I recently had the pleasure of submitting a book proposal to Acquisitions Editor Jess O’Brien at New Harbinger Publications. He had some great ideas about a few changes to the proposed book that would make it more appealing to his acquisitions board.
In the process, I realized that, since many of my readers don’t necessarily understand the acquisitions process, an interview with Jess would provide insights into what happens inside a publishing board meeting.
Lisa: What is the role of an acquisitions editor?
Jess: My role is to find, develop and bring forward fully envisioned book projects that would do well for our press. From there I work to contract the book, share in the developmental editing, wrangle the title together and ensure the timely delivery of the manuscript.
My job is to totally know the book inside and out and answer questions from any department at any time. I’m also the author’s advocate, doing my best to ensure that their vision of the book is completed, even if that conflicts with various departments at the press. The Acq Editor is there to solve any problems that come up at any point to everyone’s satisfaction.
Lisa: How many queries do you receive in a typical week or month and roughly what percentage result in you asking to see the proposal?
Jess: As a non-fiction Acq Editor, I receive 5 - 15 queries during a week, many from agents. I ask to see a full proposal about a quarter of the time. However, most of my viable projects come from my efforts to seek out and prospect authors who might be interested in publishing with us.
Either I come up with a book idea and seek an author, or I find qualified authors and then brainstorm with them about what they might want to write. Since I know what we do well, I can guide them toward developing their material in a way that would uniquely suit our strengths as a publisher.
Lisa: That’s such an important point for aspiring authors to understand—that each publisher has their own brand, vision and goals, and that acquisitions editors at different publishing houses may have different visions for a book based upon their brand. When you read a book proposal, what are some of the main ingredients you look for?
Jess: The biggest question is:
Does this topic sell? Does it have a defined audience?
If no one else is doing it, and there are no books being sold in this area, there’s no way I can persuade my Sales Dept to go out and carve out this entirely new category.
Lisa: Yes, I always cringe when I read in a proposal that there are no complementary or competitive books out there. Not a good sign!
Jess: I recommend authors do some research and look for the publishers of books similar to theirs. If they’ve had success in this area before, chances are they are looking for more!
With the audience determined, I look at the author’s platform, the unique selling points and the writing quality in that order. Obviously I need all of the above, but a strong promotional platform can sometimes overcome a weakness in other areas.
Lisa: I would say, across the board, in publishing, author platform is king. What are some common "red flags" that make you turn down a proposal quickly?
Jess: Claims of being the first or only book on the topic. A general promise that’s not unique (“Get Your Life Back, Now!”). Saying that “everyone” is the audience (that usually means “no one”). Misspellings and sloppy writing. A topic we’ve failed with in the past.
Lisa: What is the role of the acquisitions board and who (as in job functions) serves on the board?
Jess: We gather members from nearly every department for our proposal review, once per week. The Acq Editor presents the project in great detail. After a spirited discussion we vote on whether to pursue a contract for the book. Usually Sales Dept has the last word—if they feel they can’t sell it, it’s not going to be worth the effort and expense of publishing it.
Lisa: How long is a typical acquisitions board meeting and how many books are generally discussed?
Jess: We try to cover four book proposals in a two hour span.
Lisa: Wow, that sounds fast moving! What are some of the typical questions that people of different functions ask in an acquisitions meeting? For instance, what concerns and questions do sales people typically have? How about other editors?
Jess: Each department has a different area of interest. Editorial folks will discuss the writing quality, the audience focus and whether they fit our house style. Authors should send the best samples they can with their proposal.
Marketing people will comment on the author platform, social media and media interest in the topic at hand. Make sure to always provide at least ball park numbers for all the contacts you have, as well as all upcoming events you are presenting or teaching at.
Sales Department is mostly concerned with how well other books have done in this area, and how we can make ours stand apart as unique. They only have a few moments to pitch this book to the key accounts later on, so authors need to make sure their book can be explained in just a few sentences.
What makes it unique and compelling to the people who bought the other best-sellers in this area? A comprehensive comp analysis is critical, the author needs to know the biggest books in their genre and how to envision their book as a compelling addition to the category.
Lisa: How often does the acquisitions board meet? Do they typically take the summer off?
Jess: We meet weekly, all year round. Although there are fewer people around in summer for sure.
Lisa: Once the board decides they want to make an offer on a book, how do they come up with the amount of the advance and who makes that decision? How long does the process typically take?
Jess: Once we vote to pursue a book contact, the Sales Department determines how many they think they can sell, minimum, in the first year of sales. From that I can swiftly calculate the maximum advance offer. If the author wants more, I have to persuade Sales Department that they can sell more in the first year than they thought. I will need a lot of very compelling reasons if I hope to persuade them.
Lisa: How many seasons does New Harbinger have for putting out a new list and what are the seasons you go by?
Jess: We have a Spring and a Fall season for each year, consisting of five and seven publication months respectively.
Lisa: Let's say you are interested in a book. Is it common that you have some concerns that you want to the author to address before sharing the proposal with your acquisitions board? If so, how do you typically work with an author to address those concerns?
Jess: I will work as long as needed to re-tool the proposal so that it will better fit New Harbinger’s criteria and expectations. I go through it and make notes that I pass on to the author, asking them for more information about their approach, to fix bland selling points, and to better describe the competitive titles and why this book is uniquely compelling in comparison. I will also ask them to revise writing samples and address any weaknesses I can find.
Lisa: Jess, thank you so much. You’ve helped the acquisitions process come alive for us and I have a feeling we’ll both see some stronger proposals as a result of those who read this article!
Jess O’Brien is an Acquisitions Editor at New Harbinger Publications where he specializes in psychology, self-help and spirituality. He does yard work and Tai Chi after hours with his family in Oakland, CA. You can find him on LinkedIn.
Do you have questions for Jess or me? Comment below. Or share your experience in publishing.