To think like a publisher so you can understand how they make decisions you need to know the editors.
You Are the Editor working for a Large Publishing Company
Imagine that you’re an acquisitions editor at one of America’s largest publishing firms in New York City. You have a master’s degree from an Ivy League college and you, at least, think you’re smarter than most other people. Yet you’re earning a lot less money than most of the people who graduated with you. Your classmates have become lawyers, accountants, bankers, and so forth, and they all seem to own large, well-appointed apartments or homes—whereas you if you fall out of bed, might land in the bathtub of your minuscule New York flat.
On the other hand, you love your job. For you, working in publishing is a dream come true. As in other industries and professions, much of your satisfaction comes from advancement— getting ahead.
To move up the career ladder, you’ll have to acquire at least a few successful titles each year. To find these few good titles, you’ll be competing with many editors from other publishing houses and perhaps even with fellow editors within your own firm. As in any other business, the people who make the most money for the company will get choice promotions and the highest salaries. Those who perform less impressively will tend to be passed over. (Of course, being a good editor and playing politics well are also important.)
There are two tried-and-true sources for the titles that publishers acquire: literary agents and direct solicitations.
As an editor on the move, you’ll cultivate relationships with many established literary agents. You’ll want them to know what you like and what you don’t like. And, by showing these agents you’re disposed to acquiring new titles to build your position in the company, you’ll encourage them to send you projects they think are right for you.
When you receive material from agents, you usually give it relatively fast consideration— especially if it’s been submitted simultaneously to editors at other houses, which is usually the case.
When something comes in from an agent, you know it’s been screened and maybe even perfected. Established agents rarely waste your time with shoddy or inappropriate material. They couldn’t make a living that way because they’d quickly lose credibility with editors.
If you’re an ambitious editor, you won’t just sit back passively and wait to see what the agents might bless you with. When you’re resourceful, the opportunities are endless. Perhaps you’ll contact your old American history professor and ask her to do a book showcasing her unique perspectives on the Civil War.
Or maybe you’ll contact that young, fresh fiction writer whose short story you just read in a leading literary journal. You might even try reaching that veteran United States senator who just got censured for sleeping with his young aides.
One place you’ll tend not to use is the “slush pile.” This is the room (more like a warehouse) where all the unagented/unsolicited submissions end up. This used to be a literal room. Now, most submissions are done digitally. However, if your work was not submitted by an agent, sought after by the editor, or somehow requested, you are now going to land in the virtual slush pile in the cloud where you could stay forever in cyberspace.
Looking through the slush pile or cloud pile isn’t a smart use of your limited time and energy. The chances that anything decent will be found there are much less than 1 percent. As an editor, you have less-than-fond memories of your first year in the publishing business, when, as an editorial assistant (which was basically an underpaid secretarial job), one of your tasks was to shovel through the slush. Once in a great while, something promising could be found; but most of the stuff wasn’t even close. At first, you were surprised by how unprofessional many of the submissions were. Many weren’t addressed to anyone in particular; back in the day some physical submissions looked as if they had been run over by Mack trucks; others were so poorly printed they were too painful for tired eyes to decipher, some smelled of smoke or a funny smoke that at the time was universally illegal—the list of failings is long. No, the slush pile is the last place— or perhaps no place— to find titles for your list.
Now you can stop being an editor and go back to being whoever you really are. I wanted to show you why the system has evolved the way it has. Yes, though it’s rational, it’s cold and unfair, but these qualities aren’t unique to publishing. You’re probably still wondering when I’m going to get to that promised modus operandi for winning the Battle of the UNs. Okay, we’re getting there.