What's an acquisitions editor?

How can I help this editor?

by W. Terry Whalin

Some times when I introduce myself, I'll say that I'm an acquisitions editor. You can almost see the glazed look come over listener's faces and mentally they ask a question that sometimes they don't verbalize, "What's an acquisitions editor?" Its simple, I find the books for my publishing house to publish.

For the last five years, I’ve worked as an acquisitions editor at two publishing houses. Most full-time acquisitions editors acquire between 15-20 books in a year.

Many editors have acquisitions as a part of their job responsibilities but it's the total responsibility for an acquisitions editor. It means that I'm often the first contact for an unpublished writer. Each of the two publishers, where I've worked, consider or accept unsolicited manuscripts. Because of the poor quality of these submissions, most major publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Their submissions come from a literary agent or an author with an established relationship with the publishing house. When a publisher considers unsolicited manuscripts, it is a virtual onslaught of material. The majority of this onslaught is presented in an unprofessional manner and not written well--truth be told.

An acquisitions editor not only finds the manuscripts but they champion the manuscript within the publishing house. I've often told writers that I characterize publishing as a consensus building process. I may be convinced your book project is perfect for our needs--but I have to convince a number of other people including my fellow editors, sales people, marketing personnel and the leaders of the publishing house your book is worthy to appear in print. For any publisher to take your book and print it, they will spend about $50,000 to $100,000--and this cost includes only a modest advance to the author ($5,000 or less). As an author who had written over 55 books with traditional publishers, I had no idea the publisher was investing this amount of money in my idea to put it into print--before several years ago when I started working inside a publishing house. The author never sees the actual financial numbers for the cost of the paper or the editorial or the marketing expenses for the book yet I know firsthand the investment. It's a considerable investment--and numerous people seriously weigh the risks.

Not Waiting for the Bestseller

Most acquisitions editors are not waiting for the golden best-selling manuscript to simply drop into their mailboxes. We are proactively looking for new projects. I've been in publishing many years and have rolodex with personal phone numbers, addresses and email addresses for some high profile people. I'm actively using this information to contact my friends to see if they have some project that I could acquire. Why? There is much less risk for the publisher to take a well-known author (even who has never published with you) than an unknown author and make them known. Also it involves much less work for the publisher.

Before you think there is absolutely no opportunity for an unpublished and unknown author, don't be discouraged. Publishers are looking for your work but it has to be excellent and a good fit for the needs of the particular publisher.

Five Ways to Help the Acquisitions Editor

1. For nonfiction books, write a proposal--not a manuscript. No matter how many times I say this information, I regularly meet writers who are writing their nonfiction manuscript. About 90% of nonfiction books are contracted from a book proposal.If you are writing a nonfiction manuscript then you are wasting your time. The proposal contains information about you, the market and the competition for your idea which would not be in a book manuscript. You need to work hard on your book proposal to show you're keenly aware of the market. Visualize your book. How long will it be? Where will it appear in a bookstore? What books will be beside it? (your competition). Don't tell me that you will not have any competition and your idea is unique. It is not true. Your book will compete with something else and is not totally unique. Publishers are quite jaded and roll their eyes at this common statement from new writers. What are you going to do to market and push your book into new areas for sales? This type of information has to be built into your proposal and will help it stand out from the others on the editor's desk.

2. For unpublished or newly published fiction authors, write the entire manuscript.

In general publishers have been burned with first-time authors who only write a great summary and a couple of well-written chapters. The publishing house contracts the novel, then the author writes the plot into a corner and can't finish the story. Suddenly everyone is stuck with a large problem. Publishers avoid such problems and require first-time authors to write their entire fiction manuscript. This book has to sing with excellent action, drama and characters. If it starts out slow, you will be repeatedly rejected.

3. Build a relationship with the editor. Conferences are great for these relationship building experiences. Don't try to do it on the phone (you will waste the editor's time--from their perspective). It's a huge mistake for you to call the publishing house and ask the editor how to submit your materials. You are not building a relationship. Instead you are showing your lack of professional courtesy and building a negative memory with this particular editor--because from his or her perspective you are wasting their time that should be spent elsewhere.

4. Never push for an answer about your project--except after months without a response then only inquire gently. If you push for an answer, you will get it. "No." I regularly tell authors if they want an answer about their work, I can give it immediately. "No."

It's not what they want to hear. Yes takes time. Some times lots of time. I've acquired several complex children's books which took a year to convince a team of people they needed to publish this book and it would be financially viable to the publisher.

Yes, it took a year. From time to time I was in touch with the author to give them an update but it took patience to get these particular books published. Most writers don't have enough patience--so they push and get the answer they don't want to hear. "No." And you can completely understand it from the editor's perspective. It's easier to get rid of the nuisance calls and pushing from an author with a quick "no" against the small chance this book could turn into a bestseller. Submit your proposal simultaneously to various publishers and have patience with the lack of response. When you don't hear anything for three months or longer, then gently inquire for an "update." And instead of treading a path to your mailbox looking for an answer, get busy and write another proposal.

5. Learn how to present your proposal with excellence. Your proposal has to be written well and in the expected format. No graduation certificates are needed with your submission (yes, I've seen them). Skip the colored paper or weird fonts (yes, I've seen these as well). Leave out the fancy notebooks or costly presentation folders. These things get attention but mostly negative attention. Always include a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope or instructions to discard the manuscript and respond with a single stamped envelope or include an email address if the materials are rejected. Without the SASE, you have no hope of receiving a response from the publisher. Imagine receiving 6,000 to 10,000 unsolicited submissions in a year without any return postage. Imagine yourself in the role of the publishing house and consider your choice--throw the manuscript or use money from your already-tight budgets to return them. It is not hard to determine that the publisher will toss your materials and never respond. You need to study the market (something you've heard), learn how to present marketing material and yourself to be unique with well-written material. It is not easy but possible. A typical excellent nonfiction book proposal is about 15 to 20 pages--just for the proposal materials.

Your challenge (and goal) as a writer is to send an absolutely irresistible proposal to the publisher. If you follow these five basic areas, then you will separate your materials from the many other manuscripts which arrive at the same time. It will help the acquisitions editor and also improve your possibilities to be one of the few proposals which become a book.

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W. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and a writer. He worked as an editor for Decision and In Other Words. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 publications including Writer's Digest and Christianity Today. Terry has written more than 60 nonfiction books and one of his latest is Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Write Now Publications). You can learn more about Terry's background at:www.right-writing.com/whalin.html. For more than 12 years Terry has been an ECPA Gold Medallion judge in the fiction category. He has written extensively about Christian fiction and reviewed numerous fiction books in publications such as CBA Marketplace and BookPage. He is an acquisitions editor at Morgan James Publishing and creator of www.right-writing.com.

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© 2013 W. Terry Whalin