I currently have an internship at the TCU Press (http://www.prs.tcu.edu/ for more info) where I do a little bit of everything: copy editing, copy writing, office administration, etc. But my main role in the Press is helping handle acquisitions. I wrote the following paragraphs as part of an article at editingandpublishing.wordpress.com:
The Acquisitions Process
When an acquisitions editor decides to pitch the book for the publication green light, marketing and sales factor into the equation. Oftentimes, the decision to publish a book comes down to the numbers: how many books will sell and at what price compared to the cost of actually publishing, promoting, circulating, and distributing the book. The information goes into a formula—a profit and loss (P & L) sheet. In essence, the marketability of a book comes down to numbers: how many books will actually sell, and how does that number compare against the cost of publication?
Determining P & L
Authors often must provide information to help calculate the P & L—who the audience is, what the market is, and why that market is profitable. The publisher will likely compare the manuscript or proposal with similar books already on the market—i.e., the competitors. The publisher will also likely discuss what season the book belongs in and what line the book should be published with. Editors and financial analysts use this information to determine the number of books that might sell and at what list price, if the book might have rights to sell (foreign, book club, movie), and what kind of royalties the author should receive. All the cost information is fed into the P & L, and if the book is projected to be more than marginally profitable, the project will probably proceed.
University presses operate under a different model. Because university presses rarely make a profit off the books they publish, they consider more about furthering a body of knowledge and publishing good works. Less time is given to P & L and more about how the book will fit in to their general focus and readership.
My job at the Press is slightly less involved. Basically, I read the cover letter, the proposal, the chapter outline (if there is one), market/competitive analysis (if existing), and the sample of text provided. TCU Press focuses on publishing literature of Texas and the South(west). So, many of the proposals we receive focus on cities in Texas and the South/West, Southern/Western culture, and Southern/Western history. We do occasionally publish works that aren’t Southern/Western-oriented, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. We try to preserve local history and specialize in regional literature. A good amount of the proposals we receive fall into the South/Western category, so my job then is to sort out the wacky/zany proposals from those we could actually publish.
At eleven40seven (www.1147.tcu.edu), we would review submissions to the journal and sort them into three piles: yes, no, and maybe. The “yes” pile consisted of those that were of high quality and we knew we wanted to print. The “no” pile included those works that after one read we knew we didn’t want to include in the publication. The “maybe” pile included the borderline ones that we might put on our online edition of the journal and not in print. Depending on the number of acquisitions, we could spend hours deciding how to manage those three categories. Some pieces are a definite “yes.” They stand out in quality, and you know after one read that they’re well written, well thought out, and well executed. Many of the “no” submissions are similar–after just a couple lines/paragraphs, you know that this piece just isn’t quite there style-wise, quality-wise, or otherwise.
But the process listed above is for an undergraduate, student-run journal. I’ve just started looking at acquisitions for the Press, and I realized that I needed a more discerning eye than “yes, no, maybe.” Although we have editorial standards at eleven40seven, I knew I needed to come up with a way to look at these proposals and write up an assessment/recommendation to the head of acquisitions at the Press. For ethics and privacy, I won’t include any specific texts, authors, or titles. The following are the basic questions I ask myself when looking at a text (in any genre):
1. What is the author’s objective/purpose? What is the author trying to do?
2. How well is the author achieving that objective? Why or why not?
After these questions, I have to divorce the content from the style. I can’t care about what is written; I must focus on how it’s written. I may be reading a political treatise (for lack of a better word) with views completely contrary to my own–I may be offended, angry, and indignant. But instead of rejecting it on the basis of its content, I have to see how well they’re building their ideas and their argument. Is the rhetoric strong? Is the writing clear and concise? Are the paragraphs well organized and structured?
I may intensely dislike the topic of a story or find it boring because I don’t really care about military history or esoteric writings about obscure topics. I have to ask if the writing is fitting with the audience–easy-to-understand writing for a commercial audience or more difficult, specific topics for an academic audience.
After this initial process, the question breaks down by genre. Some of the questions overlap from genre to genre, but here are the major ones I look at for each genre.
1. How is the author developing the characters? Are the characters flat, rounded, or dynamic?
2. Is the author showing or telling us about the characters? Is the author hand-holding the audience? (In creative writing terms, showing versus telling is one of the major phrases you hear. A lot. Showing means that you are demonstrating something about a character or a relationship by their actions, their thoughts, or through dialogue, not through telling us what the character is like. Additionally, hand-holding means you’re over telling or over explaining a concept that the reader would be able to infer on his or her own. A major principle I’m looking for: Is the author trusting the reader to understand? Audiences are smarter than one might think, and they get the point without explicit explanation.)
3. How does the author construct scenes? How does the author use sensory detail to describe physical parts of appearance and setting?
4. What is the chronology of the timeline? In media res? Lots of flashbacks? How do these transitions work from past to present or present to past? Does this approach to chronology serve a specific purpose? Does it help the reader understand the nuances of the situation?
5. What kind of figurative language does the author use? Metaphor? Simile? Symbolism?
6. How is the narration? Does it flow smoothly? Is it confusing? Is the prose interesting and compelling?
7. After a few pages, do I want to keep reading? Am I interested?
8. Is the dialogue strong? Is it stilted? Unnatural? Overly formal? Consistent with the characters’ personalities and backgrounds?
1. What is the structure of the poem? Is it stanzaic? If so, do the structures of the stanzas serve a specific purpose?
2. Is there a rhyme scheme? If so, does the rhyme scheme act to heighten the poem, or is it arbitrary?
3. What kind of rhythm does the author use? Pentameter/tetrameter? Iambic? If there is a specific rhythm/meter, why is the poet choosing this form? Is the poem in free verse? Why?
4. What sort of sound devices does the poet use? Assonance? Consonance? Alliteration? Do these sound devices add to the meaning of the poem? Do they work well together?
5. Is the diction of the poem strong? (To many poets, poetry is language distilled to its most vivid form without over telling.) Is any of the diction shocking/appealing?
6. What kind of figurative language does the poet use?
1. What is the form of the essay? Epistolary? Essay? Memoir? Short nonfiction? Personal essay/narrative?
2. How well is the text constructed? What is the structure? How is it organized? How are the transitions?
3. Is the prose compelling? What is the diction and the word choice? Is the writing lyrical or not?
4. What is the tone? How well is the author conveying that tone?
5. What figurative language is there? How effectively is it used?
6. Is the writing clear, concise, and to-the-point?
7. Does the writing address its intended audience well?
I’m sure there are more questions that I’m forgetting, but those are the basics. Once I answer those questions (either mentally or by actually writing them down), I am able to write a brief summary and brief assessment of the quality of the writing and whether or not people would actually buy/read the book. There are, of course, other processes to the acquisitions process apart from what I’ve listed above, and I plan to address them in later posts. But for the sake of simply reading a manuscript and making a decision to recommend or not, these questions are my starting point. I am not an expert in any genre, nor I am well versed in all the conventions of each genre. I simply use some basic “criteria” to start thinking about the quality of a piece, whether I like its subject matter or not.