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The Acquisition Process

By Harold Underdown

Originally published in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, 2010 edition

If you’re a typical aspiring children's book writer, a contract is the reward you are hoping for at the end of the labor of writing, learning, rewriting, submitting, rewriting again, and submitting again. But to be offered a contract, an author must inspire an editor to want to offer her a contract for her manuscript and develop it into a book. The steps that lead to a contract, known as “the acquisition process,” can be mysterious and prolonged. Why is that? How does the process work?

And does it really matter? As an editor I contacted for this article pointed out, there's a certain irony in writing about the acquisition process in 2009, at a time when most houses have slowed acquisitions to a crawl, and will most likely keep them at that pace for most of the coming year. And yet, the worst recession in the US in at least 30 years has not stopped the process cold at any children's book publisher.

It can't. Publishers must acquire manuscripts and develop them into books, just as farmers must plant in the spring if they are to harvest in the fall, or as a manufacturer must do research and development to create new products. Acquisition is the way publishers choose the books that they will publish in the future, and if a publisher stops acquiring, it won't be long before they will stop publishing.

That basic principle is simple, and yet the process often is not. To start with, there's no one process—different publishers go about acquiring manuscripts in different ways—and different manuscripts at the same publisher don't necessarily follow the same path. Broadly speaking, though, there are three paths that can lead to the acquisition of a manuscript.

We Trust Your Judgment: The Old-Fashioned Way

Legend has it that in the early decades of children's publishing, the heads of children's imprints, who were generally former librarians publishing books for libraries, signed up the books they wanted to publish. Their staff too needed only their boss’s approval of the books they wanted to sign up. Today, so continues the legend, corporate processes require editors to get approval by committee after "doing the numbers" and justifying an acquisition financially.

Legend has part of the story right. That was the process, one that was simply the practice in publishing generally, whether of adult or children's books. One person approved acquisitions, making the final decision of what to publish. The title of “publisher” goes with that power, and is still used to this day.

Legend is wrong, though, in saying that as multinational media corporations have come to dominate publishing, that practice has died out.  It’s still in use, and not just at small, independent houses, the ones that one might assume would carry on such a tradition. Yes, the traditional process is still used at independents such as Holiday House and Candlewick, but it is also used at the children's trade imprints at one of New York's large corporate publishers, Penguin. The practice there is not a simple one of taking a manuscript straight to the publisher, as Kate Harrison, an editor at Dial, explained it to me: "Dial does (as do several other imprints) have a manuscript meeting about once a month to which editors can bring picture books or partial novels on which they'd like editorial feedback before taking something to Lauri [Lauri Hornik, the Dial publisher]. This meeting is only attended by the editors and assistants--not by the publisher or any sales or marketing."  Still, with the addition of the editorial meeting, their process is little different from the traditional one.

It’s heartening that the traditional process is still in use, but that method of acquiring isn’t the one that causes anxiety in writers, so I’ll move on to investigate the dreaded acquisitions committee.

The Acquisitions Committee: The Corporate Way

In the “corporate” acquisition process, an editor must prepare an acquisition proposal, circulate it, present the title at an acquisition or publishing meeting, attended by heads of marketing, subsidiary rights, and other departments as well as a publisher, and get the committee’s approval.

What's in an Acquisition Proposal?

Some of the information included or attached:

  • description of the book and rationale for publishing it
  • planned specifications for the book, such as page count and trim size
  • biography of the author
  • same for the intended illustrator, if the book will be illustrated
  • author's sales history, reviews of previous books
  • a profit and loss (P&L) or budget statement for the book
  • proposed contract terms
  • the manuscript itself

For more details, see my sample acquisition proposal.

This is a relatively new process, though long established at Macmillan Children's Books when I joined the company in the late 1980's in my first publishing job. In a conversation with Leonard Marcus, author of the children's book industry history, The Minders of Make-Believe, I learned that acquisition meetings developed as publishers looked beyond the library market and the marketing department grew in importance, and as children's publishing became more corporate. They didn't appear at the same time at every company, however. They are now widespread, standard these days at publishers such as HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Little, Brown, and others.

Why is this process necessary? Children’s publishing is big business now, and for many companies that means not leaving acquiring decisions up to one person. The books still matter, but so do the finances. Emma D. Dryden, vice president and publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, imprints of Simon & Schuster Children's, looks at today’s realities this way: "authors need to recognize that when they submit a manuscript for publication, they are proposing to enter into a business contract with a publisher--and so it is with a business head and a creative heart that authors should acknowledge that the acquisitions meeting is a necessary part of the process whereby a publisher can feel 100% certain that they can do a project justice by publishing it --and thereby making money for the author and the publisher alike."

How the process plays out varies widely. Typically, it begins with a discussion within an imprint, either informally or at a regular meeting of editors. If the editor takes the project forward from there, she must prepare an acquisitions proposal, to justify the acquisition and set up a proposed budget. She circulates this to the acquisitions committee (the group that must approve the acquisition), and schedules time to present her project at an acquisitions meeting. These meetings are held regularly, even weekly, or only as needed, and may get postponed if a crucial person is at a conference or on vacation. Once a proposal gets to the meeting, that isn’t always the end of the process. Some acquisition committees routinely approve almost all of the proposals that come to them. More typically, some approved, some are turned down, and some are returned to the editor for more information or a rethink.

Here's one specific example, as described to me by Yolanda LeRoy, editorial director at Charlesbridge:

An editor finds a manuscript they like and brings it my attention. I may make some suggestions or I may have them bring it to Team Meeting (all the editors and designers) for a group discussion/brainstorming session. From there it would go to our Acq Board. Or sometimes a book might skip the Team Meeting step and go straight to Acq Board, which consists of me, the art director, the head of publicity and promotions, the associate publisher, and the publisher. We all read the text and leave written comments on a standardized form. Sometimes no further discussion is needed, and a project will get a yea or nay based on the feedback. More often than not, though, we have a meeting to discuss it, with the sponsoring editor present to answer questions and articulate their vision. There are three voting members of Acq Board: me, the associate publisher, and the publisher. Two out of three of us need to approve any acquisition. It's a fairly simple, streamlined procedure, and so far it's been working for us.

Other companies, particularly larger companies, may require more people to approve an acquisition, or require that all manuscripts be discussed in an acquisitions meeting. It is any wonder that this takes time?

Publisher-initiated Acquisition

The third type of acquisition process is little known but common, widely used in library-oriented nonfiction and mass market publishing, but not unheard of elsewhere. In this process, the process of acquisition is kicked off by the publisher, who plans a title or series of titles internally, and then goes in search of a writer.

Eileen Robinson, formerly of Scholastic Library, led me through the steps involved from inception: "The process begins from the moment the editor has an idea or concept he or she wants to pursue; a book or series that will expand upon or add value to the publishing plan and continue to build upon the publisher’s guiding principles while increasing revenue."  The editor develops the idea, researches the competition and needs in the market, and discusses it in an editorial meeting. If others like the idea, work on a P&L follows, leading to a formal presentation: "the editor can now work with Creative (Design) to create a visual, a prototype of the possible covers and interior layouts for the book or series.   The editor presents the full package (concept, supporting materials, i.e., curriculum information, articles or other material found during research, and competition) to the management team."  Then the project is approved, and only then is an author or authors hired to write what the editor has planned.

The impetus for the acquisition comes from inside the publisher, in other words, but the manuscript is still brought in from outside. To work with a publisher using this process, a writer must have contacts and the ability to write to specifications and often to a very tight deadline, so it has its frustrations. They are not the same frustrations, of course, as a writer waiting to hear what an acquisition committee thinks of an already-completed manuscript.

Why Is It So Fraught?

Over and over again, on discussion boards, at conferences, and in emails, I hear from writers frustrated by the acquisitions process, writers usually experiencing the acquisition committee process. This frustration is not only felt by beginners, as this comment by Jane Yolen demonstrates:  

The most frustrating thing from this writer's pov (and this has happened more times recently than I can count) is the editor who tells me how much she loves a mss., already has ideas for how to illustrate it, can't wait to get started with it, and one, two--even six months later--turns it down because she ‘can't get enough enthusiasm’ from the rest of the troops. Give me back the Ursula days when she bought what she loved, She would tell them to find a way to sell the book. That was their job, after all.

Case Studies

Alvina Ling of Little, Brown has posted some detailed accounts of particular acquisitions on her blogs.

For more, go to bloomabilities, and on the right side towards the bottom, you will find links to posts about various books she's edited.

Part of the reason why the process can be difficult and time-consuming is simply that it couldn't possibly be more important to publishers. As noted above, this is how publishers build their future, and they want to get it right. So publishers think, and debate, and then think some more.

As Alvina Ling notes, the committee tends to err on the side of caution: "My main frustration is that I think acquisition by committee results in more "safe" projects, and prevents the more risky or experimental books from getting signed up."  That's not the whole story, though, because as Alvina goes on to say, the committee sometimes does take risks, and the publisher at Little, Brown, who has the final say, will from time to time agree to go ahead with a project that did not have unanimous support.

Caution isn't the only reason why acquisitions can take time. As Yolanda LeRoy points out, there are competing interests in play:

Why can the acquisition process get contentious? Well, because for the most part people don't go into publishing unless they really, really care about books. And that means we are all rather opinionated. . . . I also think that there are necessary, inherent tensions in any publishing house. For example, editorial is not in charge of how a book is sold or promoted, yet we are judged on its financial success and want it to succeed because of our personal creative investment in the book. But achieving that success is largely out of our hands. On the flip side, marketing is stuck selling and promoting a product that they had very little to do with creating. So when a book does poorly, is it that "marketing didn't push it enough," as we in editorial would say, or is it that "editorial didn't deliver a saleable product"? Hence the tension. I think there are similar competing goals between design and production and even to some extent between design and editorial. But these conflicting interests and tensions are healthy and natural. It's what makes us question our choices or stand firm in our convictions.

And, I would add, when the process goes right, that's what leads to better books.

Why Editors (Sometimes) Like the Process

In spite of the inherent difficulties and delays, the acquisition process gives an editor the opportunity to get the rest of the company, particularly sales and marketing, excited about and supportive of a book.  Kate Harrison had this to say about her experiences before she came to Dial: "acquisitions meetings are very good for some things, like getting sales excited about a promising project from the get-go, getting extra insight into the sales possibilities for a particular topic, or hearing a great illustrator idea for a picture-book manuscript." Alvina Ling of Little, Brown said something similar: “As I think we all know, in-house support and enthusiasm can be important to a project's success in the market. Decisions made by committee can mean that key people are already invested in the book's success.” And so did Cheryl Klein, editor at Arthur Levine Books, Scholastic: "When I have a project I'm tremendously excited about, I actually really like the Acquisitions process, because it's my first chance to share the ms. with our sales and marketing staff and get them as excited as I am. Everyone brings their expertise to the table to figure out the best way to publish the book."

Regardless of whether or not one likes the way acquisitions are done at most children's publishers, the unavoidable reality is that they are done that way, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. What to do, in these tough times? Listen to the words of wisdom of Judy O'Malley, independent editor: "In the current economic climate, when publishers are understandably cautious about acquiring books for which they can't expect strong initial sales, authors and their editors need to be particularly conscientious in developing the manuscript and building a strong case for a book before beginning the acquisitions process."  Forewarned is forearmed, in other words. Know what to expect, and do what you can to make the process go as smoothly as possible.

Resources

The acquisitions process at children’s publishers is not much discussed either online or in print. Books by editors, including my Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, or Olga Litowinsky’s It’s a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World, have some general information.

Online, there are Alvina Ling’s acquisitions stories, mentioned earlier, and this piece by her on Publishing by Committee. I wrote an earlier article addressing the basics of acquisitions. Nancy Mercado wrote a short piece on an unusual acquisition. Peachtree Publishers wrote It Takes a Village to Acquire a Book. I found some of these in Jill Corcoran's useful blog post of acquisition links.

Originally published in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, 2010 edition

Copyright © 2009 and 2010 by Harold Underdown: please follow the copyright policy you will find on the policy page.

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