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From Submission to Contract
By Harold Underdown
Once a writer gets out of the slush pile, past the stage of the "positive rejection," to an actual acceptance, the promised land is in sight: acquisition, when a book publisher "acquires" a manuscript, offers the author a contract, and commits to making a book out of a stack of manuscript pages.
The acquisition process is central to trade publishing--it's how publishers build their future publishing program. However, it's not much talked about outside of publishing houses, and can be frustrating for writers, as it is not apparent why publishers take so long to make up their minds about a manuscript, and why the process has to be so complicated.
So how does it work? And is it handled the same way at different publishers, or are there different practices? The following is based on my experiences in children's publishing, and conversations with editors at other houses. I believe that the broad outlines of the process are also found in other branches of trade publishing, so I offer this as a general guide to the process.
The Importance of Acquisition
For a publishing company to succeed, it must have books to publish. An obvious statement, perhaps. But how does it get them? Some companies create books in-house, or commission them from freelancers. But trade publishers get their possible future books sent to them through the submissions process and must choose between them.
For those publishers, publishing begins with acquisition and depends upon it. Acquisition for a publisher is like planting seeds for a farmer, or creating new models for a car manufacturer: without it there would be no products to sell in the future, and therefore no income. And that begins to explain why publishers are so careful about what they acquire, and take so much time over it.
Committing to publish one book means committing to spending or otherwise investing thousands of dollars in advances, staff time, plant costs, paper/printing/binding costs, marketing expenses, and the like, with income from the book not expected for at least a year (in the case of a ready-to-publish novel) and possibly not for several (for a picture book with an illustrator who can't start right away, for example). A publisher must be sure that an acquired book fits within their budget. It must also fit within their list: most companies plan on a certain number or novels and a certain number of picture books per season, for example.
Choosing the "wrong" book--one that will not, in the end, succeed--means losing not only the money spent on that book, but also losing the opportunity to acquire a different book. Is it any wonder publishers take their time about it? Making an acquisition is like making a bet. There are risks involved. Publishers have experience at managing the risks, but the stakes are high. A publisher attempts to find the safer bets through a careful acquisition process. Once acquired, most books will then go through to being published. Though books do get canceled, this is fairly unusual and tends to happen only when a company is "downsizing" or an editor leaves.
Early Stages of Acquisition
Though the steps in the process vary, the acquisition process always begins with the moment when an editor decides that she wants to publish a particular manuscript. This is an exciting moment for the editor! This moment is often presented as a eureka moment, in which the editor, as it were, falls in love with a manuscript, or at least with its potential. For an experienced editor, though, the passion is influenced by her knowledge of the market and her memories of what has worked in the past. The editor may not consciously focus on the market, but she has an intuitive sense of it, and needs to, or she would soon develop a reputation within her company for acquiring books that don't sell.
The moment of inspiration over, she still has a lot of work ahead of her, at most companies, before the acquisition can be completed. At a few companies, the process is much simpler than what follows, and does not include an acquisition meeting, but I'll cover their process later.
At many companies the editor will first show the manuscript to others in the editorial department. She may ask a young editor to take a look and offer a second opinion. She may share it with her boss, if that's what's done at that company. Whoever she shows it to, this second opinion will either confirm her decision to acquire, and help her start to develop the arguments for acquiring it that she will present later, or give her second thoughts, causing her not to go ahead.
If she wants to go ahead, at some companies, manuscripts that are being considered for acquisition first go to an editorial meeting. All the editors at the imprint come to this meeting to present and discuss. This is the place to find out if there are any similar books in the works. This is the place to find out if there are any problems. This is the last check to make sure that the editor really wants to acquire the book, and that the head of the imprint will support her. Editorial meeting may also be a place to discuss manuscripts or book ideas that aren't yet ready for acquisition (at some smaller companies, on the other hand books may be brought up "for discussion" at the acquisition meeting itself.)
The Acquisition Proposal and Acquisition Meeting
If the manuscript passes muster at the editorial meeting, the editor will usually, but not always, tell the writer that she is working on acquiring the book; she may do this earlier, or she may wait for it to be approved.
Either way, the next stage is creating and circulating the acquisition proposal (also known as the AP) itself. See my sample acquisition proposal for the details of what may be included in one. Of course, what's in an acquisition proposal varies from company to company. Usually, there is a description of the book with reasons why it should be acquired; bios of the author and possible illustrator, if any; sales history, if the author has previous books; any previous sub-rights sales; a financial analysis (called the "P & L" for "profit and loss").
Copies of the AP and the manuscript get sent to people who sign off on acquisitions and who attend all acquisition meetings; they are known as the acquisition committee or the publishing board. Members include the president of the division or company, the editorial head of the division (probably known as the publisher), and the heads of marketing, sales, subsidiary rights, and possibly others. The manuscript gets sent too, if it's short, or a sample and a synopsis, if it's not.
The book is now put on the agenda for the next acquisition meeting, which typically will be held weekly or every other week. Most of the time, an editor will present a manuscript at an acquisition meeting in a few weeks to at most a couple of months from the initial decision to acquire, but it may take longer if there's a backlog, or her boss's doubts have to be dispelled, or people are away. Before the meeting happens, the editor may do a little lobbying, if she is particularly excited about a book or feels that it needs an extra push. She may show it to some people she knows in other departments to get their take on it. Some companies may "field test" a manuscript with a bookseller or at a school or show a potentially best-selling project to a buyer at Barnes and Noble or a similar chain.
The acquisition meeting itself , also known as publishing meeting, can be a stressful experience for an editor, depending on the culture of the company and how it approaches acquisitions. Editors are called in in turn to present the books they want to acquire. Usually they will say a bit about them and present any visuals they may have, but not go over the AP in detail; it's assumed that the publishing board has read all of the acquisition proposals. The board may then OK the acquisition with little discussion, or the editor may have to deal with questions and objections. Oddly enough, many books are approved with little discussion; a long discussion can mean that there isn't solid support for a particular book, and if a discussion goes on for more than a few minutes, that may be a sign that the book is in trouble. However, at most companies, the overwhelming majority of books that get to acquisition meeting are approved. This does vary; if a company is trying to reduce the size of future lists, for example, then more proposals will be turned down.
The Other Way: The Editor's Decision
A few companies still use a procedure for acquiring books that used to be much more common, but may now be associated with tweed jackets, handwritten notes, and other relics of long-ago publishing. In this procedure, the editor simply takes the manuscript she wants to acquire to the publisher, has a short chat about it, and then signs it up. This is the practice at Holiday House and Candlewick and may be elsewhere as well. It's easy to romanticize this as the ideal process (I certainly tend to), but it also puts more responsibility on the editor. They have no backstop. If they don't know their market, there will be problems down the road.
Completing the Acquisition
Whichever acquisition process is followed, before a contract can be created and sent to the author, the publisher must sign off. There is usually a signature line on an acquisition proposal for the publisher's use; a few others may sign off as well, either at the acquisition meeting or later, if they hadn't attended the meeting. But the publisher's signature is what counts: the person with that title is the person authorized to make the decision to publish.
The acquisition will be complete when the author, or the author's agent, agrees to and signs the contract for the book. Editors may run the terms that were agreed to at the publishing meeting by the author or agent. If they are OK, then the editor fills out a contract request form and sends it to the contract department so that they can generate the contract; this form will include the author's name, address, tax ID number, and all terms such as advances and royalties that are unique to that contract.
The details of the contract negotiation process deserve their own article; suffice it to say that once the contract is signed, the acquisition is complete and now the development process begins, which is also another story.
See The Acquisition Process, my article from Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market 2010 edition, for more details.
From The Purple Crayon: Articles about Children's Book Publishing
From my CI Guide to Publishing Children's Books: Read Part 4 for what happens next.
An Agent's Take on the Acquisition Process: From adult publishing, and may exaggerate the differences between an agent's acquisition process and the process an editor must go through at a large New York publisher, but a good overview.
I would be happy to hear your suggestions for other resources, and your comments and suggestions on this article. Please contact me via the contact page.
This article exists thanks to a suggestion from Ellen Jackson, who asked me in April of 2005 if I would write something about what happens at an acquisition meeting. I added this to my to-do list but didn't get anywhere with it for some time.
Then I did a presentation at the SCBWI's LA conference later that year, and as part of it created an early version of what become the sample acquisition proposal.
The project stayed on the back burner until I attended Kindling Words 2007 and got into a great discussion about acquisition procedures at different companies with the other editors there. That made me realize that what I needed to write about wasn't just the meeting, and this article moved forward. So thanks to Yolanda LeRoy (Charlesbridge), Julie Romeis (Bloomsbury USA), Alvina Ling (Little, Brown), Arianne Lewin and Margaret Cardillo (Hyperion), and Mary Lee Donovan and Deb Wayshak (Candlewick) for that final push.
Copyright © 2007 by Harold Underdown: please follow the copyright policy you will find on the policy page.
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