How Literary Agents Target Acquisitions Editors

To follow up from the last post from www.storygrid.com, here is a description of how literary agents think about who to send a particular project at a particular publishing house…

So a good agent understands how editors think…specifically, how they sort submissions.

Let’s take a look at Editorial Principle Number One from the last post, “Don’t Even Think About Reading Unsolicited Submissions.”

How does this knowledge translate into an effective sales approach?

To avoid being thrown into the slush pile and/or being immediately handed off to an assistant, the first thing effective agents understand is that they have to personally connect with the editors targeted for their pitch.

If she can’t get the editor on the phone or respond to an email…game over.

Wait a minute. Back up. How do agents target editors in the first place?

Here’s how. Every literary agency or independent agent has a file. They call it the Editor/Publisher file. This file contains an up to date listing of all the editors in the publishing house, plus their particular specialties.

When I was an editor, my entry probably read something like this,

Doubleday

Coyne, Shawn: Senior Editor

Fiction: Thriller, Mystery, Military, Historical, Sports

Nonfiction: Sports, Outdoor Adventure, Military, Public Affairs, Science

6-10 books a year.

When an agent has a project ready to go, the agency will hold an informal meeting (or the agent will just go from office to office and spitball ideas with his colleagues) and figure out which editor at each house would be best for the project.

This happens with every single submission.

Why?

Well, editors move around a lot. At least they did in my day. And editors’ adapt to what publishers’ want. If a great job becomes available that requires a passion for needlepoint, you’d be surprised at how many great editors with no track record publishing needlepoint books actually have a secret obsession with the craft… So just because an editor concentrates on Fiction at one house, he may be doing only Nonfiction at another.

In order to achieve a sizable raise, especially when you are a young editor, one has to be lured to another publishing company. What would happen is that a friend would hear about a job opening at a rival house and tell you about it. You’d speak to other friends and let it be known that you’d be open to making a move.

The publisher or editor-in-chief of the rival company looking for new blood would hear about you through the scout/insider information network and call you to arrange a clandestine meeting to see if you were a good “match” for them. This usually involved an early morning breakfast at a neutral venue (like a coffee shop in a cheesy tourist hotel) where no “publishing people” were known to frequent.

If your current boss found out you were interviewing, it was bad form. Thus the necessity to eat a bad bagel at the Radisson on 38th and Park at 7:30 a.m.

If you passed muster, the rival publisher made you an offer, usually in the afternoon after your breakfast meeting.  But there’d be a time clock attached to it. That is, they’d want to know your decision by end of the next business day or the offer would be rescinded.

Only the upper echelons of editors are under contract, thus the little guys are free to move around as free agents. When you’re a young editor, you long for the security of a contract. When you’re an older editor with a string of hits locked into a salary that is a pittance to what you are bringing in to the company, you long for the freedom of youth.

What you want when you’re young is the very thing that you wish to be rid of when you’re older. C’est la vie.

The offer from the rival publisher would be a sizable increase in salary and a raise in job title. So the “associate editor” back then making $25,000 a year would be offered a job as “editor” at the rival house for $35,000 a year. The money for editors is terrible. Especially for young editors. It may be $35,000 to $45,000 today for the same move. Maybe.

Before accepting the offer, you would arrange a meeting with your current boss and give her your notice.

Now, if you were a valued part of the company and the editor-in-chief or publisher thought it would be a big loss to lose you, they’d “counter-offer” to keep you, which would usually mean they’d match the money and job title and make a bunch of promises for your future.

Few publishers increase the terms of a rival offer, especially for a young editor, because the last thing they’d want is to get into a bidding war for a baby editor.

[Years ago, I was the editorial prize in a bidding war between my two favorite houses, which was wonderfully exciting until I realized that wherever I went, the pressure for me to perform immediately would be extreme. It was worse than I could have imagined but that’s another story.]

The crisis question for an editor in this position, having two equal offers, is “do I start over somewhere else” or “do I stay here and feel good about letting my bosses know that another publisher thinks I’m good at what I do.” Obviously, it depends on the editor making the decision.

In my case, what I did was completely stupid.

When I was a baby editor, I bullheadedly walked into my editor in chief’s office and told her, with spreadsheets and slick rhetoric, that from my own private analysis, I was worthy of a promotion in title and a commensurate raise in salary.

She then asked me if I had an offer from another company. I earnestly told her I didn’t. That I thought the way people were promoted in the industry (sneaking around and getting offers to throw at their bosses) was inherently corrupt and that while I could have done that, I didn’t think it was “honorable.”

Barely stifling a laugh, she proceeded to detail why I wasn’t worth what I thought I was. But because I was so “honorable” and had potential, she agreed to promote my title and to award me an increase in salary that was $1,000 less than what I’d asked for. Which reminds me of that wonderful line in the movie version of Fast Food Nation delivered by Bruce Willis “There’s always been a little shit in the meat…you’ve probably been eating it your whole life.”

What I’d done was a huge triumph. I’d gotten everything I wanted but a lousy $1,000, which was a small price to pay for my editor-in-chief to maintain a compelling management Story to tell for herself. And better yet, a Story to dine out on with her boss the publisher.

What would that story be?

If challenged about why she promoted the angry young man who worked in the office that had previously been a coat closet, she would simply explain that she’d put him in his place by dumping a triple work load on him and giving him half of what it would have cost to get that work done by someone else. I would get what I want, and she would get what she needed (more work for less cost).

But being the Black Irishman that I was and continue to be, I “out of principle” stormed out of her office indignant that she refused to acknowledge my “true worth.”

I resigned. With absolutely zero leads on another publishing job. And now with a “hot-headed” reputation to boot.

Two days later, I wore my tattered high school graduation suit and made minimum wage as a receptionist at Estee Lauder Cosmetics. (Let’s see that smile Shawn!).

I’d stubbornly blown up a promising career because I didn’t understand the power of Story.

Served me right, too.

So editors move around a lot. An agent needs to have up to date information of who is doing what and where they are doing it. Or they end up calling on someone who isn’t there anymore.

So let’s pretend it’s 1996 and we’re the newbie literary agent Tina Bennett.

She works at the powerful agency Janklow & Nesbit. And she’s been developing a book proposal with Malcolm Gladwell based on his 4,000-word piece The Tipping Point.

Because she’s new, she’ll ask her colleague’s advice about who to target.

The first person she’ll probably talk to is another younger agent, someone who has more experience than her, but who is still a little wet behind the ears.

Let’s say she decided to talk to Eric Simonoff about what houses and what editors to approach about The Tipping Point. Simonoff, like Bennett today, is now a big agent at William Morris Endeavor but back then he was just another up and comer at Janklow & Nesbit hoping to one day make a living wage.

They probably went out to lunch or had coffee or a quick beer and came up with a list of possible publishers for a guy like Gladwell (New Yorker writer exploring a big nonfiction idea). Simonoff was an editorial assistant for industry legend Gerald Howard at Norton before he became an agent. So he was familiar with each of the house “brands.”

And in 1996, in no particular order, these were the major publishing houses that had reputations for publishing “high-end” big-think nonfiction.

Random House

Viking

Knopf

William Morrow

Henry Holt

Harcourt

Houghton Mifflin

Norton

Putnam

Little Brown

Doubleday

Simon & Schuster

Farrar Straus & Giroux

St. Martin’s Press

Grove Atlantic

HarperCollins

Crown

Scribner

With the long list in hand, Simonoff then told Bennett what they’d need to do next would be to pare the list down to say five houses for the first round of submission and then hone a pitch.

Bennett caught on…

BennettThen I use the list of editors on the agency info sheet, find the ones who do big idea nonfiction and then cold call?

SimonoffNo!  Then we’ll go talk to Mort and Lynn…pitch them the project and the five houses you want to send it to…and ask them which editor you should call.

BennettWhy bother them with this?

SimonoffWho do you think Harry Evans or Roger Straus calls when they need to fill a big hole in their list? Mort and Lynn know what publishers and what editors want right now…not when the temp who takes notes at our meetings typed up that list.

If your pitch is good, not only will they tell you what houses are right for it, but who is desperate for a project like it. They may even make an early call to the publisher to tell them that you “may” be calling one of their editors about a big book project. Or they’ll mention it at off-hand to a scout at lunch.

So you won’t actually have to cold call. The editor may even call you!

Bennett:  Why don’t we just go ask them now?

Simonoff: You need to have a damn good pitch for them to get involved. If you go in their offices without a plan and a great pitch, you’ll make an ass of yourself.

Bennett:  Really?

Simonoff: What do you think I did on my first big submission?

So how did Bennett come up with a pitch for The Tipping Point as a book project?

That’s up next.

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6 Comments

  1. Robert Eaton Kelley on May 11, 2018 at 6:22 am

    Just another example of the “high minds” that govern “our” literary culture. (Yes, I know, bite my tongue.)

  2. Julie Murphy on May 11, 2018 at 10:33 am

    Very helpful, Shawn. Thanks.

  3. Eleanor F.J. Gamarsh on May 11, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    Thank you for this information. Pretty scary for a novice author like me wondering how I’ll ever get to publish my survivor/recovery memoir. Before “The End” and the journey after in marketing and editing and marketing and publishing [in a nut shell], there’s so much that has to be done before a book is actually out there for public scrutiny.

  4. Susan Setteducato on May 12, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    I think that quote from ‘Fast Food Nation’ would make a fabulous t-shirt. Thank you, Shawn, for the harrowing and enlighteing glimpse.

  5. Lee McGlothlin on May 16, 2018 at 9:59 am

    All from a hot-tempered Black Irishman with honorable intentions. What a team to root for!! I am out to buy an Irish flat hat, tweed sweater, and grow my beard back. May we learn that every body-blow and principled misstep leads us to our destiny.

  6. Jerry Ellis on May 25, 2018 at 6:44 am

    My favorite piece by you, Shawn. Nailed it.

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