Acquisitions Editing: Centurions at the Gate
Susan Falcon | February 2014
Illustration by Leanne Molter
What Does an Acquisitions Editor Do?
Many college graduates and others looking for employment in the publishing industry may wonder what opportunities exist aside from the more well-known copy editor, editorial assistant, or editor-in-chief jobs. While the job of acquisitions editor is not an entry-level position, it is one that may be overlooked when thinking about how to advance a career in publishing, using the skills developed from a BA in English or an MFA in creative writing. The term ‘acquisitions editor’ can be a bit of a misnomer; while the job entails the acquisition of material as the name implies, the editor’s role does not focus on copy-editing or proofreading in the traditional sense. This position is one to consider if you like interacting with others and meeting new people, if you are familiar with or interested in sales and market trends in publishing, if you are willing to travel, and if you want a job with variety. Generally, an acquisitions editor evaluates solicited and unsolicited manuscripts from authors, conceptualizes profitable book ideas, negotiates author contracts, and strategizes and plans for the production of new and revised titles. Daily activities can range from traveling to meet with a potential author, to attending a conference, to studying a panel of reviewers’ feedback on a manuscript. Some publishing houses post jobs with similar responsibilities under the title of commissioning editor or sponsoring editor. The job of acquisitions editor is the starting place for a publishing house to develop inventory and to keep books fresh through the revision process.
Essentials to Success: Knowing Your Book List, Your Field of Interest
An acquisitions editor for a textbook publisher or small scholarly press typically maintains and grows a book list for a certain field of study. It is likely that under the qualifications in a job posting, the publisher will either prefer or require familiarity with scholarship in the field of study. For example, recently Oxford University Press was looking for an acquisitions editor in the field of social sciences; in the job description, the press called for someone familiar with the subjects of communication, education, and law. An acquisitions editor for hard sciences at Benjamin Cummings (a publishing imprint of Pearson) may be responsible for the biology list. Remember to research open acquisitions positions in your field of interest. If you have a background in the humanities, it would make less sense to look for an acquisitions position in the field of science, or vice versa. On the flip side, Judith Amsel, an acquisitions editor at Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., mentions you may find yourself extending beyond your interests and knowledge to less familiar subdisciplines:
Not only do editors have to be able to think and work as part of a team of very different (and often differently minded) people both in and out of the office, but they must be able to get excited about projects beyond those they find personally interesting. All this flies in the face of the image I had always entertained of ivory-tower academics making their mark by studying one topic to the exclusion of all others, often while working in near-monastic seclusion. But this kind of work is perfect for those who have broad interests and find complex (re: messy) problem-solving a delicious challenge.1
A successful acquisitions editor will be passionate about the subject matter at hand as well as what is at stake for the quality of experience that readers receive and the quality of scholarship that researchers depend on.
Similar to academic publishing, a trade publisher looks for a candidate with an interest or background for a certain genre. Indeed.com recently listed a job posting for an acquisitions editor at Amazon Publishing’s Montlake Romance imprint, which included the job duties of maintaining relationships with literary agents and commissioning high quality, profitable titles for the romance genre. A smaller trade press, Globe Pequot Press, may look for an acquisitions editor with a passion for outdoor sports and recreation. In an interview with David Emblidge, who has acquisitions editing experience at Cambridge University Press, Continuum, and The Mountaineers Books, he gave the following example, “an editor with an interest in travel has imagination and taste that would lead him or her to ask good questions and to play devil’s advocate to what the author may deliver.”2 He mentioned how the same editor may be a disaster on a different project, such as with children’s books. While generic publishing skills will be helpful for the job, providing your background on the book list’s subject-matter on your resume and expressing interest in the subject during an interview will make you a more desirable candidate.
Qualifications: Education and Professional Experience
As with most jobs in today’s economy, education and experience are essential. Most publishers require a bachelor’s degree and may give preference to a candidate with an advanced degree. Particularly for a university press, Emblidge mentions that the publisher will seek out those who have an advanced degree in the academic discipline in which that person is acquiring; the idea is that the acquisitions editor will have the same knowledge-base and caliber of thought as the authors.3 In addition to having a degree, publishers require anywhere from three to five years of experience in the industry. If you are looking for a way to get started, consider an entry-level position as an editorial assistant, which will expose you to the daily duties of the acquisitions editor. As an editorial assistant, you will take part in conducting reviews of manuscripts, entering data for a profit and loss statement, participating in status meetings, and potentially managing supplements. For trade publishing, Emblidge recommends that you start out with some retail experience, such as working in a bookstore, in order to be able to observe consumer behavior patterns and market trends.4 For textbook publishing, working as a regional sales representative to get familiar with the market and the book list is a plus. Sales experience will stand out to your employer, because the acquisitions editing job largely depends on the editor’s ability to analyze profitable trends in the market and to network with potential authors.
Qualifications: Management and Communication Skills
A job description may list several other qualities for the acquisitions editor position such as project management experience, organizational skills, business acumen, and communication skills. An acquisitions editor needs strong writing and verbal skills to convey the vision of the book to the rest of the organization and to present the book idea as marketable. If an author is picked up, the acquisitions editor must be able to negotiate the author contract and develop the project’s budget. Emblidge says, “It is true that acquisitions people, even if working in a literary division, need to have strong quantitative skills as they will be projecting the size and scope of the project they are acquiring.”5 An acquisitions editor will need to calculate and plan what is often called the profit and loss statement, which designates money to each department and presents a sales forecast to determine how much revenue the organization will take in after factoring in the project’s costs. In addition to having quantitative skills, Emblidge notes that an entry-level acquisitions job at a small trade press requires that the candidate “be a voracious reader, obsessively organized and disciplined in order to keep track of projects at various stages of development, and able to work with a wide range of people.”6 Because the acquisitions editor sees a manuscript through from inception to production, he or she must be able to manage schedules for the different drafts of the manuscript (often known as first pass, second pass, and final pass). In order to gauge where a manuscript stands in the market, the acquisitions editor will commission reviews for new or revised manuscripts. For textbook publishing and university presses, professors or scholars in the field often participate in the review process to give feedback on whether or not the manuscript achieves its goal of being educational and informative. The acquisitions editor prioritizes the accuracy of the book by overseeing the copy-editing and fact-checking to help maintain the standards of quality for the book. In textbook publishing, some technical books may require other experts in the field to cross check the accuracy of examples and exercises.
One of the most important relationships that an acquisitions editor has is with authors. So, where does an acquisitions editor start, and how does he or she acquire titles? Marnie Greenhut, a senior acquisitions editor at Pearson Education, mentions that sales representatives will often send leads, you may meet professors from campus visits and conferences, or sometimes you commission existing authors to sign on to a new project.7 She says, “It takes years to really understand what makes a good author and recognizing that in professors you meet. As you travel to campuses and conferences and meet professors, you start to learn what you should be looking for, who is good, who has what it takes, who has vision, etc.”8 She explains that when an organization already owns a large part of the market share, there may not be as much of a need to develop a major new product, which is often why a publisher may reach out to existing authors to sign on to develop new products.9 Emblidge discusses a different experience at university presses, “In the scholarly press world, it is true that acquisitions editors have to go out on their own, approach university think tanks, or talk to people who are already working on interesting projects. There is a lot of outreach in that sense, but at the same time, school presses get hundreds and hundreds of proposed manuscripts from people who want to publish to get tenure.”10 It is then up to the acquisitions editor, and oftentimes their assistants, to sift through these unsolicited manuscripts. At a trade publisher, there are diverse avenues for procuring an author; for example, manuscripts or potential ideas for books may come from literary agents, experts on the topic, the marketing department, or from the editors themselves.
Building Interpersonal Relationships: Working with Authors
When meeting potential authors, you should work to establish a relationship built on trust. Greenhut describes interacting with authors:
They want to feel that you have their best interests at heart. You spend a lot of time talking to them and explaining the process. You have to manage the author’s expectations, which is really important because they can think that your enthusiasm and belief in them means things will be easy. It usually takes a very long time to get from an initial meeting/proposal to a contract.11
Managing the author’s expectations can be a challenge, because many authors fail to recognize what goes into the process of bookmaking. As Emblidge indicates, “an author is essential but not sufficient by himself or herself to get a book published.”12 While the editor must champion the author, the editor may also need to facilitate the project’s progress as the author may be an expert on a certain subject but may not necessarily have the same talent for writing. In a sense, an acquisitions editor also enacts the job of developmental editor by making suggestions for revision to the manuscript, based on an understanding of market needs and trends. For example, in publishing an introductory calculus textbook, the editor may find the need for an algebra review at the beginning of the textbook, because the editor knows that customers have expressed students’ lack of algebra skills as a concern for tackling broader concepts. At a small university press, an editor may recommend cutting a section of text or expanding a section of text for a scholarly book on environmental studies. When determining which authors to sign, Greenhut provides the following advice:
Someone once told me that he wouldn’t sign someone that he wouldn’t want to go to dinner with, and I’ve found that it’s good advice. When signing someone new, you have the opportunity to pick who it is you’re working with, so you want it to be someone you think is reasonable, someone you can get along with, and someone who is going to develop something that makes you look good!13
When evaluating authors, you should use your experience, network contacts, and research to make judgments and to explore potential publications.
Working with the Sales and Marketing Departments
Because acquisitions editors collaborate with several departments within the organization as well as with various personality types when it comes to authors, effective communication is important to the success of any publication. In this position, you will find yourself working closely with the marketing department and sales force to ensure that a product is getting enough exposure and is reaching sales goals. The acquisitions editor collaborates with the marketing department to develop marketing collateral that promotes the title. An acquisitions editor may attend yearly sales conferences to prepare the sales force for how to approach customers with the particular book. The editor may also travel to conferences for a celebratory launch of a title or to promote a revision. For professional development and to keep on top of market trends, you may find yourself attending events like the Digital Book World Conference, the Association of American University Presses Conference, or the Association of American Publishers’ brown bag luncheon series. Emblidge acknowledges the acquisitions editor as a representative of the organization’s best interests:
Acquisitions editors tend to be centurions at the gate. They are initially responsible to maintain the standards that the house has set for itself. If they bring in books that meet those standards, then the chances are high that the books have continued success. If they let those standards slip or forget those standards, then it won’t matter how much money is put into books or how good the copy editor is, the book will be deficient, the market will catch up to that, and the reputation of the house will decline.14
In upholding the publishing house’s integrity, you will see your book list flourish, which will ultimately fulfill monetary incentives to boost your salary. As part of developing quality material, you will work with the design and production team to ensure that design ideas are in line with the author’s vision. The acquisitions editor has a say in what design features may help sell the book. In trade publishing, this includes such considerations as an attention-grabbing book cover design or any photography. In academic publishing, this not only includes the image on the book’s cover but also the book’s fonts, colors, and graphics.
The Challenges of Being an Acquisitions Editor
Of course, there are challenges associated with any vocation. The expectations for the amount of titles on a book list will depend on the type of publishing house; for example, a small press may have a lighter load of titles, whereas a major textbook publishing company will have projects of larger scope. As Emblidge says, because a small house publishes fewer books each season, each book carries a higher percentage for the risk of success or failure: consider a press that does twenty books each year versus one that does twenty-thousand, if one out of the twenty books fails in the market, then money is lost for approximately 5% of the whole book list. For the publisher that has twenty-thousand books, one failure has much less impact. And sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts to make a book succeed, it can still end up failing, which is why there may be some added pressure to an acquisitions editor who works at a smaller press.15 Also, our society’s increasing reliance on technology has contested traditional means of print publication. In Jeanne Sahadi’s article in CNN Money, “Best Jobs in the Long Run,” she explains, “those in textbook publishing can’t be computer shy since a lot of textbooks are sold as packages with software.”16 Being a quick study or being adept at using technology can make you stand out to a potential employer. In publishing, you may use programs like Quark, Adobe InDesign, Adobe InCopy, K4, etc. Marnie Greenhut expresses another challenge: “it’s become more difficult as we make the move to be more digital. It’s one thing to find a good author and another to find a good author who is also technologically savvy.”17
Applying for the Job
You should consider applying for a job that is a gateway to the acquisitions editor position, and only for the acquisitions editor position directly if you have publishing experience. The average pay for a sales rep—the stepping stone for textbook publishing—is a $40k–$50k base plus a potential $15k–25k bonus, and for acquisitions editing, it is a $65k–$80k base plus a bonus depending on the department’s performance.18 If you are searching for an acquisitions editing position and are interested in textbook publishing, search the career webpage for major publishers like McGraw Hill, Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin, W.W. Norton, John Wiley & Sons, Sage Publications, Reed Elsevier, and Cengage Learning. If you are interested in trade publishing, consider looking at the job listings on the websites for Harper Collins, Random House (Knopf Doubleday imprint), and Simon & Schuster (Atria Books imprint). You may refer to the directory of university presses at aaupnet.org to research and access the websites of smaller, academic presses across North America. You may also find the following job search engine sites useful: Indeed.com, Mediabistro.com, and Bookjobs.com. Remember that a broad liberal arts education that focuses on critical reading and thinking is useful for this position. It may also be advantageous to take some publishing workshops or courses for an overview of how the business works. Remember that how you fit into the organization is as important as what you want from your job; try to search for the publishing house or division that is right for you and apply to positions where the job description lists a subject that you are passionate about. Keep in mind that it takes a while to get accustomed to the job, and at first it may seem overwhelming; it is best to treat the acquisitions editor position as a career rather than as a transitional position, though there are also promotional stages such as becoming a senior acquisitions editor or executive editor.
The Rewards of Being an Acquisitions Editor
An acquisitions editor fosters creation, and one of the best parts of the job is being able to feel pride in completing a project. As Greenhut says, “The most fulfilling thing I’ve experienced so far is when I work on a book from revision plan through to publication and it comes out and I see it for the first time. And then when… adoptions start coming in, it’s awesome.”19 In the textbook industry, adoptions occur when a university or college decides to use the product for their set of courses. The sales force aims to secure large-scale adoptions or to have an institution roll over their same textbook order from the previous year. Another upside: the job lends itself to interactions with intelligent, inventive people. Amsel describes the benefits of working as an acquisitions editor for the psychology discipline:
What I like most about my job is the connection I feel with the field and the people in it. I also believe that I make a real contribution through my work. Whether I am talking with book buyers at a conference or prospective authors on a campus visit, graduate students, or the most eminent research scientists, I am constantly reminded that we in the publishing industry are instrumental in disseminating the information that keeps psychology moving forward.20
In academic publishing, there is a tangible connection between what you produce and the consumers that benefit from your product. If a student is better able to understand a subject, it is due to your hard work. If someone buys and loves a great work of fiction, then you know you have positively contributed to the literary community.
Susan Falcon is a poet, essayist, and editor currently residing in the suburbs of Boston, MA. She received her MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been featured in Sugar Mule, CounterExample Poetics, and other journals.
- Judith Amsel, “Acquisitions Editor,” Psychological Science Agenda, (July/August 1996). http://www.apa.org/careers/resources/profiles/amsel.aspx
- David Emblidge (acquisitions editor and associate professor at Emerson College), in discussion with the author, June 2013.
- Marnie Greenhut (senior acquisitions editor at Pearson Education), in discussion with the author, June 2013.
- Jeanne Sahadi, “Best Jobs for the Long Run,” CNN Money (2007). http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2007/pf/0706/gallery.jobs_recruiters_kids/5.html