dealing with publicity, marketing, cover designers, interior designers, the sales force, etc. (I will devote my next post to this part of the journey, so stay tuned!)
And that, folks, is a birds’ eye view of the acquisitions process!
Art: New York Public Library by Tavik Frantisek Simon