Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Black Box

I know it’s just around the corner from Thanksgiving, and I should be doing a post on all the things I’m thankful for. I might even do that in a couple of days. But I hate doing those for two reasons. First, they always sound like you just accepted a major award. I’m thankful for my parents, my family, my agent, my cleaning lady (no, I don’t actually have a cleaning lady.) Second, it always feels a little weird to make a list of everything you are grateful for because, really, can you put your family, your health, and double-stuff mint Oreos on the same list without sounding a little whacked?

So instead of telling you everything I’m grateful for, I’m going to write about something that is near and dear to my heart at the moment. Acquisitions. I’m not going to talk about where things stand with my latest book. It doesn’t make sense until things solidify, and besides, my agent would shoot me and delete the post anyway.

But I can talk about the acquisitions process. A lot of people (including me) wonder about the mysterious magical method of deciding which books are accepted and which are not. It’s this kind of supernatural black box. You put in a novel or work of nonfiction, stir, wait what always seems like far too long, and—tada!—out pops either a sale or a rejection. But how does it really work? Who decides? How do they decide? Today, I will do my best to open the black box and take you for a tour inside.

Before we delve into its mysterious depths, let me warn you that I am more of a guide than an expert. I have sold books and talked to editors and publishers about the process. But not being an agent or an editor myself, I have never been there in person. Also, different publishers do things differently, but I’ll point out some basics. Okay, put on your hardhat turn on your flashlight and let’s head in.

There are two different ways your book ends up in the hand of an editor. Either you send it directly if the publisher takes unsolicited manuscripts, or it is sent by your agent. Either way, the process is pretty much the same. Your manuscript is typically sent out to a number of different agents. The great thing about having an agent is that a good agent not only knows which editors represent what, but they also often know these editors’ personal tastes, what they have purchased recently, and what they are looking for. Bigger publishers have many acquiring editors, smaller publishers usually have a single person known as the acquisition editor.

Once the editor receives your manuscript, they read through it. I used to think this sounded like the best job in the world. Just sit around all day reading books. Unfortunately that is not the case. The same editor who reads new manuscripts also spends their day editing existing manuscripts. In fact, often, the only chance they have to read new manuscripts from authors who aren’t already publishing with them is on the train, at night, at home, during lunch, etc. (No, I don’t know if they read while on the toilet or not, and I’m surprised you would even ask.)

In the past, if an editor loved your work, they could take it directly to the big cheese of the imprint, usually called the publisher, for approval. These days it’s mostly done through committee. If the editor likes your work, they can either request changes, or put together something called an Acquisition Proposal, depending on how strong they feel your work is. I know it seems odd that an editor might ask for changes before agreeing to publish your book. But this actually works in your favor, because the editor alone won’t be making the decision. It still has to go through the committee who can kill a deal even if the editor loves it. So having your work be as strong as possible gives you a better chance for success.

Author, Harold Underdown, has created an awesome sample proposal here. It’s a good thing to look at either before you begin writing your book or before you start editing, because it’s probably the closest thing to a blueprint you will ever see of what makes a strong proposal. One of the things you might notice is that it’s not all about story. Things like competitive titles, profit and loss, and target audience are every bit as important as how well the story is written.

Starting to feel like your story is a product on a conveyor belt? It’s probably good to see it at least a little bit that way. You don’t want to think like this when you are writing the book. Don’t create your character’s attributes based on what you think will sell, or your story will stink. And even a story that hits the marketing bullseye will not do well if the writing is poor. But once you’ve written “the end” you need to start thinking about things like marketing, positioning, etc. Because to a large extent, you, your book, and your editor, will be judged based on how well your book sells.

So back to the process. Your editor sends the AP to the other departments and editors—marketing, sales, accounting, art, publicity, other imprints, etc. Depending on the length of the manuscript, they may also get an entire copy of the manuscript or a partial. Your editor is looking to get other people’s input and to get their backing. From what I’ve heard some of these meetings can get pretty heated. Your editor obviously wants to publish your book. But sales may not think it is unique enough to get attention. Marketing may not be clear on what genre it actually is. Accounting may think it doesn’t have a big enough audience to be profitable. The process of selling a book can take anywhere from a few days to a year or more. Typically an agent is going to hear back quicker than you will if you submit yourself.

At the end of the day, only some of the books taken to committee will be accepted. If yours is lucky enough to be one of them, the next step is putting together an offer. This is where things like royalties, rights, amount and payout of advance, hardback or paperback, marketing, territory, etc, are all negotiated. And again, this is where an agent can come in really handy. Very small publishers may not have a lot to offer as far as marketing or big advances. But even then, it helps to have someone on your side who knows what is normal and what is not. With a larger deal you may keep foreign rights and movie rights, get a $50,000 advance per book on a three book deal, paid out in four parts, be published in trade paperback, and have x amount of marketing dollars committed. With a smaller publisher, there may be little or no advance, and pretty basic rights.

If more than one publisher makes an offer, your book can go to auction. Generally this is a good thing because publishers who really like your work may make better offers. Of course it can also scare off a publisher who was still on the fence about the project. Deciding what offer to take is not always about just the upfront money. One publisher may offer a larger advance, while another lets you keep foreign rights and agrees to make your title a major release with more marketing.

One local publisher here in Utah, Covenant Communications, has a similar process, but after the Acquisitions Editor approves it, they send it out to Beta Readers and decide whether to proceed or not based the feedback forms they fill out. I’m sure there are other smaller publishers who do the same thing. Once you’ve agreed to a specific deal, your editor will begin going over your manuscript again in more detail to put together an editorial letter.

And there you go. Maybe not perfectly clear, but better than that black void, right? The thing to keep in mind is that once your manuscript is sent out, there’s not much you can do other than move on to your next project. It’s agonizing to wait—especially when you don’t even know if anyone is reading your manuscript or what they think of it if they have. But you have to find a way to take your mind off of it, and writing something else is a great way to do that.

On the other hand, when writing (and editing) your work, hopefully, remembering what lies ahead for your baby will make you think a little bit more about creating a story that is both well written and unique. Maybe you’ll take a little more time checking out the market, reading comparable books, checking reviews to see what readers liked and disliked about a particular title. And most of all, every time you read a book, think about the acquisition process and ask yourself what it was about this title that got it through the door. If you do all of that, your chances of getting your own book through should increase dramatically.

Here are some other helpful links about the acquisition process.






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