Demystifying Book Acquisitions


Landing a traditional book deal is the dream many writers strive for, but far fewer have seen it come to fruition. Trying to decipher the acquisition process, especially without agent representation, can be extremely challenging and time-consuming. Thus, two of the amazing acquisitions editors I have had the pleasure of working with agreed to shed much-needed light on what acquiring a book is like from the publisher’s POV.

The Editors: 

Christianne Jones has been an editor for 22 years and has championed hundreds (maybe thousands!) of books into the world, including best-selling picture books by Katy Hudson (Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap) and Floyd Cooper (Juneteenth for Mazie). She has read about a bazillion books and written more than sixty. She lives in Mankato, Minnesota, with her husband and three daughters.

Deidra Purvis is the acquisitions editor for Free Spirit Publishing, the leading publisher of books to support young people’s social-emotional learning and well-being. She’s looking for new board books, picture books, and nonfiction books for kids and teens. Before joining Free Spirit Publishing, Deidra gained market insight as a children’s book list curator and bookseller. Deidra holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University.

How does the acquisition process typically work (for the acquiring editor at a  traditional publishing house)

Deidra: The acquisition process is a huge mountain to climb, as I’m sure many writers can imagine. As acquisitions editor, I’m looking for submissions that are fresh, new, and exciting—projects that I can get behind. After I read a strong submission, I have another editor or two read it for feedback before deciding if I’m going to take it to the next stage. Like most traditional publishers, we have acquisitions meetings where I propose the project to our acquisitions committee. This committee tends to be made up of similar teams at various houses. Usually there is someone from company leadership, the publisher, a sales manager, and a marketing manager. At this meeting, I propose to our committee all the books that I’m willing to stand behind. My job is to sell the potential of these projects to everyone in the meeting—everyone has their “own hat” on. We discuss and come to a decision together, and our goal is to determine if each book is one that we need and can sell. That’s the biggest hurdle. After a proposal is accepted by the committee, then it goes through a financial review. If approved, I can send the author or agent a deal memo and get started on contract negotiations. This approval process can take a month or longer. 

Christianne: The acquisition process is interesting, as it can vary widely by publisher plus takes time. While Capstone isn’t a big trade publisher, we have a thorough acquisition process in place. It starts with agents sending submissions to our acquisition editors. If the editor connects to a story, they present it to a smaller team (including other acquisition editors and a content strategist). If it’s approved in that meeting, the editor puts together a formal proposal and sends it to the publisher and the director of content strategy. If they approve it, it moves ahead to a larger group meeting for feedback from sales and marketing. If the submission makes it through this vetting process, an offer is sent out.

Do you think it is still possible for writers to successfully query their manuscripts—or themselves as authors—to publishers if they do not have agent representation? 

Christianne: I wish I had a magic answer so all the talented writers could be published, but most publishers, including Capstone, do not accept unagented manuscripts. While I think it’s possible if someone has the right connections, it’s not likely for most writers. I have been fortunate to build relationships with authors who started with work-for-hire (IP) projects—which Capstone does a lot of—and moved into submitting other work. So I would say to accept work-for-hire projects that fit your skillset and build your publishing credits.

Diedra: Yes, it’s absolutely possible at many publishers! My advice to writers is to query both publishers and agents at the same time—see who bites! If you really want an agent, sometimes getting an offer from a publisher will help get an agent’s attention; and if it doesn’t, I’ve seen many authors get agents after their first or second book has been published. You have to do your research; not all publishers accept unsolicited submissions from unagented authors. But you can find lists online to get started. Then make sure you’re a good match for the publisher, plus that you’d feel good publishing your book with them. Check out some of their books from the library to get an idea of their style. Once you’ve created a list of publishers that are good matches for you and you feel ready to submit, my biggest piece of advice is to follow the submission guidelines closely. If you’re being asked a question on a submission form, the acquisitions editor wants and needs that information from you. Answer these forms with care and attention. The review process can take months, so be patient and keep trying. It all starts with one agent or one editor falling in love with your work. And you never know when you’re going to find that person.

For more ‘insider info’ about working with an acquisition editor once a project has been acquired, as well as how editors in this role discover new books and authors to add to their lists, sign on to Lit!Commons then access The Builder lesson module for the week of June 12. Don’t have access? Click here to join today.