Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book acquisitions are usually group decisions

So many authors come to me with the fantasy that one, sole editor will read their work (usually at a desk in a quiet office), make a decision, and act on that decision with a yes or a no. They're surprised when I say that in book acquisitions this almost never happens, and in article acquisitions it seldom does. First, the work is often glanced over or culled by assistants, even when the work is addressed to the editor (although most editors make a point of at least looking at everything that is addressed to them personally and some won't use assistants for this work). Second, few editors sit in a quiet room and read in a leisurely way at a desk. There is usually a lot going on, there are multiple manuscripts to review, and editors frequently take work home. Third, the vast majority of editorial acquisition decisions at a publishing house are made in a group environment. It's not that editors don't have power -- many of them have a lot of it -- but that publishers are group organisms where communication is vital, and where the opinion of colleagues is often highly respected. Most editors like to chat acquisitions over with colleagues, and at almost all houses some sort of conference is mandatory.

This month's Poets and Writers magazine (one of the oh-so-few writer's magazines I find truly energizing) has a helpful interview with Chuck Adams, the acquiring editor of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel Water For Elephants at Algonquin Books. The article is noteworthy because it is so authentically written (hard to define, but it sounds right for trade literary publishing, as so few articles in the writer magazines manage to do), and I noticed one good reason why -- the author is Jofie Ferrari-Adler, who is an editor at Grove/Atlantic; he used to be an editor at Viking. The series is called "Agents and Editors," and I recommend it highly. Here is the relevant part from the interview about how Water For Elephants was acquired.

"I started reading it and immediately just loved it. I gave a copy to Ina Stern, our associate publisher, on a Friday. We both came on on Monday and went, 'Oh my God! We have to have this book.' It was the first and, with the exception of one other book I've brought in, the only time that every editor here and the publisher said 'We have to have this book.' Usually there's one naysayer, and sometimes several, but in this case everyone agreed."

Notice how the editor loved it, but still immediately discussed it with the associate publisher, the team at the editorial meeting, and the publisher. This is not usually a mother-or-father-may-I kind of discussion when you are dealing with seasoned professionals, but rather a combination reality check and group coordination to see what others have planned as well. Books and their authors may come and go, but the editorial team has to work together far beyond the influence of one publishing experience. The acquisition has to fit with the editor, the house, the list (what the editor has published overall -- a kind of editorial identity), and the catalogues. It's not that things are matchy matchy, and many times they aren't. Editors break their own rules often, and houses often publish titles that represent departures for them. But discussions almost always preceded acquisitions, especially when money is involved, and your submission may have an interesting life of its own at various meetings or in e-mail forwarding within any given house.

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