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Wednesday 4 February 2009


It has not escaped my attention that this is supposed to be a serious, adviceful blog and that you are meant to be serious about getting published. Remember that burning desire bit? Hmm, well, I am disappointed in you. You are like schoolkids who think it's so funny to let their teacher go off at a completely self-indulgent tangent about turquoise boots and Klingons, instead of following the statutory curriculum. You'll get me sacked at this rate. So, today we are going to behave and we are going to discuss Acquisitions Meetings. "At last," I hear the swots in the front row mutter.

Also, my editor and agent both believe that I am working flat-out to meet the looming deadline from which my novel currently suffers. They will not be best pleased about yesterday's advice on Work Avoidance Strategies, ("WAS", as we call them, which even those of you at the back must know by now) so, for their benefit, I would like to point out that obviously I was working yesterday - all talk of WAS was merely artistic licence. Of course I don't vacuum behind the fridge, ever. I've never heard such a ridiculous idea. Nor would I be so stupid and time-wasting as to take a dead mouse to the vet - arranging for Pest Control to scour the house with sonic detectors occupied quite enough time, thank you very much.

So, the Acquisitions Meeting. This part of the process cannot be underestimated, ignored or wished away. Of course, it is not as important as writing the right book in the first place, but I believe that understanding it is a surprisingly crucial part of writing the right book. It is my guiding principle that if all authors understood exactly what goes on in and leading up to the AM, they would a) understand why a well-written and worthy/beautiful book may easily still be rejected and b) be better able to write, pitch and sell a book that won't be rejected.

In the old days, the process of acquiring your book was simple. An editor, wearing a tweed jacket and brown suede shoes and taking an old-fashioned attitude to personal hygiene, would read your manuscript over a glass of port at his club, be bowled over by the beauteousness of your prose / piercing insight into the life-cycle of the Lesser Galapagian monkfish, finish his dinner at the Groucho Club, totter to bed, totter out of it, make a quick phonecall to the office and tell them that he'd acquired a book and that he'd tootle along to tell them all about it once he'd finished a long lunch with his new best friend, the author. If a marketing department existed, which it probably didn't, the editor would never have met anyone in it, and if he did, he wouldn't talk to them because they would most likely pass the port the wrong way round the table.

Lest that paints an unfairly negative view of the old days, let me also properly point out that very often, especially in the more recent old days, an alternative process involved a passionate, inspirational and knowledgable editor (very often wearing turqoise boots, if a woman, or a red bow-tie, if a man - though these roles may perfectly easily be reversed or even combined without detriment to the acquisition process) falling deeply, madly, dippily in love with your book and being allowed to make the decision over a muesli breakfast, often to the benefit of all concerned.

Occasionally, but decreasingly so, the above still happens. But don't rely on it - the vast majority of publishing companies, whether large or small, now follow the process below (or at least something intrinsically similar), and you would do well to understand it absolutely. In fact, forget the above two paragraphs: they are the product of a nostalgic and over-caffeinated mind.

Also in fact: if a publishing company nowadays does not follow a similar procedure to the one I am about to describe, ask them exactly what it is that makes them so much wiser than everyone else. If they insist that they don't need to think about such unpleasant things as projected sales figures or marketing strategies, ask them about the sales figures and/or positive review coverage for their last six books. Then ask them what happened to the second books of each author. Remember: being published the first time may seem difficult but being published a second time on the back of a book that has done a passable impression of Lord Lucan is immeasurably more difficult. And much harder to explain to your friends, who will absolutely not understand. Remember: your friends think writing is easy. After all, everyone's got a book in them and you just happened to be lucky enough to have time to write it. (See Dealing With Taxi-drivers ...)

First, as ever, the editor must fall in love with your book, or at least be bowled over by its commercial potential. (Both would be nice, but let's not get too carried away.) The editor must also have an informed intuition that this is the right book for this publishing company and that he/she will be able to persuade marketing and sales departments that it will be easily marketed and sold.

Second, the editor will often pass the book/proposal to another editor for a second opinion. This may be a junior editor (if the editor is quite senior) or a senior one (if not).

Third, if the editor continues to be sure, having read your book probably twice and done some more informed intuition about marketing and sales, he/she begins to work out an acquisitions proposal, or something which may have a different name or be slightly less formal but essentially does the same job. (You can probably see already why the process of accepting/rejecting your book is rarely quick, unless your book is absolute rubbish, in which case you need only wait the amount of time it takes for the postman to deliver it back to you - once, a book of mine was returned to me 36 hours after I'd posted it, which almost defeats Einstein's special theory about the impossibility of anything travelling faster than the speed of light. I would have been impressed if I hadn't been so insulted.)

Fourth, the editor begins the difficult process of preparing the acquisitions proposal. This will have to be presented at the Acquisitions Meeting (henceforward AM in the pages of this blog). The proposal outlines things such as:
  1. The book - why is it so good? Why does the ed love it/what does he/she feel about it? Unique selling point? Genre? Likely page length and actual word count? Price point? Timing of publication, to fit the publisher's existing plans? Likely print-run? Why right for this publisher? Gap in market? How does it fit on list (qv in Common Words You Should Know). Who is the readership?
  2. The author - who? Publishing history? Marketable life-story? (Penniless single-mother writing wizard fantasy series in café with small daughter in buggy because can't afford heating bills has been done ...) Likely to be presentable to the public or better hidden away under the pretext of being related to Salinger /otherwise hermetic /possessing a tragic illness/life-story/prison-sentence?
  3. Finance - what advance is needed/possible, based on all the above, incl likely sales figures? When might this be recouped? Costings at desired format/print-run etc.
Are you daunted? Do you feel sick? Are you saying, "Ah! Now I understand what I'm doing wrong and why they haven't said yes yet"? Because you should be all those things. And more. You should have hit the chocolate big-time and while I would never recommend over-indulgence in alcohol, I wouldn't blame you if you succumbed briefly.

Then, you should pick yourself up and say to yourself, "Well, if the editor has done all that in preparation for the AM, then surely my book now stands a great chance. She/he must really really like it, and that's hopeful, isn't it?"

You would be right, because now your book does stand a great chance. And yes, it is hopeful, or, to be more accurate, you are.

This is much more scary for the editor than it is for you. After all, you're at home twiddling your thumbs. (No, you're not - you're at home writing your next book. You are not indulging in any WAS, no, not at all.) But it is seriously scary for your editor, because he/she has already invested significant time in preparing the proposal and now has to run the gauntlet of those hard-faced, pointy-lapelled, French-polished people in Sales and Marketing (S&M?) who have MBAs and keep going on assertiveness courses when that's the last thing they need. (They often wear great boots, I have to say, because being more stylish than authors is part of the job spec. And not the hardest part, believe me.)

Remember, importantly, that at this stage the people in the pointy lapels have not read your book - the most they'll have seen is a synopsis and small sample, but often not that.

Essentially, the AM is simple: the editor presents the proposal, passionately, coherently, inspiringly. And there follows a conversation which may be very short (a good sign) or fairly long (not). Between them they have to answer three questions:
  1. Can we spend thousands of pounds (in staff salaries, editorial input and redrafting, advance to the author, design, type-setting, printing, marketing), knowing that we won't get anything back for at least a year (if the book is already ready to be published) or maybe much more, on the basis that this editor thinks it's a good bet?
  2. Is this the sort of book a book we can sell?
  3. Is it sufficiently different from everything else on our List and yet sufficiently similar? (Is it right for our List?)
When they say yes, they are taking a gamble. It's an informed one but it's a gamble nevertheless. If they lose, they lose money but they also lose whatever book they could have taken if they didn't take this one, because they can't take all the good books that cross their desks. They are also taking a punt on you, the author, and hoping that you will be as good for them as they will be for you, and that there's every chance of a long career for you with them (unless this is a celebrity memoir we're talking about, in which case all common sense evaporates and gibbering lunacy enters left field.)

On the one hand, this is all too horrible to think about for you, the hopeful author. And exactly the same process applies to every single book, however many times its author has been published - though of course the published author stands a better chance, though only if previous publication has been successful .... Indeed, it is painful to think of your dreams being deconstructed in this way by strangers.

On the other hand, it should also be a source of comfort to you: because when you are rejected, it may not be anything to do with the quality of your writing. It may be that your book has fallen down for one of those many perfectly valid reasons. In which case, understanding the reasons can help you submit a publishable book in future. Getting to the AM is a huge hurdle and says a great deal about your potential. It doesn't say everything - "yes" would say everything - but it is genuinely important.

But we also have to end on a very sombre note: at some point you may have to force yourself face a gut-wrenching understanding - that it may be the case that you have not yet written the right book. You may have to start again. I will say that again, as it is something that we all have to consider sometimes (or if we don't, we should): you may have to start again. The next sentence comes with a health warning, for what I am about to say may shock you: it took me 21 years of rejection before I wrote the right book. Since that moment, yes, my life has changed beyond belief and I have had moments of joy that I only dreamt of, but much more important to me is not how my life has changed, but how much I have learnt.

If you take that very, very difficult decision to start a new book, and gently lay your previous efforts to rest with a few elegaic words, I can tell you one thing for certain: you will not regret it, for what you write next will be better. You may, like me, come to thank those publishers and agents who have decided not to unleash your writing on the undeserving public. Yet.

After such a serious and professional lesson, with admirably few tangential and self-indulgent diversions by me, and with you all listening so attentively, I think we all deserve coffee, chocolate, and pretty much anything else that activates the brain's reward centres.

Anyone for shopping?