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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