How Publishers Choose Manuscripts

How Publishers Choose Fiction Manuscripts For Print And Profit

Everyone has a story to tell, and common dream is to publish a book. This dream comes from many desires whether financially or popularity driven. The advent of the personal computer provides just enough motivation to get amateurs started on their ways to writing. The ease of computer word processing revolutionized the ease of writing, allowing for more would be writers.

With the avalanche of manuscript submissions the rules for acquiring books had to change. The publishing companies had to develop guidelines and redefine. To answer the problem, we have to find out how publishers choose fiction manuscripts for print and profit.

Background

With motivation to write being the driving force, it wasn’t uncommon fifteen years ago for potential authors to bang out manuscripts on word processors or electric typewriters. The Authors would go through a rewrite replacing as many pages as necessary. This rewrite might require running through whole chapters since a change to one paragraph would disrupt the numbering of sequential pages. Once finished, the author then had reedit several times before he had the perfect draft of the “world’s greatest novel”. A potential novelist might be thwarted by such as a daunting task, his story never put to paper.

To answer the current demand, around 5,000 publishing companies start up each year, and with that hopes of tremendous financial and literary success as they compete to fill shelf and cyberspace. According to R.R. Bowker Company (Cox 2000), 53,000 new book titles roll of the presses. The cold hard reality is that only three out of ten books actually make money for the publisher. The study of all publishers and how they need to do business to succeed would be exhausting and not condensed enough to fit into this presentation.

Publishing houses print basically two types of books: fiction, non-fiction. Non-fiction books cover biographies, self-help, how to, travel, and myriad genres too many to list. Likewise, fiction books cover mystery, religion, historical, horror, crime, and/or a combination of the above. I will report how fiction publishers compete for success in a fiction producing industry.

Method

Publishers seek a certain type of reader based on the genre they specialize in. For example, William D. Watkins, acquisitions editor of Broadman & Holman Publishing, reported in a 1998 writer’s conference that publishers of religious fiction seek their reading audience; 35-year-old women readers. However, not only does a publisher such as Bethany Books compete with publishers of the same genre, they have to entice this same audience out of the ever-popular self-help section of the bookstore.

However, before the printing, fiction writers send their earth shattering manuscripts to publishers. They want to be printed to satisfy their egos, earn money, gain notoriety, be a role model, or contribute to the literary treasury (McHugh, 1999). These authors compete against astronomical numbers of other manuscripts sent to the very same acquisitions editor.

Selection Criteria

The Acquisitions Editor has the huge job of being proactive in the writing market place. Authors seek many publishers because they are experts in the field which they publish. These experts/publishers break down the company into departments of fiction and non-fiction, and then by genre. An acquisitions editor may find himself working in a department or genre and will be proactive in finding new authors, researching the marketplace, negotiating contracts and developing books.

Cox also relates that the acquisitions editor is busy dealing with unsolicited manuscripts. This is a touchy area since not too many publishers want to risk the $10,000 to $18,000 it takes to publish book on an unknown or unpublished author. However, the very manuscripts they reject another company may accept and publish a best seller.

Celebrity used to sell books (Marks, 1998) now the trend has changed. Marks explained that between 1995 and 1998 the sales of hardback books have decreased 7.5 percent. The large book publishing companies who used to award million dollar contracts can no longer afford to do so. Smarter acquisitions are necessary.

The acquisitions editor must have a standard for selecting manuscripts and adhere to that strict set of rules. The manuscript must have believable characters and the writing must not be grammatically or technically flawed. The story needs to be perfect as the editor has little time to spend on sloppy writing. Finally, the manuscript must meet the standards of the publishing company. For example, Broadman and Holman Publishing Company does not want erotica or profanity and the Wilshire Publishing Company only wants stories that have characters overcoming insurmountable odds (Young 2000). Additionally, many Christian Publishers do not want angels to miraculously descend and rescue a heroine.

Salesmanship

Once he selects a manuscript, the acquisitions editor must be able to both sell his company to a likely author and sell an author to his company. According to McHugh, he might pitch author credentials, subject of book, the description of the work, marketing to targeted audience, finances and editorial development. This is the person most likely to make or break the success of his company.

If the acquisitions editor manages to sell the manuscript, the company must immediately begin a marketing plan. This shouldn’t be too difficult at this stage since the acquisitions editor probably included a marketing strategy shared by the proposing author or devised by himself. Early on, the publisher should satisfy questions of; who is the intended audience, where can we reach them, is the author willing to travel to sign the book, should the author travel, how much should the book cost, how many copies should we make? Cox also indicated that the lack of a good publicity will cause a literary masterpiece to fail.

Discussion

While these questions are probed, a selection committee is reviewing the manuscript to verify the acquisitions editor’s hunch. They also look for validity of the story and can the story sell to the intended audience. This committee of reviewers will have as much pull as the acquisitions editor as they share responsibility on book acceptance. This author managed to have a manuscript accepted by an acquisitions editor pending on the outcome of the review committee. The committee voted not to accept the manuscript. During the acquisitions process, the editor will rarely contact the author and may reject the manuscript without giving reason. This is due to the high volume of submissions.

Editorial Concerns

An examination of the writing process might find an inexperienced author with an idea just typing away. Later, as he continually researches his trade, he learns information about writing technicalities that force him to reconstruct his story. One frustrating mistakes new authors make is Point of View (POV). This term describes who is speaking and what they are feeling. Abusing POV in a story causes confusion for the reader.

Consider this example:

John and his party approached the top of the crest, as they wove through the underbrush. While still twenty yards from the clearing, John could make out Marta and another man carrying a pot. He heard threatening voices, but couldn’t discern what was said.

He and his warriors approached the clearing slowly, methodically. He knew he had the advantage of cover and concealment, but Angus had the high ground, and Marta. Short of a better plan, John dispersed his remaining three men to advantageous positions and had them ready their fire.

“You there, in the clearing. You are completely surrounded. Release the woman, and you won’t get hurt” he yelled, sounding like a scene from bad movie.

Marta’s eyes perked up and her heart beat with new life. “John!” she called out excitedly before being pulled down. “You guys are going to get it now.”

“Will you please just shut up!” Angus put his hand over her mouth while holding his pistol to her head. “Listen out there, maybe we can make a deal,” he said slowly rising, using Marta for cover.

John was fuming, barely in control. His fists clenched and unclenched with unbridled fury. It had been too much seeing them push Marta around, but now they hid behind her. He motioned for two warriors to remain, as he took one with him. His mind was working furiously, trying to keep ahead of Angus’s possible moves. He and his warrior would circle, flanking Angus. If his warriors were good enough, they may have a clean shot. “What kind of deal did you have in mind?” John shouted before changing positions.

This POV is disconcerting because the reader is thrown around from the thoughts of one character to the other. The following is an example of good POV:

John and his party approached the top of the crest as they wove through the underbrush a few hours later. While still twenty yards from the clearing, John could make out Marta and another man carrying a pot. He heard threatening voices, but couldn’t discern what was said.

He and his warriors approached the clearing slowly, methodically. He knew he had the advantage of cover and concealment, but Angus had the high ground, and Marta. Short of a better plan, John dispersed his remaining three men to advantageous positions and had them ready their fire.

“You there, in the clearing. You are completely surrounded. Release, Marta and you won’t get hurt,” John yelled, sounding like a scene from bad movie. He heard Marta call his name with a voice full of hope. Then he saw Angus knock her down. You guys are going to get it now, he thought.

“Listen out there, maybe we can make a deal,” said Angus.

John was fuming, barely in control. His fists clenched and unclenched with unbridled fury. It had been too much seeing them push Marta around, but now they hid behind her. He motioned for two warriors to remain, as he took one with him. His mind was working furiously, trying to keep ahead of Angus’ possible moves. He and his warrior would circle, flanking Angus. If his warriors were good enough, they might have a clean shot. “What kind of deal did you have in mind?” John shouted before changing positions. With the latter POV, the reader lives the scene through one character’s eyes.

Author Responsibility

Just to reinforce, reconstructing a story either handwritten or typed was a horrible task only a few years ago. Fewer authors actually submitted stories. Publishers could pick and choose as they sought out new authors. Now, the computer allows cutting and pasting, automatic page numbering, tab setting and page formatting. Having easier access to completing a novel brought on many more submissions (Sally, 1999). The publishing companies had to change its vision of seeking authors to filtering through the piles of endless manuscript submissions. Now, it is easier to write a book but harder to publish it. The publishers have developed strict submission guidelines that put the author in a position to be editor and publicist just to get a query letter read.

Acquisition

Today, manuscripts end up in one of three piles; review later, discard, and review immediately. The acquisitions editor has to have a plan of action to filter through the avalanche of mail that comes his way. Some authors haphazardly send whole manuscripts, completely disregarding the publishers’ needs. Either they don’t know what to send, or they are arrogant enough to think their manuscript should get priority over all others. The editors have strict policies they must adhere to, if not, the company could run around acquiring manuscripts that are faulty and not serving the needs of the audience.

The review later pile is where an unknown author who has done his homework will most likely find himself. The authors have researched the name and mailing address of the acquisitions editor, they have submitted their manuscript in accordance with the publisher policy. This usually means a writer has sent out a letter telling of their book, and the editor wrote back asking for either a synopsis of the book or the full text manuscript. Most likely the editor will able to get to and respond to this pile within four weeks.

The discard pile is not normally a heap of worthless manuscripts. This pile consists of manuscripts that do not meet the needs of the publisher. Either the content is wrong, the paper is grammatically incorrect, or contains other major flaws that draw negative attention to itself. Finally this consists of authors who have done everything correctly, but for one reason or another (rarely specified), the publisher won’t turn it into a book. These rejections would normally be returned to an author if the author prepaid return postage. The golden rule for remaining out of this pile is to understand the needs of the company, send a perfect draft, follow all submission guide lines, and include a self addressed stamped envelope.

Oh to be in the review immediately pile. This pile is reserved for several different authors. One set of authors may have pitched the book at a writer’s conference and won the confidence of the editor after a face-to-face meeting. Another set of authors is well known with whom the company had either made initial contact or already had a working relationship.

Production

This process may sound cruel and inhumane, leaving many authors run screaming in frustration. However, it is like any business where the employees grumble but do not have the burden of carrying their companies on their jobs and reputations. Consider this excerpt from an America House Publishing Company’s publishing contract. “This agreement is entered into by both parties in good faith, with the mutual understanding that neither party has guaranteed, or is to guarantee, the sale of any specific number of copies of the said literary work, it being impossible to predict, before publication, what success any book may attain”.

The preceding paragraph assures that the publisher assumes the risk of manuscript selection. The manuscript is only as successful as the marketing professionalism of a publishing company and the ability of the author. Noneffective publicity is certainly one risk both parties take. However a loosely written manuscript is likely to be torn apart by a knowlegable book reviewer. Recalling the earlier section on POV, consider this paraphrase from a review; “the point of view in this story switched frequently leaving the reader confused” (Army Times, 2001). This kind of statement will have readers scurrying away from the newstands. Not a productive ingredient to the success of a book.

We can see how publication has changed over the past two decades. Money that had flowed freely to wine and dine authors and million dollar advances no longer exist. New publishing companies emerge monthly to rival and steal business from corporate giants. The money faucet is clogged leaving publishing houses finding ingenious ways to publish and make profit. Most of the reponsibility lies on the acquisitions editor who must have foresight, instinct, a disciplined selection plan, and a publicists heart. Thier practice of prevention and quality control work hand in hand toward successful book publishing.

References

Cox, J. Self-Publishing: Tips, tricks, & techniques. The book lovers’ haven 26 paragraphs. Retrieved February 6, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

[http://www.execpc.com/~mbr/bookwatch/writepub/]

Marks, J. (1998, January 12). Publish and don’t perish. U.S. News five pages Retrieved February 16, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

[http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/980112/12publ.htm]

McHugh, J. More checklists of acquisitions tips and techniques. The publishing law center 2 pages Retrieved February 16, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

http://publaw.com/check2.html

Stuart, S. E. (1998) Christian writers’ market guide. Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers.

Young, W. (2000) Christian book writers’ marketing guide. California: Joy Publishing

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *