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?