Five Publishing Hurdles (And How to Clear Them)

If you’re an aspiring author, have ever wondered what happens to your book proposal after it arrives at the publishing house? Sometimes, I’m afraid, the acquisition process appears to be a sort of “black box.” Proposals are inserted into the black box and then disappear—for weeks. At some point they pop out. Most are sent back to the author with a rejection letter. A precious few actually become a book.

Runner Jumping Over a Hurdle - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #7292467

Photo courtesy of ©

But what happens while the proposal is inside the box?

In this post I want to describe the internal proposal review process. If you have ever wondered how in the world publishing houses decide what to publish, this post is for you.

First, you need to understand the entire proposal review process is designed to do one thing: kill all but the most worthy projects. This may be hard to accept, but you have to understand the supply of hopeful authors is infinite while the supply of publishing resources is finite. Publishers can only publish a fraction of the proposals they receive.

Therefore, every publisher employs a screening process of some sort. You might think of it as a series of hurdles a proposal must jump before it crosses the finish line and becomes a book. These hurdles may vary in number from publishing house to publishing house. But in most publishing houses there are five.

  1. The Acquisitions Editor. Acquisitions editors are the people inside the publishing house specifically charged with finding and developing authors and books that are congruent with the publisher’s mission. Over time, they have developed “noses” for the right projects. They usually see hundreds of proposals every year. Good editors can review a proposal and decide in sixty seconds or less whether it merits further consideration. If it doesn’t, then it gets tossed into the rejection pile.

    Typically, an acquisitions editor has unlimited authority to say “no.” They can reject a proposal without approval from anyone. Conversely, they don’t usually have the absolute authority to approve a proposal for publication. The most they can do is shepherd the proposal through the next step in the process.

    This is why your first objective as an author is to sell the acquisitions editor. He’s the “gatekeeper” to the publishing house. If you can’t do that, you’re dead in the water. This is the one place where you have the most control. You must develop a compelling book proposal that gets the acquisitions editor’s attention. You must demonstrate the content is compelling and there is a viable market for it.

    I recommend you start with one of my ebooks, How to Write a Winning Book Proposal. I have a version for non-fiction proposals and one for fiction. Either of these will help you clear the first hurdle.

  2. The Editorial Committee. Once you’ve convinced the acquisitions editor, he or she has to convince an Editorial Committee. This is generally the specific imprint’s in-house staff. It may consist of the publisher, other acquisitions editors, managing editors, marketing people, etc.

    This is a cynical group. They have long memories, especially about projects that didn’t work. They are a little bit like accountants. Show them the donut and the first thing they see is the hole. (I’m speaking as someone who sat on one of these committees for years.)

    The committee’s meetings are a sort of Darwinian process where only the strongest proposals survive. The participants are not looking for reasons to publish a project as much as they are looking for reasons not to publish a project.

    “It’s not very well written.” “The premise isn’t very clear.” “Books on this topic never do well.” “The author doesn’t have the necessary credentials.” And the list goes on. Believe me, there are hundreds of reasons not to publish a particular proposal.

    This is why, to the extent you can, you have to make your proposal “bullet-proof.” You must learn to anticipate the objections and make sure they are addressed in the proposal. The good news is once you have sold this group, you have a team working to clear the remaining hurdles. The goal is to get them on-board.

  3. The Publishing Board. When I was at Thomas Nelson, this was a once-a-month meeting between the editorial or publishing leaders and the sales channel leaders. The goal is for acquisitions editors to present their projects to the sales staff, so that they can get an initial reaction. The acquisitions editors are recommending these proposals, so there is an implied endorsement.

    The acquisitions editors focus on all the reasons why the book should be published. They are selling. And they are selling the most important audience to the success of your book. If the sale professionals are sold, they can sell their customers. If they can’t be sold, the book will not succeed. Period.

    Like the Editorial Committee, the sales people are also cynical but usually less so. They’ve seen it all before. The nature of publishing is that more projects fail than work, so they have lots of ready examples of why your project will fail too. But they also must have new products to sell, so they are also looking for the next big idea. They want to believe; they just have to be convinced.

    The acquisitions editor usually gets five or six minutes to pitch your project to the Publishing Board. He may have contacted you for supporting material to help him do the best job possible. It’s not unusual for the acquisitions editor to play a short video clip, pass out a press kit, or show a Web site on the projector.

    Regardless, if you get asked for additional material do everything in your power to get the editor what he needs. He will be representing you, and he only gets one shot at it. You need to help him cast your proposal in the best possible light.

    The project will then be discussed for another few minutes. Then each sales channel leader “votes” on the project by writing down how many books he thinks he can “lay down” (the initial shipment) and then sell in the first six months to a year. (It depends on the type of product. Some have shorter expected life cycles than others.) This is important, because the higher the sales forecast, the higher the probability of your book being published.

    This is not a long process, as you can see. The whole presentation and discussion rarely takes more than ten minutes. Then the proposal moves to the next hurdle.

  4. The Financial Pro Forma. Today, no successful publisher can afford to make a decision to publish a book without considering the financial impact. The investment is just too significant.

    The publisher has to consider how much he will have to offer as a royalty advance, how much he will have to pay the author in royalties, and what he will have to spend on marketing and inventory. In addition, he must look at the sales forecasts by channel, since each channel has it’s own discount structure, return rates, and overhead structure.

    All of these variables get plugged into a very sophisticated financial pro forma. It usually takes a few iterations to get it right, but the publisher will quickly assess the investment required, the break-even point, and the profit he will make, given specific variables. Based on this, the publisher will know whether or not the project is financially (or commercially) viable. Assuming it is, the project still must clear one final hurdle.

  5. The Publisher’s Sign-Off. Just because the project has cleared the first four hurdles, does not guarantee the book will be published. The publisher has to make the final call. He considers other, more subjective issues: Do I like this project? Do I like the author? Do I like his or her agent? Am I willing to risk this much capital, given the other things we have already committed to? How will my other authors react to this title? Do I really need this title?

    In addition, if the project is big enough, it may require the publisher’s boss to sign-off on the project or perhaps even the CEO. Most publishing houses have various approval levels. If the project exceeds a certain person’s approval level, then it must go up the chain-of-command.

    Once the project has been approved by the publisher, the acquisitions editor will then have the authority to make a formal offer to the author or (more likely) the author’s agent.

Once you understand this process, you can see why the decision to approve a project for publication takes four to six weeks. Yes, it can be fast-tracked when necessary. This often happens with bigger projects where several publishing houses are competing for the same project. But, by and large, it works better if it is not compressed. This process—long as it may seem—is necessary to get the internal buy-in necessary for the entire publishing house to get behind the project.

I have not written this post to discourage you from traditional publishing. Instead, I have written it to empower you. Now that you know what goes on inside the black box called publishing, you can take four specific steps to ensure you clear all five hurdles:

  1. Write a killer proposal. This is the foundation of every successful project. You will need this to enlist the support of an agent. Your agent will need it to attract interest from acquisitions editors. It will be used to clear each hurdle in the process.
  2. Listen to your agent. Remember, your agent doesn’t get paid until your project is sold. If he has survived for more than a few years, it is because he knows how to get from point A to point B. Therefore, treat him like a trusted guide.
  3. Cooperate with your editor. Do everything you can to comply with the acquisition editor’s requests. Once he agrees to present the project to the Editorial Committee, he has become your representative inside the publishing house. You have to equip him to succeed.
  4. Be patient. The process takes a while. Hopefully, this post has helped you understand why. There is more happening inside the publishing house than you may have initially thought.

Whatever you do, don’t act entitled. You’re not. No publisher has an obligation to publish your work. In essence, you are the seller; publishers are the buyers. You’re job is to convince them that taking a chance on your book is in their best economic interest.

Hopefully, this knowledge will help you clear the hurdles and get your book into print.

Question: How does my description of the process compare to how you thought it worked? You can leave a comment by clicking here.