Behind the Book: A Day in the Life of an Acquisitions Editor

W hat do you do exactly?”

I heard this question for years while running between multiple jobs as a small business owner, writer, speaker, and producer/filmmaker. Now, I have a single job, Senior Leadership Editor at Abingdon Press, and I’m still hearing it.

The Abingdon imprint serves the Christian landscape with books on theology, biblical studies, church leadership, Christian living, fiction, and a variety of programs, curricula and other printed products. My realm is books targeting church leaders. This is an attempt to describe what I do, to provide potential authors and curiosity seekers a glimpse behind the book, as it were.

Some mistakenly assume I am a copyeditor whose job is to find stray gerunds and runaway commas. This is an important task but is not mine. My job is akin to what friend Kim Miller calls a “talent scout.” I am in acquisitions. My job is to locate best, often hidden ideas in hundreds of proposals, blog posts, phone calls, and inner passions.

Acquisitions requires a working knowledge of a wide range of disciplines. I need to be able to participate in a decently intelligent conversation on topics as diverse as theology, ecclesiology, business management practice, child development, homiletics, the geo-political landscape, technology, and much more. I pay careful attention to market trends, play well with others, and talk a lot about ideas. The latter is my favorite. I learned recently that my top StrengthsFinder attribute is Ideation, which is a fancy word for “likes to talk about big ideas”.

Also in many cases I must teach authors to write, as it is unfortunately rare to discover the trifecta of someone with something to say, with the platform to say it, and the writing chops to say it well. Teaching people to write by shaping their manuscripts is, I have discovered, standard protocol for acquisitions. My publishing industry mentor, Paul Franklyn, once told me of a famous church leadership author that finally learned to write after 4 or 5 books. Paul modeled a white-glove approach to me when I operated on the other side of the fence, writing several books. I learned firsthand from him how to correct a rough manuscript in a way that helps the author to feel as if they are literary studs and don’t need any help.

I view my current work in light of my lifelong passion of liberating messages from the captivity of overwrought delivery. Worship leaders, pastors, artists, writers, and other storytellers often make the mistake of misunderstanding how to frame their core ideas in ways that are compelling for the storyreceiver. My job is to hack away the chaff and cook up the kernel in a tasty dish.

Some days I spend my time reading, which may include researching blogs, periodicals and books, individual proposals and chapters, or delivered, complete-but-raw manuscripts in need of content shaping and editing. Other days I interact with others in varying levels of glamour and minutiae. Here is a sample day in my work life. (Wed, Nov 30, 2011, for those into that sort of thing.)

8:30a. Day’s Start.

Emerge from the morning traffic snarl at my cubicle office. I login and check Google Reader for the latest data from dozens of blog and portal RSS feeds. I marvel, and ignore defeatist thoughts, at observing the ongoing scrum that is making a living in a capitalist world. Today there is nothing particularly noteworthy to pursue within the personal brand building of the blogosphere.

9:00a. Email.

I send 40-50 emails a day. Today’s include responses to 17 existing authors, 4 developmental contacts, a half dozen conversations on cover design, and sundry administrative details.

From concept to finished book, I manage about 60 projects, divided by catalog into bi-annual lists: 10-12 on the current release list, 10-12 in production for the coming list, 10-12 in current authorship for two lists away, and 25-30 in various stages of development and conversation. The latter is my favorite part of the job and I am discovering the necessity of personal interest in a project. While I don’t pretend to be the “center of the culture”, as one church leader once described himself to me, I do need to find at least some level of passion for the book. If I can’t pitch its value, then it will likely fail to launch.

10:00a. Executive meeting.

I pitched one new proposal and presented four complete cover designs for my fall 2012 leadership line to a group of executives. They’re an amiable group that perhaps wears the experience of years of a declining industry and product risks gone awry. I am a publishing virgin, presenting my latest ideas-of-the-century with friendly naiveté. The executive group includes representatives from each core product line of our imprint, business, sales, marketing, retail and wholesale departments, and probably some other places I haven’t figured out yet.

Some days these executive meetings have gone well. Today, my carefully developed proposal from the pastor of the largest church of one of the main Protestant denominations in America is reduced with withering questions from a scheduled first year print run of 10,000 to 3,000 copies. My job is to champion ideas, and part of the challenge of championing is to understand the roles and self-interests of each person around this table. Some days go better than others. I am bummed about the reduction, but I’m fairly sure our departmental marketer believes in it, so I lean on the hope that we will exceed lowered expectations and enjoy the pleasure of a repressed “I told you so.” After this burndown, the executives take mercy on me and approve the cover designs with no changes.

11:15a. More emails and phone calls.

See above. Part of this hour of office time includes a phone call from the producer of the monthly retail catalog for March, 2012. The retailers, who operate under the brand Cokesbury, are not beholden to Abingdon titles, in spite of our familial organizational relationship. While they often feature Abingdon books, they sometime choose worthy outside products. To understand the relationship, think of a media conglomerate such as Universal, which advertises its own films on its NBC television network but also features competitor products. We’re much – much – smaller, but some of the same dynamics apply.

The producer inquires about one of our authors, Leonard Sweet, a prolific and well-known writer who also writes for many other Christian imprints. He has three books coming out in the spring of 2012: one each with Thomas Nelson, Waterbrook Multnomah, and Abingdon. (Yes, this is insane.) Cokesbury plans to feature his Waterbrook title, on social media and the faith life.  We discuss possible questions for the producer’s impending interview with the author, and ways to tie in the Abingdon title, which was due in May but had already been moved up to an identical March release (his Nelson title publishes in January). I hang up and wonder how to avoid another of my titles, a social media and ministry exploration from a first time author, from getting crushed by the Sweet marketing machine.

12:30p. Run out and grab a quick burger.

1:00p. Pitch Meeting.

Meet with two executives and another editor to pitch a project idea I have been developing with two co-authors. The project relates to reaching young people in church. One of the co-authors has a solid Abingdon history and the other is a New York Times bestselling author with 1.1 million copies in print. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but the executives ask questions about how to get the product, which meets a worthy need, to the customer. We discuss how it could easily get pigeon-holed into dated or limiting existing sales channels. We agree to an exploratory strategy that may help establish demand. I respond to the authors with next steps.

1:30p. A “First” Call.

A 45-minute meet and explore with a potential technology author, who has some interesting things to say and a good platform to say it. He has had business relationships with many megachurch personalities. I don’t know if he can write or not yet, but this the lesser of my worries, as I am growing accustomed to overcoming this deficiency. I listen to his backstory and a pitch for several ideas. We discuss audience and ways to frame his passions in a format that works. I describe to him the essential transactional nature of book buying. People buy books to solve problems. Perhaps this is arguable in some lines such as fiction, but it is absolutely true in the non-fiction space. A financial leader wants advice on solving the latest organizational budget woes and buys a book on effective stewardship. A mom has trouble with her son, so she buys a book on the unique challenges of raising boys. A pastor struggles with leading a declining church and buys a book from the latest success story to look for tips.

Most would-be authors make the “show and tell” mistake, only thinking of a book from their storyteller perspective. It doesn’t matter, even if all their friends disagree. The essential truth in any idea is in the mind of the storyreceiver, not the storyteller. Learning how to fully think like the storyreceiver is key to writing well.

The conversation ends with an agreement to some follow up emails.

2:30p. Marketing.

I meet with two marketing folks to champion my competing 2012 social media book. We discuss capitalizing on the Sweet promotion and using Sweet’s personal friendship with John Voelz and endorsement of Voelz’ book as marketing possibilities: two perspectives, from the seasoned futurist and the young entrepreneur.

3:30p. Contract Management.

Confab with my boss regarding an agent email questioning specific line items in an author contract. We reviewed the email and formulated responses to some of the stickier demands. I craft a hopefully firm yet kind response to the agent.

4:00p. Endorsements and licenses.

Read an incoming endorsement from Brian McLaren on one of our spring 12 leadership titles and forward to the author. Processed a contract to Bruce Springsteen’s agent for use of one of his songs in the same book. This was a real win, as I was told that such releases are impossibly expensive, but I was able by skill or luck to secure the release for $50. Maybe it’s osmosis from watching Bruce sing on the 25th Anniversary Rock Hall of Fame Special over the weekend. The dude is ageless.

4:30p. Prep for the next day.

Filled out some paperwork for HR and gathered materials for my trip to the Academy of Homiletics in Austin TX.

Some wins, some losses, some to be continued. An average day in the publishing industry.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).