It’s Not You, It’s Everything Else

Awhile ago, I read queries for a literary agent and wrote On Querying: It’s About Etiquette. Now I’ve landed at a publishing house, ostensibly moving from sales to acquisitions. I’ve never been happier with my day job…and never been more disillusioned as a writer.

Being published is a collaborative process, at least where I work. Let’s say a writer has signed with an agent and the agent has received interest from an editor (assume this is an unknown, debut author or a lesser known one). That editor (in most cases 1) shares it with one or more other editors. Those secondary editors read the manuscript and present their thoughts. These recommendations may be classified in “Purchase,” “Pass,” or “Revise.” Of course there are degrees between these classifications. An editor may “pass” but wants to read the authors next project, or they may “purchase,” if the author is willing to do XYZ. Now, if the editor receives positive feedback from the other editors (or more yeahs than nays), the executive editorial director, or one of the most senior editors reads the manuscripts and approves or denies it being presented to acquisitions.

Already, the manuscript has been through four levels of readers: agent, editor, secondary editors, and editorial director. All of whom are making personal decisions about the piece. So, even if the manuscript is readable, interesting, and well-written, it may still be passed because of one or two opinions aren’t interested in the topic or character at the moment. As a hard-nosed business woman, I find this savvy, but as a writer, I find it insanely demoralizing.

Let’s say the manuscript passes with enthusiasm through the editors, the literarily artistic decision-makers. The manuscript is then brought to the acquisitions team, composed of top representatives from design, marketing, public relations, sales, managing editorial, digital publishing, foreign licensing, and publishers, among others. Each has read the manuscript and reviewed accompanying material. Bringing their own expertise and specific, departmental knowledge, they collaboratively decide on whether to make an offer.

Ultimately, these departments are the mouth pieces for the outside world — where would Barnes & Noble shelve it? Is there a hook to pitch to NPR or Teen Vogue? How would librarians react to this or that character? Is it too much like something already published? If it is, did that book perform well? If it did, would readers want more books like it? Is it too much like a book already on our list? Do we know anything about the author? How did their previous book perform? Are they easy to work with? Are they demanding or want too much artistic control over the cover or marketing? How much outreach will they do themselves? Are they a dynamic speaker? Do they have a platform? Do we have too many books of this genre in the season we’re thinking about publishing it in? Can we move another book to another season to make room for this one? Would it be front list or back list? What’s happening culturally right now? What will be happening during the potential publication season?

There is nothing, I repeat NOTHING a writer, agent, or editor can do to better the likelihood of acquisition at this final stage, even if the manuscript is amazing. Because it’s not the writer or the writing that turns a manuscript into a published book. Publishing is not a quantitative or qualitative process — it’s gambling, it’s hedge funds, it’s real estate. Publishers take the biggest financial risk, hoping to buy low and sell high in an upcoming neighborhood before any other buyer gets a whiff of the neighborhood’s potential. Agents take the biggest time risk, spending time finding, securing and pitching a manuscript, only receiving compensation if it is bought.

Alas, we writers, we take the biggest emotional risk. And we all know why. Even though I’m disenchanted with ever being a published author, I still write. I’m compelled, as all writers should be.

1 There are some editors at some publishing houses who have acquisition power and may offer on a manuscript without official approval from other departments. Although they may seek advice from individuals within different departments.

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