Book Proposals and the Acquisitions Process – A Publisher’s Perspective: Magic Bullet Q&A for Writers

Writers often ask me what happens when I receive book proposals. Do I offer a contract as soon as I realize I like the book concept? Do I share with colleagues first? What’s the acquisitions process like?

At the publisher where I work, F+W Publications, we have a weekly Friday pub board meeting for all of our book imprints. Pub board is where I must take all book projects for approval; without approval, I cannot contract an author or begin a new book project. The meeting includes teleconferencing with the Krause division (rural Wisconsin) and Adams Media (Boston area)–and sometimes even David & Charles in England.

At some publishers, editors have the freedom to acquire whatever titles they like without a committee-style review. But that’s not the case at F+W. Even the president of the book division brings projects to the board for approval.

The board consists of sales staff (the people who sell to chain bookstores, specialty markets, distributors, libraries, and so on), marketing staff, publicists, and in-house book club editors. More than 20 people typically fill the room, and while all have a voice, some voices are more important than others. (For my imprint, Writer’s Digest, the salesperson who sells to the chain bookstores has considerable say because that’s where we enjoy the largest percentage of our sales.)

To prepare for this meeting, I write up proposal information sheets (PI sheets) that are based on the book proposals I receive from authors and agents. PI sheets include a basic description of the book, key selling points, the author’s bio and marketing platform, evidence of need in the market, a competitive title analysis, and a table of contents plus sample chapters. Sometimes I have to work with authors over a period of weeks (even months) to really nail down the PI sheet and be confident that the concept will pass muster with the board.

P&Ls (profit-and-loss statements) are also required for pub board. No book can be approved without an accurate cost estimate of the book’s projected print quantity, manufacturing cost, photo/illustration cost, and sales in the first 12-18 months. I request P&Ls from our production dept., which usually take two weeks to turn around. When I receive them, I immediately look at the margin. Does this book meet the goal gross margin for the Writer’s Digest imprint? Is it making enough money that it will be a good investment of our time and effort? If the answer is no, then we’re probably doing a book that has limited appeal (limited sales potential), or a book that is too expensive to manufacture.

When I’m confident about the PI sheet and P&L, I make both documents available on the Tuesday before the pub board meeting, so everyone has time to review the material and do their own research if necessary. (At each pub board, we review a dozen titles or more, which produces a very thick stack of PI and P&L papers.)

Now we come to the meeting itself. It can be intimidating for the first-timer, and it’s easy to characterize pub board as an adversarial
meeting, where editorial fights the sales and marketing staff for the right to publish books that matter. But that’s not really the truth. Sure, there are inevitable disagreements. That happens when you’ve got 20 people in the room and strong publishing personalities. But the sales and marketing team are just as passionate about publishing great work as the editors–only they must have a skeptic’s view of each project. Will this book sell into the stores? Will it sell through the stores (will people actually buy it)? While editors have to be champions for their authors, and can become personally and professionally committed to them, the sales and marketing staff don’t often have the same obligation. They concentrate on the attractiveness of the book concept. The hook. And the marketing platform and sales history of the author. And they’re often pitching to even more skeptical chain store buyers who don’t want that third, fresh title of piggledy wiggledy by Mr. Mid-List. So at pub board they question, poke, prod, and undermine proposals that appear weak on the surface or at their core. If a book survives scrutiny, then I can officially make an offer to the author or agent as soon as pub board ends. Sometimes, a book will neither succeed nor fail–the editor is asked to make changes to the concept or P&L, and it is brought
back later for further consideration.

I sometimes wonder how I would do things differently if there were no pub board. What if I had final say? Honestly, there would be a few titles that I would not do. The committee offers a kind of safety net–because the COMMITTEE approved it, then the book must be OK. Perhaps editors are held just a little bit less accountable for their choices. We’re trained to believe that the committee is right, so we second-guess our gut and take things for approval that maybe might work … Not sure … so let’s have the committee decide! Perhaps trusting editors to decide for themselves would result in a better list. (But of course look who’s talking–and it’s so easy to blame others for books you don’t like!)

See you in the new year.

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