What does an acquisition editor do?

February 25, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Someone wrote to ask, “Can you explain what an acquisition editor is, and how that’s different from a regular editor?”

As the name implies, the main role of an acquisitions editor is to acquire manuscripts for the publishing house. That means he or she knows what sort of books the house wants to do, and in the role will talk with agents, read the proposals that are sent in, perhaps go to conferences to meet face-to-face with authors, and evaluate everything in order to identify the manuscripts the house should pursue. Understand that most good acquisition editors are actively going out to hunt down authors and projects and ideas — not just sitting in an office and reacting to what’s sent to them.

Another author asked a similar question: “Are people hired into that type of position? Or does one have to ‘work one’s way’up to do that? What is the usual period of time/experience required to do that?”

Most new editorial hires start out as editorial assistants, working with an editor to assist with general office stuff. There’s not necessarily a major in college for becoming an editor, so we see a lot of English and Journalism majors, but also Business, History, Marketing, and Communications grads hired into the role. They learn the process of what a manuscript goes through in order to become a book. Then they are graduated to assistant editor, where they learn to actually edit. Then usually to associate editor, where they can begin to learn how to acquire. Eventually they become a full-fledged editor (in case you know of any editors who are only partially fledged). Most editors have two roles: to acquire books and edit them. At some houses they have “Acquisitions Editors,” whose sole job is to acquire new titles — in most cases others will do the actual editing of the manuscript. So yes, you work your way up. And the way you advance is by finding books that are successful. It’s not unusual for a person to spend five to seven years moving up the ranks.

And someone sent this: “What part does the ‘slush pile’ play in an acquisitions person’s life? (Do they find projects from time to time? Is a certain amount of ‘slush’ expected to be handled?)”

“Slush” is just a term for all those incoming manuscripts at a publishing house; sometimes used to refer to the whole of the incoming, other times just to refer to the unsolicited manuscripts. Every acquisitions person has to deal with it. There is a constant pile, since we’re in love with celebrity in this country and therefore everybody thinks they have the talent to write a book and become a star. The fact is, it’s a pain for an editor. Most manuscripts gets a cursory look. Some (from people we know, friends of authors, etc) get read more thoroughly. At houses that don’t accept unsoliciteds, they simply get recycled. Occasionally somebody picks something out, finds a diamond in the rough and gets it published… but it’s rare. As in “winning the lottery” rare. To be honest, you want to stay away from the slush pile.

An interesting question came from an author I represent: “Can you tell me what the actual physical layout is for the slush pile? Where is it kept? How big is it? How easy is it to get out a manuscript to read? I know most manuscripts are sent digitally, but isn’t there a big pile of papers somewhere?”

Most proposals are sent via Word documents these days, so they’re only read on a screen. But yes, every editorial department has a big pile of pages sitting on a credenza or a lower bookshelf in an editor’s office, or sitting on the editorial assistant’s floor, desk, file cabinet, table, and side chair. It’s often a foot or two high, but everything is logged, for legal reasons. Basically, the editor will walk by, pick one up, look at it for about ten seconds, and make a decision. If it’s a crappy idea, is written in crayon, has misspelled words, is crude, isn’t in English, is a laughably bad idea, or was written by Carrot Top, it gets immediately tagged as “reject” and moved to the rejection pile. (A much bigger pile that some poor ed asst has to take care of once a month or so—sending “No, we don’t want you” letters.) If it has some potential, they stick it into the “to be read” pile, where it will be given more time… and THEN rejected.

And this came in: “Does the acquisitions person who signs the author of a ‘best-seller’ generally receive any type of bonus or is it just part of their expected duties?”

Absolutely. You’re known by your success in publishing, so an editor who finds an unknown author and watches that book rise to the bestseller lists in turn becomes a star in-house (though everybody around will try to take credit for it — another old publishing tradition). That’s how you make senior editor, by having hits. It’s how a senior editor becomes a publisher, by having big hits. You’re known by your hits. You rise by your hits. If you don’t have hits, you’re going to remain in the nameless group of midlist editors forever. And yes, your bonus is tied to your books. So, an editor who has several bestselling books in a year can expect a big bonus.

Another author asked a related question: “What is the next step up the career ladder for someone who acquires and is successful?”

Senior editor. Then executive editor or editorial director, if they have management skills. Maybe an associate publisher. It’s even possible they could become publisher of a line — completely in charge of their own imprint. Amy Einhorn found several good authors, had a bunch of hits, and now runs “Amy Einhorn Books” for Penguin.

And we’ll end with one from a beginning writer: “How much competition is there among acquisitions people to sign/find best-selling authors? How ‘cutthroat’ is it?” 

In my life I’ve been an editor, senior editor, and associate publisher. From my perspective, we’re all in the business of finding successful authors and titles. It’s what drives the business, which is more “hit” driven than ever before. This is what people live for. So there is always pressure to find the next bestselling author. This is a business, my friend, and like any business, the people doing it want to make money and succeed. Now, some people may not like hearing that, since they want to focus on the artistic side of publishing. I’m part of that — I got into this because I love words, and believe great art can change us. But part of why I do this blog is to bring some reality to the conversation. Yes, writers are artists. But they are managed, molded, packaged, and sold by business people. And to the business types, this is a highly competitive world.

 So I’m in the midst of catching up on the hundreds of questions people have sent, and offering quick answers instead of my usual longer posts. My question for you: What topics would you most like to see discussed? 

Posted in Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing

15 Comments to “What does an acquisition editor do?”

  1. Elizabeth Varadan:

    This was such an interesting post. I learned a lot! What would I like to see more of? I’d like to see a post that addresses the role of being a book reviewer and having a blog as part of one’s platform, compared to, say, Twitter and Facebook.

    • chipmacgregor:

      Happy to tackle the blog question, Elizabeth. Maybe the book reviewer question… though I’m not one, so I’m not sure I meet the qualifications.

  2. Elizabeth Varadan:

    OOps, I left out something: I meant to say, “compared to being on Twitter and Facebook.”

  3. Jan Cline:

    Hi Chip, I’d love to see a post on the importance of writers following the trends, and knowing more about, and maybe building relationships with people in the publishing business. I find that so many writers bury their heads in the sand and think that if they just keep writing, somehow they will get published by osmosis. Is it important in your opinion? Thanks

    • chipmacgregor:

      Certainly relationships count in any business, Jan — even publishing. Or especially publishing, perhaps. Who I know and can connect to is part of what helps me do my role. That’s one of the reasons I encourage writers to attend conferences.

  4. Meghan Carver:

    I feel like a fly on the wall, Chip. Thanks for the insider information.

  5. lynn:

    I would love to hear your thoughts on what role magazine publishing plays these days in the life of a successful writer. Used to be that nonfiction writers got their starts often by writing articles. I get the sense, what with many print magazines now obsolete, and many others swallowed up by Hearst, Meredith, etc., that that has changed. What’s your take, Chip?

    • chipmacgregor:

      Yes, I got my career started in magazines way back at the beginning. But the web has changed (some would say “killed”) the print magazine business, with the readership largely moving online. And online ‘zines simply don’t pay as much, plus they hang onto content longer. A huge change for writers, Lynn.

  6. That’s interesting information about editors, Chip. I’m coming to realize that getting published period is a little like winning the lottery…nevertheless, I’ll keep playing. :-) It’s kind of cool now that as I read your writing I can hear your real “voice” in my head. Thank God I don’t talk like my writing voice!

  7. :Donna Marie:

    as always, Chip, you put info here that I can’t find anywhere else, or at least not stated so plainly and easy to comprehend. Now I FINALLY know what a “publisher” is as a person’s title. Thank you!

  8. Kate Lawrence:

    Hi Chip, I found this post incredibly interesting in regards to the pecking order of a publishing house, however my question is…who reads the manuscripts? What if your sole passion in life was to be the “sucker” who has to read through the slush pile. What is this role called and how do you get into this role? What requirements do they need?
    I love to read and I enjoyed English at school however I don’t really think I would make a good journalist. I could try editing but I’m not sure that’s the right angle either.

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