Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘acquisitions’

The Demon in the File

I worked as an acquisitions editor for eleven40seven: TCU’s Student Journal of the Arts (, so I had the privilege of reading all the submissions and recommending the picks that would appear in the journal that semester. As a creative writer, I had a pretty okay knack for separating the wheat from the chaff, an ability I used later as an acquisitions assistant at TCU Press ( One semester, I read a short story fiction piece about a selkie–a seal that lives in human form. I liked the story, as did my fellow editors, and was curious about what a selkie was and its place in mythology, so I did some googling and found a Wikipedia page about selkies ( The plot line of the short story I was considering was almost identical to that of the movie The Secret of Ronan Inish. Although the plot points weren’t exactly the same, the two were close enough that I knew the writer had stolen the story line from this movie. I informed the editor-in-chief, and we did not select the piece for the journal, as we almost had.

The specter of plagiarism had reared its ugly head. The editor-in-chief and I had half a mind to send an e-mail to the writer warning him or her (I can’t remember the writer’s gender) about the dangers of plagiarism and how had we had reported this piece to the university authorities, he or she would have been promptly placed on academic probation at the very least and at the most expelled. I am not sure if the writer was consciously plagiarizing, accidentally blurring the line between intellectual property and “creativity,” or really had no idea that what he or she was doing was definitely unethicial and possibly illegal. The faculty advisor for the journal had never encountered such an issue, and he was flabbergasted than anyone would so brazenly plagiarize another’s work and submit it to a journal.

I work at the Center for Writing at TCU, and I often work with students who are shocked to find out that they are violating all kinds of rules in their papers when they do not properly cite their sources or even paraphrase. I am not sure where this ignorance comes from, as works cited pages and MLA format are standard fare for high school English research papers, but I occasionally have to put the fear of God (or at least the law/student handbook) into these students to get them to realize that plagiarism is a big big deal. Professional writers do it, sure–but they get severely penalized for it. I had a friend at SMU who wrote papers for other people for a fee; the practice disgusted me, but not my university, not my problem. I find myself saying over and over, “You have to cite your sources; the issue is non-negotiable, unless your professor already knows all your sources from course readings and has no reason for works cited.” I give the spiel about ethos, credibility, and a paper trail for other readers who might be interested in the research, but I emphasize the whole, “this could get you expelled or a whole lot worse” bit. Their eyes widen a little, and they listen a little more intently when I tell them how to cite their sources depending on the style guide.

I bring up the issue because today I read an article that concerned a totally different topic but discussed plagiarism in the publishing industry and the subsequent recalls that result from a publisher realizing, “Oh my dear Lord, we just sent out 50,000 copies of a book that is plagiarized” (full article here: Anyway, Maria Konnikova cites several instances of publishers having to recall books because of plagiarism:

“1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay’s I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after “an absolutely scathing indictment” of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn’t cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay’s biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason)….More recent examples abound. In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan made headlines for plagiarizing her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life; Little, Brown promptly recalled the 55,000 copies that had already been shipped. 2009 saw the recall of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization—a recall its editor likened to the “first instance of mass book-burning in the 21stcentury.” In 2011, the new thriller Assassin of Secrets, by Q. R. Markham, was found instead to be an assassin of other people’s work—and all 6,500 copies were recalled by Little, Brown. And just this summer, David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies was recalled by publisher Thomas Nelson—apparently, it contained one too many lies itself.”

I know I’m incorrectly block quoting here and thus becoming a hypocrite (WordPress is kind of limiting when it comes to formatting), but plagiarism is not a thing of the past–it is a ghost that haunts every writer, every publisher, every student, even if they don’t realize it’s there. I don’t know if we need to have an awareness campaign out there or just plain better education at the high school and collegiate level, but people need to realize it’s not just a legal issue, it’s a moral issue.

My next post will probably concern the opposition’s argument about new media, the strangling effects of copyright law on creativity, and the electronic marketplace’s changing of the scene of intellectual property. I agree to some extent, but as a writer myself, if I found someone plagiarizing my work, I would sue that person for all he or she was worth until they paid through the nose for violating my intellectual property, even if that idea/term is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. But, a post for another day.

The article also discusses how some memoirs have gotten the shaft for not being memoir enough. There has always been a fine, fine line between what is creative non-fiction and what is fabrication. I’ll readily admit that I have manipulated certain parts of my past to better fit a story line, to be more entertaining, to allow me to skip over giving background information and just keep moving along. But creative nonfiction writers have to be wary that at some point, putting too much fiction in the work moves it from memoir to a novel. A Million Little Pieces is famous for this controversy when Oprah took James Frey down a notch when he appeared on her talk show.

It’s not a news flash that not everything that appears in a memoir in completely, one hundred percent true. For one thing, memoirs are subjective, not objective. If you want reality and truth, go for an autobiography that’s more about relaying truth (a debatable idea in our post-modern world) than about entertaining. For another, memoirs are based on memory, and psychologists have proved that our memories are faulty and suggestible. Every time we call up a memory, our brain slightly modifies it and stores it away in the new, revised form. This problem has led many judges to start disallowing eyewitnesses from testifying in court–we just can’t trust their memories to be accurate. For another, memoir makes no attempt to avoid bias. After all, it’s about a story, usually a piece of a person’s life (for example, if I were to write a memoir, it would not go from childhood to now–I’d focus on a specific aspect).

I’m not defending memoirists who fabricate an entire life that never happened or include so much sensationalism that they abandoned the basic outline of the past a long time ago. But let’s cut some memoirists a break–they’re not claiming to give the whole and absolute truth, nothing but. Memoir is an incredibly difficult genre to write well. It’s not hard to write out your life story, but it’s damn hard to make it well written and effective. Many professional writers don’t even attempt it, and I would argue that it’s the most difficult genre to write well. I think the whole reality vs. fabrication is a little more shades of gray than the plagiarism issue. After all, a memoir is a recollection, and a memoirist is a writer first–we concern ourselves with tweaking the truth for a better piece of writing.

I’m not a memoirist; I’m an essayist. However, I do include personal writing in my works, and I’ll be damned if someone cries wolf because I changed a scene to include me cutting tomatoes rather than just sitting at the table during the conversation to add drama. But I’ll also be damned for taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s my own. We should all know better.

Yes, No, Maybe

I currently have an internship at the TCU Press ( 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

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 (, 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?

Poetry/Prose Poetry

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?

Creative Nonfiction

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.

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