HOW AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS DECIDE WHICH BOOK TO PUBLISH

The phrase speculate to accumulate could have been written by a publisher since speculation is at the heart of the process; whether it be an agent deciding which author to sign up or a production director deciding how many copies of a book to sign off. Judgment and not hard numbers is what underlines the process of manuscript purchasing and book publishing.

Before a manuscript becomes a book it will have been through myriad judgment calls on the text, the cover, the market and the sales expectations. Ultimately the only real judgment that counts, that one decision that either confirms or undermines what everyone has thought about a book, is that of the reader, the person who buys the book. Ironically, when choosing what to take on, agents or editors are the same as the people they want to reach: readers deciding if they like a story. If they do like the story and they can persuade others to as well, the manuscript has a chance of becoming a book. 

 

Beyond these walls

For a writer, getting someone to like your manuscript is the first step and these days that process starts outside a publishing house. Most publishers, at least large ones such as HarperCollins, no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. They simply do not have the time or resources to sift through a slush pile. They rely on agents to carry out the first stage of filtering for them. The only hope for most writers then, particularly a new one, is to find representation.

The agent’s job 

Some writers think that they can do without an agent and some probably can. That 15% commission that agents charge might seem a lot, until you think about the fact that source books of names of publishers are usually updated once a year, whereas publishing staff changes all the time. What and who an agent knows – their knowledge of the different lists and imprints within a publishing house and who buys what for which one – is the key to a book’s success. For example, at Press books where there are five different lists, each one with a particular focus, and within HarperCollins, where there are probably more than thirty and if that number is multiplied across London, that means there are hundreds of places where a book could, and could not be placed. Knowing the distinctions is an insider’s job

Panning for gold

Every editor receives hundreds of submissions per year from agents. Their job is to find not only the best for the market but the ones that they themselves like the most. If an editor doesn’t absolutely love and shout about every project bought in a list of possibly 100 hardbacks per division and where the other 99 are all fighting for the same budgets and resources, the book has little chance of being accepted. Judgment is all, but once a book is chosen so is the pitch. That pitching process starts at an editorial meeting. 

The first discussion 

Before trying to persuade Sales, Marketing, Publicity, the Financial Director and the Managing Director of the value of a book, an editor must persuade his or her own editorial team. This team will then circulate the manuscript for discussion at an editorial meeting. All the pertinent editors discuss each manuscript, and a collective decision is made about which titles to try and buy, and which to reject. Editors are fighting not only for support, the backing to go to an acquisition meeting and try and buy a book, but also for money and space. Every list can only publish a finite number of titles per month or year, because not only is there finite resources within the company – editorial resources to process the book, marketing and publicity resources to promote it, production resources to design and produce it, warehouse resources to store and distribute it and sales resources to sell it – but there is finite space in a bookshop. Each retailer only has a certain number of slots per month, which makes the publication of every book impossible. 

As soon as a manuscript has editorial support, both from its champion and the rest of the team, the editor then circulates the manuscript more widely to Sales, Marketing, Publicity, the Managing Director and anyone else within the division the editor thinks would vociferously support it. Some voices have more weight than others. The editor’s job is to get as many powerful voices as possible, particularly in the area of European and International Sales, to read a manuscript, love it, and say so.

The acquisitions meeting

Once the manuscript has been read and is loved by all the people that count and the editorial team feels that it, and the writer, suits their list the next step is to look at profit and loss. The whole team will debate the book’s prospects. Every week most publishing divisions have an acquisitions meeting and before this meeting the Acquiring Editor talks to Sales, Marketing and the Financial Director in order to get their opinions on how many copies the book might sell at a particular price and in a specific format. This information is then fed into an Acquisition Profit and Loss sheet. Along with the manuscript and the voices of support for it, this P and L is essential not only for persuading the team to buy a book, but also for persuading them of the level at which the manuscript should be bought, that means how much the publisher ought to pay.

Often, it is at this point the process collapses. In very simple terms if £10,000 is paid, the book must sell enough copies to make back at least that amount, plus costs. If the projected sales numbers and the advance paid out, tally, that is to say if the book looks like it might earn back the proposed advance and make a profit and everyone in the room agrees that buying the book is a good idea, the editor is given the go-ahead to make an offer. However, if an agent is looking for a particular sum, but the sales numbers suggest that the book won’t make that sum back and will, therefore be unprofitable, the editor will either fight for the advance required, arguing for getting a particular writer onto a list and talking up their future projects, or go back to the agent and argue for a smaller advance. 

Competing for a book

One of the pressures of the acquisition process is that most manuscripts are sent to many houses at once. And, if the book interests several of them, an auction where publishers bid against each other will take place. Publishing auctions are unusual in that the book may not go to the highest bidder. Often, if a book is hotly pursued by several publishers each one will try to meet the author and agent and make a team pitch. Each publisher will try to sell their publisher’s place in the market, what the company can do for the book and why the author will feel at home on the publisher’s list. They will offer as much money as they can, but after that they hope that their publishing reputation will secure the book. The idea of accepting less money might seem odd to a writer, and, although getting the right financial deal is important so is having the right publisher.

The opposite of an auction is a Pre-empt. Sometimes an agent will send a manuscript to just one publisher, giving them the chance to make a pre-emptive offer, that is an offer which prevents the book being sent to anyone else. Usually this offer secures exclusive access to the manuscript for a fixed period of time. The book will still have to go through the acquisition process internally but the Pre-empt removes much of the external pressure for an editor.

All of the above scenarios take time. An offer may be made one week, but not accepted or rejected for several weeks. Or, if an offer is not acceptable to the agent and writer, but the editor manages to secure a compromise; then the acquisition will come back to the meeting and be discussed again, until the book is bought, rejected or lost to another publisher, which is the end of one process; the beginning of several others. At the end of all of this debating and money discussions, the editor may have the book they want, at the right price, and the writer has the publisher they want and the money to keep writing.

This is a massive simplification of the process. Sometimes editors go after writers, particularly celebrities who have not yet written an autobiography, or they see a story in the press that they think will make a good book. But, whatever the source – agent, self-generated idea – the editor must still fight for each and every book, for the money to buy it, for the time and resource to produce, promote and sell it and for the space to give it the best chance. Once the manuscript is bought, and the book published, the championing and competing process continues throughout the life of the book.

(This information was edited from hints on publishing put out by HarperCollins, 2009)  

© 2015 elizahemingway.com