What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, edited by Peter Ginna, is a collection of essays by editors from many different segments of the industry, shedding light on the nature and value of their work. The book explores all aspects of the editing process from acquisition and manuscript development to ensuring sales success after a book hits the market. One chapter is by Jonathan Karp, who began his publishing career in 1989 at Random House, rising from editorial assistant to editor in chief over the course of 16 years. Since then, he has worked at the Hachette Book Group as the founding publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, and at Simon Schuster as president and publisher of the company’s flagship imprint. Karp shares his insight as an acquiring editor.
All of the editors acquiring for the five major adult trade publishers wouldn’t even fill a Broadway theater, and if you asked them afterward what they thought of the show, they would probably disagree on just about everything—the quality of the work, whether it was too long or too short, whether it would run for a week or a year. I’ve been acquiring books for 25 years, and there are times in the acquisitions process when I don’t even agree with myself! With that caveat, here are some general rules for thinking about trade acquisitions.
1. Love it
This is the most common advice given by acquisitions editors, but it raises questions. Is it possible to love many books at the same time without winding up in a polyamorous predicament? Would it be easier on the editor’s heart to arrange a few marriages of convenience? Some editors fall in love too easily. Others withhold their love with such discipline that it’s an event whenever they want to buy something. The inescapable truth is that each new acquisition marks the beginning of a relationship, one in which you will be reading an author’s work closely and engaging in what is usually an extensive conversation and collaboration. If you don’t begin that relationship with enthusiasm or desire, the project is likely to become a grind or a burden.
2. Wait for Authority
Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, readers respect authors who deeply understand their subject. It’s apparent when a writer is in command, and this command is the surest justification for asking readers to devote hours of their time to a book. It’s possible for someone who deeply understands a subject to write an authoritative book in less than 12 months, but it’s unlikely. The 2015 and 2014 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Anthony Doerr and Donna Tartt, each took about a decade to write their books. Editors should learn to recognize when a book will be worth the wait, contractual due date or not.
3. If You Cry, Buy!
I once asked publisher Jamie Raab why she had the confidence to spend a vast sum to acquire a first novel. She responded, “I cried at the last page.” Her reaction was purely emotional, and she was right not to overthink it. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks went on to become a phenomenon. Often the books readers most enthusiastically embrace are the ones they experience emotionally, not just intellectually.
4. Make a Promise, Have a Purpose
Some altruistic readers out there might hope to better the world through their book purchases, but many potential consumers are probably asking, “What’s in it for me?” The works most likely to appeal to them are the ones that make them the most direct and appealing promise. In 2015 the nation’s number-one nonfiction bestseller was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—an inspired promise, because it is within every lazy slob’s reach and does not strain credulity. For other books, the promise might be entertainment, artistry, or deep research.
5. Resist the Urge to Acquire in Slow Periods
One of my colleagues, when asked by strangers what he does for a living, tells them, “I read bad books so you don’t have to.” But what happens when the book isn’t bad? What if it’s good but not great? The most frequent comment I hear from less experienced acquisitions editors is “I’m on the fence.” If you’re on the fence, get off, don’t buy it, and find something else to read. Book editors are paid to come to the office to acquire books, just as Pentagon officials are paid to defend the country. Consequently, the military-industrial complex continuously expands, and so do publishers’ lists. We each have a bias to action. The result is bloat.
6. Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
Chris Matthews always used to end his Sunday-morning TV show with a segment called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” in which his guests had to offer one piece of news. On an elemental level, books serve the same purpose. On some hot topics, such as abortion or gun rights or immigration, readers can’t be told anything because they’ve already made up their minds. Other topics aren’t urgent enough to require attention. An agent once sent me a proposal for a book on procrastination. I decided readers would never get around to buying it.
7. Know the Audience
One reason editors tend to specialize in certain categories is that they become familiar with the tastes of the most active buyers in those categories. An experienced editor of crime fiction may sense that a novel is too wild or too mild for the intended audience. A history editor will know whether a “new” Lincoln biography on submission says anything distinctive enough to spark commentary. Conversely, an editor who really knows her market may spot a niche that hasn’t been filled. As the publisher of the Amistad imprint at HarperCollins, Dawn Davis pursued an opportunity to acquire the first book by radio personality Steve Harvey. He was not yet a well-known name among New York City book editors, but Dawn knew how popular he was among African American listeners. The result was the bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.
8. Have Your Own Ideas . . .
Great acquisitions editors are always thinking of books they’d like to publish. Ann Godoff suggested to her author Ron Chernow that he write a biography of John D. Rockefeller. At Random House, Kate Medina pursued Tom Brokaw for a long time before he wrote The Greatest Generation. In the early 1980s, Simon Schuster editor Alice Mayhew was sharing a cab home with a young magazine reporter. She asked him to write a group biography of the men most responsible for America’s international leadership after World War II. The writer was Walter Isaacson, and that conversation marked the beginning of an editorial relationship that has lasted more than 30 years.
9. Don’t Be Cynical
There are certain books for which there is almost always an audience, but they have to withstand scrutiny. Maybe there’s an author capable of convincing me that The Macaroni and Cheese Diet will reduce my waistline while also boosting my productivity, but the evidence would have to be compelling. Don’t assume that a book will sell because the author is famous or well connected. A personality in search of an idea is a waste of time. Be wary of sequels, too. A literary agent once tried to convince me to pay a large advance for an author’s second memoir. When I asked him to name one author whose subsequent memoir had outsold the first book, the agent’s only response was . . . “Proust.”
10. Have Conviction
Great editors push hard for the works they want to publish. At Simon Schuster, Editor in Chief Marysue Rucci felt such conviction about a novelist named Matthew Thomas that we did not hesitate to make an offer for his first novel, We Are Not Ourselves. She knew the audience (readers of sophisticated fiction who love books with a strong female protagonist). She had a purpose (to give voice to an indelible portrait of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a family). And to top it all off, the novel made Marysue cry, so she was certain of its emotional power. Upon its publication, We Are Not Ourselves was an instant bestseller and one of the best-reviewed books of 2014. If you’re a new editor, your fresh perspective is the one advantage you’ll have over the weathered veterans who have been evaluating manuscripts for years. If a new voice speaks to you, persist in your crusade on behalf of that writer. The lack of a successful precedent is often used as a reason for not publishing a book, but it can also be the reason that a book will connect with the public: precisely because no writer has ever done it quite this way, and quite this well, before.
Adapted from What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing (The University of Chicago Press).