Chip MacGregor

October 15, 2015

How does an acquisitions editor acquire books?


Someone wrote with this question: “When someone is hired by a publishing house and allowed to acquire new books, are they trained or do they just ‘go and do’? Is this something they do individually or as part of a team?”

An acquisitions editor has usually spent time with the company and has a feel for what he or she should be acquiring. Most are brought up through the system. They know if the company does well with historical novels, or if they like self-books, or if they struggle to sell memoir. So most ack editors know the list and the company culture — and yes, personal tastes will shape the books they bring in. If an editor likes thrillers, and is charged with building the list, you can pretty much expect his or her preferences will begin to be reflected in the books they’re doing. (Though not always — an editor at Harlequin is generally responsible for acquiring romantic novels, no matter how much she happens to like spec fiction… Again, knowing the corporate saga and culture is essential.) Editors shape houses. That’s the way it’s always been in publishing. So a publishing house that hires a bunch of new acquisitions people gets reshaped by the editors who work there.

That said, few editors (just a handful of executive editors) have the authority to simply go acquire. The system looks like this:

Step One is that the editor must like the presented idea. He or she works with the agent and author to sharpen the proposal and make it as strong as possible.

In Step Two the idea is usually taken to the editorial team. In this meeting the merits of the book are discussed, several people read it, the team evaluates it, they determine if it fits the corporate identity, they explore other factors (such as “is this book too similar to one we did last season?” and “don’t we have enough Regency romances already?”), and try to determine if the entire team feels they can get behind the book,. They may ask for further changes, they may reject it, or they may decide to continue the discussion. If the team likes it, the project then moves on to the next step.

Step Three is yet another committee, known as the publishing board (or publishing committee). This is the decision-making body at most every publishing house. It includes the top sales people to talk about market response, a representative from marketing to suggest ways the company could help get the word out, somebody from finance to count the beans, the publisher of the line to make sure and give strategic direction, some senior management types to improve the overall status of the group by wearing nice suits, maybe a sub-rights person, and various others. The editor presents the proposal. The participants read it, discuss it, explore sales and marketing potential, check their horoscopes, and do everything else possible in order to try and figure out if they should do the book. Sometimes they table the project in order to push the discussion to a later date. Eventually they make a sacrifice to the gods, throw the urim and thummin, and decide to publish something.

So the decision to publish a book really doesn’t reside with one person. It starts with one person (an editor, who is the champion for the book and essential to the process), but the decision is really made down the line, by a much wider group of people. That way they can all take credit for the project if the book hits the bestseller list, or blame the editor if the book tanks. Does all that make sense?

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  • A.E Sawan says:

    Is the agent present @ step 3?

  • Lee Thompson says:

    Thanks for the post, Chip! There was a step in there that I was unaware of.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I assume that’s the “blame the editor when it fails” step, Lee?

    • Lee Thompson says:

      Lol. No, I figure any type of corporation probably has a ‘pass the buck’ mentality among management when things go awry.

      I hadn’t realized that the acq. editor has a team that also reads and discusses the project with them before it goes to the next board. Good to know. Thanks, Chip! Look forward to talking to you on the phone again soon!

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Thanks for the great post, Chip. Once again, you’ve given me a lot to chew on. When our work is out on submission, it’s so easy to get impatient and wonder WHY, WHY, WHY those big publishers are just sitting around their boardroom tables taking their sweet time doling out verdicts on our literary offspring (of course, I’VE never thought that way, I just hear others do…….. ha!). As someone fairly new to this submission/publishing scene, I often feel like I’m just wandering around in a huge airport full of people who KNOW what they’re doing, where they’re going, and how long it’s going to take to get there, while I don’t even know my gate number. Another reason I’m grateful for good agents!

    It really is remarkable what goes on behind the scenes, so posts like this are extremely helpful, especially to newbies like me who don’t really know WHAT to expect. Thanks for sharing your insight. I’ll sit back and try to relax while I wait for my flight # to be called. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Becky. I think a lot of people can feel that way at times: “Everybody ELSE knows what they’re doing, but I don’t.” Of course, eventually you discover most everyone else is faking it until they figure out the process, and who is who, and where the bathrooms are located. So it’s always okay to ask questions and seek clarification. :o)

  • Melanie says:

    Perfect sense… especially the last line!

    I don’t come in and tell you very often, but I sure do appreciate your posts! You give such great insight with that wonderful touch of humor that adds just the right spice!

    Many thanks!!


  • :Donna Marie says:

    I’ve basically known this process for a while, though I learned that what I thought was the “acquisitions meeting” is called the “publishing board.” What you described here actually adds one more step in the line than I was under the impression there was. Either way—it’s not easy!

    Thanks, Chip 🙂

  • This is why I LOVE your blog! When the day comes that I DO get a book contract, I will already be so knowledgeable about the entire process that I will be WAY ahead of the game! I have been building my platform for the past three years…over 215,000 page views for the first 18 months of my blog and my followers come from over 15 countries. Just this year I started querying my polished manuscripts so it is extremely helpful when you post things like this…it confirms that I am (as my blog title states) ON THE WRITE TRACK! ;~)
    Great post!
    Donna L Martin

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nice of you to say, Donna. And I once did a workshop called “On the Write Track,” so great minds…

  • Julie Zine Coleman says:

    Knowing this process should spur the writer on to building a platform. Because in the end, marketing has the strongest say. At least in my experience. Editors always loved my manuscripts, and so did the editorial committees. But I got stopped cold every time by marketing, who felt my platform wasn’t large enough. In the end, they are right. It is hard to sell books!! Having a ready-made audience is what’s needed to jump-start sales, and if that is not in place, you will have a difficult time selling your book, no matter how good it is.

    That being said, once in a while God works the unexpected. Even with a small platform, Thomas Nelson took a chance on me and picked up my book. So God is not limited even by the norm. But I did work long and hard on a platform for many years. And it proved instrumental in getting sales moving.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hooray for you, Julie! That’s great news. Congrats and finding some (perhaps unexpected) success!

  • April says:

    But the acquisitions editor who championed the book through this whole process isn’t the editor who helps shape the book after the company decides to publish it, right? The acq. ed. goes on to search for other books, doesn’t he/she?

    What if the acq. ed. loves it and it gets all the way through this process and given the go… but the ed. assigned to work with the book doesn’t care much for it?

    • Ramona says:

      April, it depends on the house. Some AE’s do their own macro/content edits, some hire freelancers, some houses have developmental editors on staff. I hire freelancers to do the edits, but I review everything they do, and approve or disagree with their changes. And I very carefully match editor to book. Since I’ve been at Abingdon, I’ve only had two mismatches, and I brought the book back in-house and did the edit myself. The bottom line is that the AE is your champion and if something goes awry, that who you go to.

    • April says:

      That lines up more with what I learned in college (RIP, TUFW). I worked for a publisher for two years where what they did didn’t match what I was taught, so I was confused.

      At that company, an acq. ed. found writers for projects the publisher developed (no unsolicited projects), so the acq. ed. was more like a go-between for the writer and the associate editor, who controlled the course of the project (not the writer).

      Sounds like their way of working is fairly unique.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate you saying that, Ramona. (And for those not in the know, Ramona is in charge of a fiction program at one of the houses. She knows her stuff.)

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