Chip MacGregor

August 8, 2016

Ask the Agent: What does an acquisitions editor do?


Someone wrote in to ask, “Can you explain the difference between an acquisition editor and any other type of editor? Who do they do? How are they hired?”

There are a bunch of different types of editors at any particular publishing house. An “editor” works on the story and wording of a manuscript, a “production editor” oversees the creation of the actual book, a “senior editor” gets to lord it over the other editors and grab the first donut in editorial team meetings, etc. At most houses nearly every editor acquires some manuscripts and is responsible for editing them and getting them ready for production. But some houses have dedicated “acquisitions editors,” who talk to agents, find authors and manuscripts that will be a fit, sign them to the house, then turn them over to developmental editors, who will actually work on the writing. Usually an acquisitions editor has spent time with the company so they have a feel for what he or she should be acquiring. And yes, personal tastes will shape the books they bring in. Therefore, a publishing house gets shaped by the editors who work there, so it’s important the people they hire know the distinctive of the house. Very few editors (just a handful of senior or executive editors) have the authority to simply go acquire whatever they want.

In general, the acquisition system looks like this:

Step one is that the acquisitions editor finds a project that fits the house. Maybe an agent has called to talk with her about it, or the editor and author met at a conference, but there’s a connection, and the editor likes the project. He or she works with the agent and author to sharpen the proposal and make it as strong as possilble.

Step two occurs when the idea is taken to the editorial board or team. In this meeting the merits of the book are discussed, several people read it, the team evaluates it, petty politics come into play, etc. The team may ask for further changes, they may want more information, 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 response of bookstores and accounts, 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 give strategic direction, some senior management types, maybe a sub-rights person, and various others. At the meeting, the editor presents the proposal.

The participants read it, discuss the salability, explore sales and marketing potential, check their horoscopes, and do everything possible in order to try and figure out if they should contract the book. Eventually they have to vote, so they make a sacrifice to the gods, throw the urim and thummin, and decide to publish or not. The person shepherding the manuscript through that process is the acquisitions editor. Does that answer your question?

What else would you like to know about the inner workings of a publishing house? 

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