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The ABCs of Acquisitions

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by Lynn Rosen, IBPA Independent contributing editor

In this issue of IBPA’s Roundtable, contributing editor, Lynn Rosen, asks a group of professional responsible for bringing in new content about acquisition trends and other things of interest.

Deborah Balmuth Publisher Storey Publishing

Deborah Balmuth

Deborah Balmuth, Publisher, Storey Publishing

Area of Acquisitions: Practical nonfiction, with a focus on how-to topics, including: gardening, crafts, backyard building, nature observation, small-scale farming and animal raising, and kids’ activities. I specifically acquire in the areas of herbal health, well-being, building, and fabric crafts.

What skills do you think are possessed by a successful acquisitions editor?

Instinct, trusting intuition, knowing your markets and business model, understanding what makes a strong backlist title, genuine passion/excitement about the topics and authors you’re acquiring.

Can you tell us about a book you have worked on that has been especially fulfilling to publish and why that is?

One of the books I helped develop for Storey was the original One-Skein Wonders, which has sold more than 100,000 copies and spawned a series that now includes seven titles, with a total of 500,000 copies in print. The idea came to me when I was browsing a knitting blog that featured a project made with one skein of yarn. I asked our fiber crafts editor, “How many projects do you think we could come up with that each use just one skein?” We tapped into the avid online world of knitters to solicit patterns, with a goal of putting 101 in the book (many more than most pattern books), and came up with more submissions than we could include. For publicity and marketing, we benefited from several trends: the growing popularity of knitting, the enthusiasm of knitters for social media, and the community-building focus of so many knitters. All the pattern contributors helped promote the book. This was the first time we did a compilation volume like this and it required a great deal of coordination, pattern testing, and photography, but it made the book stand out.

What advice would you give to a small or new publisher seeking to plan an acquisitions growth strategy?
I would encourage small or new publishers to be bold in thinking how to make the concept for every book as big as possible. Don’t settle for just what the author submits; question whether the approach, organization, or hook of the book could be made stronger and then push the author to write the book that will deliver the most for both of you.

Deb Werksman Editorial Director Sourcebooks Casablanc

Deb Werksman

Deb Werksman, Editorial Director, Sourcebooks Casablanc

Area of Acquisitions: Single-title romance fiction

What are some current trends in acquisitions?

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of submissions of fantasy romance novels. A couple of years ago, it was women’s fiction. This happens when a subgenre in romance trends down and authors who would ordinarily write in that subgenre (paranormal, in the case of fantasy romance; contemporary in the case of women’s fiction) want to branch out into other, more fruitful subgenres. I’d rather see a breakout theme in their familiar subgenre than a switch to another genre altogether. Fantasy romance is almost impossible to sell, and women’s fiction is great but also presents challenges. It’s a completely different category in the bookstore, a different buyer at the retailers, and is published in a different, more expensive format. So romance authors trying to break into women’s fiction often find that their readership isn’t following them there.

What skills do you think are possessed by a successful acquisitions editor?

I think a successful acquisitions editor needs to be able to grow authors’ careers and see what will appeal to readers. The most important tool an acquisitions editor needs is the hook that says “must read.” If I have that, my author can conquer the world.

Ron Hogan Editor Regan Arts

Ron Hogan

Ron Hogan, Editor, Regan Arts

Areas of Acquisitions: Commercial fiction and nonfiction

Can you tell us about a book you have worked on that has been especially fulfilling to publish and why that is?

Steve Fiffer and Adar Cohen’s Jimmie Lee & James is a powerful book about two martyrs of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As we were going over the manuscript in late 2014, I was constantly struck by how relevant their story was to the contemporary issues of police brutality and racial justice that dominate the daily headlines, and grateful to see other readers make the connection when the book came out.

Can you share a recent acquisition about which you are particularly excited and why?

Beth Hahn’s debut novel, The Singing Bone, comes out in the spring of 2016. It’s a beautifully written psychological suspense story about a woman coming to terms with her role in a brutal crime 20 years earlier, with a truly unsettling antagonist whose evil influence manages to seep out beyond the walls of his prison cell.

Is there a book you wish you had acquired and didn’t?

When Regan Arts was in the planning stages and I was asked, as a prospective hire, what kind of books I wanted to acquire, I pointed to the artist and journalist Molly Crabapple and said, “I want her to write a memoir.” And then she signed a deal for Drawing Blood while I was waiting to hear back about the company’s launch. Just as I imagined, it’s turned out to be an amazing memoir.

Karen R. Thomas Publisher Cleis Press & Viva Editions

Karen R. Thomas

Karen R. Thomas, Publisher, Cleis Press & Viva Editions

Areas of Acquisitions: Cleis Press: LGBTQ market, romance, erotica, general sex and sexuality, women’s health, and general fiction. Viva Editions: nonfiction books in the mind, body, and spirit area in addition to personal growth, and inspiration.

How do you know when you read a submission if you want to publish it?
Every book I acquire should speak to a particular audience. There should be a need within the marketplace for the book. What does this book provide that is missing in the current marketplace? By publishing this book, will someone’s life be better because they’ve read it (even if it’s just as entertainment)? If it’s fiction, do the characters stay with me long after the last page has been read? Or am I excited and anxious to continue reading? The big question is: I’m reading it as a submission, but would someone pay money to read this?

Can you tell us about a recent acquisition about which you are particularly excited and why?

I’m really excited about everything we publish. I know it may sound a little hokey, but our list is very small. Cleis and Viva only publish about 36 titles a year. We put a lot of work and resources into each title published. One of our new releases, Saving Delaney (April 2016), is an amazing true story of a couple who agreed to be a surrogate for another lesbian couple. Once it was discovered that the baby would be born with Down syndrome, they were asked to abort the baby. Saving Delaney is the story of their fight to not only carry Delaney to full term, but raise her in a happy, loving home.

Jan Johnson Publisher Emerita Red Wheel/Weiser

Jan Johnson

Jan Johnson, Publisher Emerita, Red Wheel/Weiser

Area of Acquisitions: Nonfiction books meant to give readers some new skill set, attitude, or practice to change their lives.

How do you know when you read a submission if you want to publish it?

I want books that don’t simply rehash the same old information, say for starting a meditation practice or changing eating habits, but invite and inspire readers to look at things from a different perspective. I also love discovering new authors, for instance Linda Martella-Whittset’s How to Pray Without Talking to God, came to us through a contest we sponsored for Hampton Roads, one of our imprints. So whether it’s forming new habits, growing beyond grief, following an esoteric spiritual practice—the book has to look at its subject differently. I want to surprise and inspire readers.

What skills do you think are possessed by a successful acquisitions editor?

A good acquisitions editor should have a nose for something interesting and the ability to articulate what it is that’s interesting to marketing and sales people. The ability to work tactfully with an author to bring out the very best in his or her voice. It’s not exactly easy to tell someone to throw away 30 percent of what they’ve written and reorganize the rest, but it can be done. And I’ve seen books the better for it. [They should have] . . . a sense of both what the ultimate reader might find to fall in love with in a given book, and what possibility a bookstore buyer might see. And those two stakeholders are not always aligned. We’ve all had books that did much better online and others that did much better in stores.

Erika Goldman Publisher and Editorial Director Bellevue Literary Press

Erika Goldman

Erika Goldman, Publisher & Editorial Director, Bellevue Literary Press

Areas of Acquisitions: Fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the sciences and the arts.

How do you know when you read a submission if you want to publish it?

I have to fall in love with the writing—be fully engaged by both the narrative form and content.

Can you tell us about a book you have worked on that has been especially fulfilling to publish and why that is?

Needless to say, Tinkers by Paul Harding, due to the recognition that it received by readers and reviewers even before it won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Is there a recent acquisitions about which you are particularly excited and why?

I’m thrilled to be publishing Norman Lock’s American Novels series—book number three, The Port-Wine Stain, will be coming out this spring, and we’ve got two more lined up. In each novel, Lock engages with a canonical 19th-century American writer in a literary dialogue or riff that takes a different form each time. So far, we’ve published his Twain and Whitman; his Poe, Thoreau, and Dickinson are to come. It’s an incredibly ambitious project that he has pulled off with aplomb. The books are small miracles.

Emily Timberlake Senior Editor Ten Speed Press

Emily Timberlake

Emily Timberlake, Senior Editor, Ten Spreed Press

Area of Acquisitions: Food and drink

Are there trends in acquisitions? If so, what are some current trends?

I’m always on the lookout for new trends—dishes or drinks that keep popping up at bars and restaurants in New York and the Bay Area—but I’m more interested in topics that seem like they will be as relevant in five years as they are today. So, a definitive book on charcuterie, or champagne, or fried chicken.

How do you know when you read a submission if you want to publish it?

The food-and-drink shelves have become quite crowded in the last five years, so the two major questions I ask myself upon receiving a submission are: 1) Does this author have the platform and the voice to cut through all the chatter? Is he or she an established authority, with the credentials and network to reach readers? 2) Is this idea long-lived, or is it chasing a trend? Will this book continue to sell in backlist—is it a resource I’ll keep turning to years from now?

What’s a book you’ve acquired/published recently that surprises you that it’s on your list?

I recently acquired a book called By the Smoke and the Smell: A Memoir of the Impractical and the Sublime on the Distillery Trail. The author is Thad Vogler, owner of the lauded San Francisco cocktail destinations Bar Agricole and Trou Normand. Thad has been on the cutting edge of the beverage industry for years, and he is the country’s leading expert on sustainable, responsibly sourced, and grower-produced spirits. Ten Speed works hard to acquire forward-thinking cocktail and spirits books by respected authorities, so although Thad’s book is a bit different than the cookbooks we typically publish, its message was too important not to publish.

Pamela J. McClanahan Director Minnesota Historical Society Press

Pamela J. McClanahan

Pamela J. McClanahan, Director, Minnesota Historical Society Press

Areas of Acquisitions: Regional history; American Indian studies; ethnic studies; foodways and cooking; nature and the environment; true crime; biography and memoir; music and performing arts; sports and recreation; travel; and books for young readers.

Can you tell us about a recent acquisition about which you are particularly excited and why?

A significant initiative at the MNHS Press is to tell Minnesota’s diverse stories. We are not only publishing stellar books by diverse writers now but are committed to be in continuous engagement with communities of color and American Indian nations of the state. Minnesota communities struggle with some of the nation’s worst racial disparities.

Our spring 2016 list is an excellent example of this work. I’m especially excited about three forthcoming books: We Carry Our Homes With Us: A Cuban American Memoir by Marisella Veiga (April 2016); They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota (February 2016) by Frank White; and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (April 2016), edited by Sun Yung Shin. In A Good Time for the Truth, 16 of Minnesota’s best writers provide a range of perspectives on what it is like to live as a person of color in one of the whitest states in the nation.

Are there trends in acquisitions? If so, what are some current trends?

I see a few trends in regional publishing. First, partnership or co-published projects. As publishers, we are collaborating more with other local and community organizations, whether a museum or a research center at a university. These collaborations often lead to expanded marketing and outreach as well as pooled resources in development, editorial, and production.

Second, I feel that astute acquisitions editors are finding and developing authors who are making a difference in their communities. I think this goes beyond the idea of finding authors with a brand or a platform, which I agree is essential in today’s book marketplace, but working with authors who are in the trenches of community action and change.

Lynn Rosen is co-owner of the indie Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rosen was previously editorial director of Book Business magazine and director of Graduate Publishing Programs at Rosemont College. She is the author of ELEMENTS OF THE TABLE: A SIMPLE GUIDE FOR HOSTS AND GUESTS and currently serves as editorial consultant for the INDEPENDENT magazine.

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