Unlocking Publisher Secrets: A Conversation with an Acquisitions Editor
For an author, the world of acquisitions in a publishing house can seem like a mystery. What happens behind those closed doors once your book proposal arrives? How does a publishing department choose which books to pick up–and which to reject?
Here to give us a peek behind the curtain of publishing house acquisitions is Chad Allen, Editorial Director at Baker Books. He’s worked in acquisitions and editorial for Baker for over 15 years and has partnered with hundreds of authors including Michael Hyatt, Mark Batterson, Kyle Idleman, Dr. Caroline Leaf, and more.
I get questions all the time about the acquisitions process, so I thought we’d go right to an expert. Chad Allen and I had an incredible conversation a few days ago, and the highlights–the stuff I thought my readers would love hearing–are below.
Note: Since we’re both Chads (best name ever), I’m using our last names here.
Cannon: Chad, tell us about the role of an acquisitions editor.
Allen: The main responsibility of an acquisitions editor is to bring books under contract and develop those books from when they come in to when they go on to copy editor. It’s kind of a two-part job. It’s reviewing proposals and acquiring those and then also developing manuscripts once they’re acquired.
Cannon: That’s awesome. I think people often forget about the development aspect of acquisitions and just think about the “rainmaking” aspect. From talking with different folks in the industry, I hear that one of your greatest strengths is developing a manuscript–and that authors love working with you. Kudos on that.
Allen: Thanks. That’s where the magic happens as far as I’m concerned. Making the deal is great, but making a book is even better.Making the deal is great, but making a book is even better. -Chad Allen Click To Tweet
Cannon: How many proposals do you get a month, and then how many do you actually take to pub board (the group of people who decide whether to take a book proposal forward)? Then how many of those out of pub board do you actually make offers on and get accepted? It’s important for people to see how the funnel works.
Allen: Most proposals come through agents. If I just held the doors wide open for anything to come in, I’d get a lot more than this, but the vast majority come through agents. I’d say I get anywhere from 15 to 20 proposals per month. I’ll take a small percentage–we’ll say less than 10% of those–to pub board, and then a smaller percentage than that of the proposals I receive will go on to be contracted.
You have to remember that I have about a 50/50 lose to win ratio. I’m competing against other publishers out there, so I can consider myself having a 50/50 chance on any book I bring in because of a variety of factors.
So, overall, the math there is 15 to 20 proposals a month. I bring in less than 10% of those, and then whatever I do bring in, I end up acquiring maybe 50%.
Cannon: So, if I play the math right, you’re going after 1 to 2 books per month?
Allen: Yes, that’s about right. I try to acquire 15 books a year.
Cannon: What do you look for when you pursue an author or a project? You’ve mentioned here that you get proposals from agents, but there’s probably some proactive things that you do, too. Please share a little bit about when you’re actually proactively going after a book. What is it that draws you to say, “Hey, I need to reach out to that agent or that author and put myself on their radar?”
Allen: That’s a great question. The temptation for an acquisitions editor is to be completely passive, to wait for whatever comes over the wall. That is the temptation because, like any professional, we all have so much to do.
I think that the acquisitions editors that really stand apart from the pack (Here I am giving trade secrets, so hopefully my competitors aren’t reading this!) is to actually write down a list of your top ten authors that you would love to work with and then to develop strategies around each of those authors.
Cannon: What are the top three most important things that you’re looking for in a book proposal?
Allen: Well, the first thing we see, of course, is the cover page, which includes the working title and subtitle. That immediately gives us an impression. It may be the quickest thing to write down–your working title and subtitle–but my hope is that authors put a lot of work into that title and subtitle because it encapsulates a concept. Your concept is so, so important. Does it meet a real need that’s out there? Is it in some way unique from everything else that’s out there? Those are the things that we’re looking for in a concept. That would be the first thing.
The second thing would be the author’s bio, actually. After looking at the cover page, that’s what I go to right afterwards. I want to learn about who this author is, not only in terms of how good a writer they are, but also in terms of what are their connections, what’s their platform, what is their ability to bring exposure to their own book, and what would they be like to work with as a person? Authors are artists–we all know that–but they are also business partners, particularly when they sign a book contract. A little secret here, sort of an insider tip, is that people in publishing like to work with people they enjoy having dinner with because, chances are, you will end up having meals with these people. So the bio gives me some kind of inkling about who they are as people.
Then finally, I’d say the writing. The description of the book is important–that 3- to 5-paragraph summary is the first writing sample. That’s where we get our first taste of the author’s writing and of his or her vision for the book. Then, of course, the writing sample as well at the end of the proposal. The writing has to sing.Authors are artists, but they are also business partners. -Chad Allen Click To Tweet
Cannon: What would the #4 most important piece of a proposal be? (Because #4 is what I would anticipate would be in the top 3, but it’s tough because I wouldn’t knock any of those off…)
Allen: I think you’re probably talking about platform. Of course, that’s important.
I tell people you can overdo it when it comes to brief description and bio. You can write for too long when it comes to those things. But when it comes to the marketing section, there’s no overdoing it. You can write as long as you want, brainstorm as much as you want, have as detailed plan as you can possibly deliver.
Cannon: So, let’s say those first three things–concept, bio, and writing–are great. Let’s say all those things are just home runs. Are you going to acquire that book if they have zero platform?
Allen: It depends on how good the concept is. A lot of the time, no. But sometimes, yes. There’s need-driven books, and then there’s name-driven books. Sometimes the need is so great that we will contract even if the author doesn’t have a platform. But the exception justifies the rule here. The rule is, no. The #1 reason we turn books down is no platform or lack of platform.
Cannon: As a publishing insider, what’s your take on the benefits and role of self-publishing?
Allen: Boy, that could probably be the topic of a whole interview all by itself. Ten years ago, self-publishing was really expensive and therefore a lot less accessible. I mean, at least if you were going to self-publish in any quantity, it could be pretty pricey. These days with Kindle and CreateSpace and tools like that, it is really cheap, and so it’s much more accessible than it ever has been.
I find myself these days often advising aspiring writers, “Look, go after the traditional book contract first because a traditional publisher does have distribution that you’re not going to get otherwise, not to mention the other things a publisher provides: publicity, editorial work, design work, the list goes on.” Go ahead and pursue that first, because that would be the best possible scenario. But if it doesn’t work out, go for self-publishing. I usually tell them, “Give yourself 3-6 months to see if you can land a deal with a traditional publisher. If that doesn’t work, go for the self-publishing option and use your self-publishing as way to build your platform, so that next time a traditional publisher will be interested.”
Cannon: Do you make acquisitions decisions based more on intuition, data, writing, or platform? I know we talked about this a little bit, but specifically, what role does intuition–or your “gut”–have in causing you to say, “Oh, yes, this is what I’m looking for”?
Allen: One way to answer that is to talk about how I present books in pub board (the meeting in which we review proposals to decide what projects we want to pursue). I always have three things in mind: concept, platform, writing. Mentally, I give the proposal a grade on each of those. How would I grade the concept? How would I grade the platform? How would I grade the writing? Intuition tends to kick in when all three of those get an A.
If you’ve published other books, sales history is just really important. In some ways, I’d rather see a book from a first-time author than an author who’s written three books, but all of them have underperformed. That’s a lot harder sell to my pub board than a first-time author who has a great concept, a winning platform, and compelling writing.
When the intuition bells go off is when everything is coming up as an A+. That’s when we know we have something that not only we’re interested in, but that other publishers are probably interested in it, too, so we start to figure out what our strategy is for acquiring this. That is an ideal place for the author to be in.
Cannon: From your perspective, what makes a great agent?
Allen: Well, thinking about the overall process that’s involved, I think one thing that a good agent does is help an author think about the author’s concept. What’s the hook here? What’s the need your book is addressing, and how can we develop a proposal around that concept? That’s at the very front end–an agent who really helps you develop your concept and develop your book proposal.
Another key thing that an agent has to have is contacts. An agent isn’t worth much if he or she doesn’t know the acquisitions editors in the space where that particular book makes sense.
A third would be an ability to advocate for the author. What that looks like is, first of all, making sure the editor or editors see it, making sure that they have everything they need to present the proposal as compellingly as possible for their colleagues, and making sure they get a response back.
Then as things move on, if there are multiple offers, the agent has to be able to treat all the publishers fairly so that they all feel good about the project and how everything went–but also trying to get the best deal possible for the author. Finally, after contract, a good agent coaches the author on what to expect and is there for the author to commiserate with when things don’t go as the author would have wanted, as sometimes happens. It’s just a reality.
Cannon: Now that we know what makes a good agent, how can an author put him/herself on agents’ radar and get them interested?
Allen: First, an author need to figure out who the players are, so it’s important to research books that are in their space. Most books will mention the agent somewhere in the acknowledgments or on the copyright page. Find out who the agent is. I would build a list of at least five agents who are possible fits for your project.
Referrals are so important. If you want the attention of an agent, and you know one of the clients of that agent–an author that agent works with–ask that author to refer you to the agent. That’s the best possible scenario.
What that means is knowing who those authors are, following their blogs, commenting, trying to build a relationship–not just because you have something to benefit from it, but because it’s just smart to know what people in your space are saying and doing. Then when it feels natural, ask that person, “Can I tell you about a book I’m working on?” Hopefully that would naturally lead to, “Would you mind mentioning this to your agent?” That’s how I would go about it.
Cannon: Cool, thanks so much, Chad!
Allen: No problem, Chad.
(Chad love, all the way.)
For more from Chad Allen, check out his blog: chadrallen.com. He’s also the creator of Book Proposal Academy, an awesome online course designed to help nonfiction writers build compelling book proposals.