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When an Editor Is More Than an Editor

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by Katherine Pickett, Owner, POP Editorial Services

Katherine Pickett

What do you get when you cross the editorial skills of a developmental editor with the keen sense of a marketer? An acquisitions editor, of course.

Understanding the market is a crucial part of the acquisitions editor’s job. With few exceptions, the marketability of a book greatly influences whether a publishing house will acquire it. Rob Taylor, senior acquisitions editor at University of Nebraska Press, outlines two ways marketing comes into play with the sports books he acquires. “One, you’re always looking for books that have little to no competition, in hopes that it will be easier to find an audience. Two, you want to see in the author some ability or inclination to help their publisher market and try to build their author platform ahead of being published.”

At the children’s book publisher Candlewick Press, Senior Executive Editor Sarah Ketchersid describes the decision process as “somewhat mysterious” and “subjective,” noting that “the marketing ideas often come after the acquisition decision is made.” When evaluating a proposal, she considers the quality of the writing, her reaction to the text, and whether or not it fits with the Candlewick list. She is looking for something that excites her, she says, and one part of what makes the project exciting is whether there is demand for it. “I have to think it will be able to be sold.”

Ethan Nosowsky, editorial director at Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, Minnesota, adds his perspective: “The most important thing is to be able to answer two questions: Who might want to read this book? And how will we find them? But it’s worth pointing out that Graywolf is a nonprofit press, so literary quality rather than salability is our primary acquisitions criterion.”

What defines marketability? That varies from publisher to publisher and editor to editor. “Each individual editor has different tastes and different ideas about what kind of list they want to have,” Ketchersid explains.

“We see an economic opportunity in publishing books by and about readers who don’t typically see themselves in books,” says John Byrd, marketing director of Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Texas. “We rely on our 30 years of experience in selling books to help guide us, but when an exciting book comes along, we can figure out the market as we go.”

Once the project has entered the publishing house, increasing the quality of the book becomes the editor’s focus.

“As best as possible, we try to hold true to the text in editing a book and trust that the market will respond appropriately to a great book,” Byrd says. “Like every publisher, we need to sell books to make a living,” he adds. “Lots and lots of books. But our experience is that the best way to achieve that goal is to employ clever marketing to support a lovingly edited book.”

Ketchersid concurs. “I’m not editing something to fit the marketplace. I’m editing something to create what I and, I hope, the author and the illustrator all agree is the best book possible. Where the marketing decisions come in are often on the cover and how you present it to the buyers.”

Of course, ensuring editorial quality is not the only charge of acquisitions editors. Depending on the size of the publisher, they will also influence the market positioning of a project, write or review jacket copy and other marketing materials, secure blurbs, and in some cases, do outreach with bookstores.

Candlewick, one of the larger independent publishers, has separate sales and marketing departments. “My first marketing responsibility,” says Ketchersid, “is to market the book in-house, in a way. As the acquisitions editor, I need to sell the book to my colleagues in the sales and marketing departments. I need to convey what I love about a book and why I wanted to acquire it … to help them do their job.”

By contrast, at some of the smaller presses, the editors are the marketing department. Byrd explains this model: “With the limited man and woman power available to us, everyone pitches in with everything. The person doing the copyediting in the morning might be stuffing review copies into envelopes at the end of the day.”

Although for many people the phrase “acquisitions editor” brings to mind lunches with authors and literary agents, contract negotiations, and slush piles, it’s clear much more is required. As with so many roles in publishing, a keen sense of the market is critical to an acquisitions editor’s success.

Katherine Pickett is the owner of POP Editorial Services, where she offers copyediting, proofreading, and developmental editing services. She wrote the award-winning book, PERFECT BOUND: HOW TO NAVIGATE THE BOOK PUBLISHING PROCESS LIKE A PRO.

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