Encounters in Publishing #23: How Not to Buy a Book, by Celia Johnson
October 9, 2013
The weekly edit meeting where I used to work would take place on Monday morning for some obscure reason. It seemed far too early to make or break someone’s week. The entire editorial staff, along with a few people from publicity and sales, would crowd into a large conference room. Assistants propped themselves up on long counters on either side of the room, while the higher ups sat at the table.
Our editor-in-chief presided. After announcements, she went around the room, offering everyone (even assistants) the opportunity to bring up a new project. If you were sitting on the counter, there was no need to speak up. You could waltz in, sit back, and witness book acquisition at play (unless you had the awful job of taking minutes). But the editors at the table were under a great deal of pressure to acquire. They’d also receive the most viable book proposals. So, one by one, they’d pitch new projects
The best response was, of course, an enthusiastic one. I’ve been waiting forever for that person to write a book! Or, Send the manuscript my way for a second read! Some editors were even asked to run P&Ls (profit and loss statements), which usually meant they’d be able to make an offer. Other editors weren’t so lucky. Someone would throw out a dreaded response. Are you sure this isn’t a magazine article, rather than a book? Or, Are people really going to buy a book by that celebrity? Or, worst of all, I just don’t see it. These responses had a domino effect, prompting others to chime in with all of the reasons why that particular book wouldn’t work. The editor would fight back, throwing out counterarguments and looking to others for support. It was a cringe-inducing battle that rarely ended well.
To get promoted from editorial assistant to assistant editor, and from assistant editor to associate editor, you needed to acquire books. This meant that you had to muster up the courage to pitch a few books from the far reaches of the counter during edit meeting. And, no small matter, you’d need a majority (or, at least, the editor-in-chief) to agree that your project was viable.
I can’t remember the first few projects I pitched, but I remember my worst pitch ever. I practically skipped into edit meeting that day. I had read a proposal and was certain everyone would love it. When it was my turn to speak, I gleefully summed up the book concept. There was a long beat of silence. Then someone asked one of those dreaded questions, which was followed by a chain of dissent throughout the room. If I wasn’t perched on a counter, I would have shrunk under the table. I was mortified.
After the meeting, I crept into my boss’s office to whine about my horrible fate. He had no sympathy and simply exclaimed, “Why on earth would you bring something up without knowing what the response would be?” It was a nugget of wisdom I’ll never forget.
I’d assumed our edit meeting was full of spontaneous, organic discussion. But it turns out that the savviest editors won’t play unless they know they’ll win. This means devising a strategy before the meeting. Circulate the manuscript weeks in advance. Meet with the author and bring a publicist along. Then make sure the editors who read the manuscript love it and that the publicist thinks the author is a true media darling.
The next time I brought up a project at edit meeting, I already had support within the ranks. It wasn’t long before I made it to the coveted table.
Now, there was another acquisitions meeting took place later in the week and often the CEO was there, but I’ve dredged up enough embarrassing memories for the day.
Celia Johnson serves as the Creative Director of Slice Literary. She is the author of Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway. Her work has appeared, or is slated to appear, in the Huffington Post, Poets & Writers, and Readers Digest, among other publications.