How book publishers decide which books to publish

The phrase ‘speculate to accumulate’ could have been written by a publisher since speculation is at the heart of the process. Whether an agent deciding who to sign up, or a production director deciding how many copies to sign off, it is judgement not hard numbers that underlies what happens. Before a manuscript becomes a book it will have been through myriad judgement calls, on the text, the cover, the market and the sales expectations and ultimately the only real judgement that counts, that either confirms or undermines what everyone has thought about a book, is that of the reader, the person who buys it. Ironically, when choosing what to take on, agents or editors are just like the people they want to reach, readers, deciding if they like a story. If they do, and they can persuade others to as well, the manuscript has a chance of becoming a book.

Beyond these walls

So, for a writer, getting someone to like your manuscript is the first step and these days, unless you’re an authonomist, that process starts outside a publishing house. Most publishers, at least large ones like HarperCollins, no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts because there simply isn’t the time or resource to sift through a slush pile, so they rely on agents to carry out the first stage of filtering for them. The only hope for most writers then, particularly a new one, is to find representation. Or to reach the top of the authonomy pile...

The agent’s job

Some writers think that they can do without an agent and some probably can. That 15% commission might seem a lot, until you think about the fact that the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook is only updated once a year, whereas publishing staff change all the time (for example, I still get the odd manuscript because I was listed four years ago, even though I didn’t commission then and never have). What and who an agent knows – their knowledge of the different lists and imprints within a publishing house, and who buys what for which one – is priceless and key to the book’s success. For example, at Press books where I work there are five different lists, each with a particular focus, and within HarperCollins there are probably more than thirty. Multiplied across London, that means that there are hundreds of places where a book could, and couldn’t go. Knowing the distinctions is an insider’s job.

Panning for gold

Every editor named in the W & A Y receives hundreds of submissions per year from agents. Their job is to find not only the best for the market but the ones that they themselves like the most because if an editor doesn’t absolutely love and shout about every project bought, in a list of, say 100 hardbacks per division, where the other 99 are all fighting for the same budgets and resources, the book has little chance. Judgement is all, but once a book is chosen, so is the pitch. That pitching process starts at an editorial meeting.

The first discussion

Before trying to persuade sales, marketing, publicity, the financial director and the managing director of the value of a book, an editor must persuade his or her own editorial team. They will thus circulate the manuscript that interests them to this team, for discussion at an editorial meeting. All the editors on a list discuss the manuscripts at this meeting and a collective decision is made about which titles to try and buy, and which to reject. Editors are fighting not only for support, the backing to go to an acquisition meeting and try and buy a book, but also for money and space. Every list can only publish a finite number of titles per month or year, because not only is there finite resource within the company (editorial resource to process the book, marketing and publicity resource to promote it, production resource to design and produce it, warehouse resource to store and distribute it and sales resource to sell it) but there is finite space in a bookshop and each retailer only has a certain number of slots per month. If you’ve ever seen the Posy Simmonds book Literary Life , which has some brilliant and pertinent cartoons about the publishing world, particularly this one you will understand how it is impossible, and counterproductive, to publish everything.

As soon as a manuscript has editorial support, both from its champion and the rest of the team, the editor circulates it more widely, to sales, marketing, publicity, the managing director and anyone they think would vociferously support it within their division. Some voices have more weight than others; the editor’s job is to get as many powerful voices as possible, particularly UK and international sales, to read a manuscript, love it, and say so.

The acquisitions meeting

Once the manuscript has been read, and is loved, by all the people that count and the editorial team feel that it, and the writer, suit their list, the next step is to look at the numbers, and to debate the book’s prospects with the whole team. Every week most publishing divisions have an acquisitions meeting and before this meeting, the acquiring editor talks to sales and marketing and the financial director, in order to get their opinions on how many copies the book might sell, at a particular price, in a specific format. This information is then fed into an acquisition profit and loss sheet. Along with the manuscript and the voices of support for it, this P and L is essential not only for persuading the team to buy a book, but also for persuading them of the ‘level’ at which it should be bought i.e. how much to pay.

And often it is at this point that the process collapses. If the projected sales numbers and the advance tally, that is to say the book looks like it might earn out the proposed advance and make a profit (i.e. in very simple terms if £10000 is paid, then the book must sell enough copies to make back at least that amount, plus costs), and everyone in the room agrees that it’s a good idea, the editor is given the go-ahead to make an offer. However, if an agent is looking for a particular sum, but the sales numbers suggest that the book won’t make it back and will be unprofitable, it is up to the editor to either fight for the advance required, arguing for getting a particular writer onto a list and talking up their future projects, or go back to the agent and argue for a smaller advance.

Competing for a book

One of the pressures of the acquisition process that I haven’t mentioned is that most manuscripts are sent to several houses at once. And, if the book interests several of them, an auction (when publishers bid against each other) will take place. Publishing auctions are unusual in that the book may not go to the highest bidder. Often, if a book is hotly pursued by several publishers, each one will aim to meet the author and agent and make a team pitch, selling the publisher’s place in the market, what it can do for the book, why the author will feel at home on this list. They will offer as much as they can, but after that they hope that their publishing reputation will secure the book. The idea of accepting less money might seem odd to a writer but although getting the right financial deal is important so is having the right publisher.

The opposite of an auction is a ‘pre-empt’: sometimes an agent will send a manuscript to just one publisher, giving them the chance to make a ‘pre-emptive offer’, that is an offer which prevents the book being sent to any one else. Usually this offer secures exclusive access to the manuscript for a fixed period of time. It will still have to go through the acquisition process internally but the editor has less external pressure.

All of the above scenarios take time. An offer may be made one week, but not accepted or rejected for several weeks. Or, if an offer is not acceptable to the agent and writer, but the editor manages to secure a compromise, then the acquisition will come back to the meeting and be discussed again, until the book is bought, rejected or lost, to another publisher.

The end of one process; the beginning of several others

At the end of all of this debating and number-crunching, hopefully the editor has the book they want, at the right price, and the writer has the publisher they want, and the money to keep writing. Obviously, this is a massive simplification of the process. Sometimes editors go after writers, particularly celebrities who have not yet written an autobiography, or see a story in the press that they think will make a good book. But, whatever the source – agent, self-generated idea, authonomy – the editor must still fight for each and every book, for the money to buy it, for the time and resource to produce, promote and sell it, and for the space to give it the best chance. And, once bought, that championing and competing process continues throughout the life of the book.