House Tour: Acquisitions

Well hello everyone, and happy Thursday. I know these are the most uncertain times we’ve ever seen and (hopefully) will ever see, but what I also know is that consistency is key for feeling stable during uncertain times. Therefore, we continue today with the next part of our Ins and Outs of Publishing series, which you can expect on the last Thursday of the month until we’ve run out of things to say. 

So last month we covered an overview of an entire publishing house as a way for you to familiarize yourself with the publishing process as a whole. Now it is time to get more specific, and we are going to start in the same place any author would in the publishing process: acquisitions

In more recent years, this department is often combined with the larger editorial department, with acquisition editors often now following the book and author through to publication. In some lingering instances, however, this department is where an author and a publisher find each other through literary agents or sometimes the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts sent in by hopeful authors. This can seem like a mysterious process but I’ll let you in on a little secret: it essentially boils down to money. This probably comes off as cynical and/or obvious, but it’s true.

A publisher is looking ahead at all the costs involved in getting a book from manuscript to bestseller (follow along with this series and you’ll soon discover, it ain’t cheap) and is of course looking to maximize their profit. Publishing can feel like a weird industry at times because it really is full of book lovers, people who want to see the best book possible be published and succeed, but it is after all a business and famously not one that makes thaaaat much money. When a publisher agrees to take on a manuscript, they are agreeing to a very risky financial decision, one that may or may not work out, and often they won’t find out the results of that decision for over a year. Choosing manuscripts is very tricky indeed. 

First and foremost, it is an acquisition editor’s job to source manuscripts to publish, and generally this is done with a specific season in mind. Because of the nature of the timeline involved in publishing, this can be done years before the manuscript is actually published. As previously mentioned, this is really about money, and how to ensure a book is going to sell at its fullest potential. You wouldn’t want to publish a romance between two co-workers at a Santa’s Workshop in July, but that book has to be ready well before December…you may be familiar with the fact that many magazines shoot their ‘swimsuit cover’ editions many months in advance, and book publishing is similar in it’s preparations, though a touch more buttoned up. 

All this is to say, acquisitions editors have lists and plans, and they intend to follow them. They are looking for specific kinds of books, and are looking to publish them at specific times. So if everything magically lines up, it would then go a little something like this: an acquisition editor comes across a manuscript that ticks all their boxes. They then consult with other editors to make certain that they aren’t the only one who sees potential. Sometimes there is then a more formal editorial meeting, where many other editors will hear a presentation on the book and can voice their concerns if they think the book is not one the house should move forward with, or if there is a conflict, like another book already acquired that is too similar. 

If there are no concerns, the manuscript then moves to the acquisition proposal stage, where all details of the book come together on paper. Included is a description of the book, why the editor feels it should be taken on, details about the author (and anyone else who might be involved—an illustrator for a children’s book, or a photographer for a nonfiction book), and of course, a Profit and Loss evaluation (P&L for short). This is truly the make or break stage, if this proposal is not given approval, the book will not be going forward with that particular publishing house at that particular time. An editor who has found a manuscript they really care for will often work hard at this stage to find every reason possible to prove that the house should acquire the book. Sometimes after a P&L is put together and it shows that the manuscript would be an expected loss, there are changes that can be made that would push it over into the profit category. This is the time to nail down those changes so that everyone is in agreement. 

If everything goes smoothly and the acquisitions proposal is met with a positive reaction at the next acquisitions meeting, then we move to the next stage where a contract is drawn up. An author, and more often than not, their agent, read this agreement, asks for any changes that may be necessary to the advanced amount, royalties, and other conditions, and then signs on the dotted line when all parties are in agreement. 

In some cases, an acquisition editor is not the only one seeking the manuscript. Many books from big name authors or that show big potential end up going to auction with an agent fielding offers left and right to try and get the author (and themselves) the best possible deal. While often this is an ideal situation for an author as competitive spirits and the desire to win occasionally overrules the numbers on the P&L, this can also backfire and result in editors bidding low to see what they can get away with and running away with a steal of a deal on an almost guaranteed bestseller. 

So that’s Acquisitions, folks! I hope the process is a little less mysterious to you now, even if it may still be a bit frustrating. Hang tight through the next coupe of weeks, and we’ll see you at the end of April for the next department.