Acquisition and commissioning of a book!


Success of publishing depends on what to publish and where to get it from. One should remember that most publishing failures are due to wrong editorial decisions. Understanding the need and process of acquisition and commissioning, therefore, is of utmost importance for a publishing house. Here’s an overview by GS Jolly. Publishers need manuscripts to publish, as authors want publishers to publish them. A book or book idea might come from many sources. Search of manuscripts and initiating projects that will result into books that meet the needs of a publishing house, is the responsibility of the editorial department of a publishing house.

Acquiring manuscripts

Flow of manuscripts into a publishing house is the lifeblood, which is very vital for the growth and development of the company. Search of manuscripts and initiating projects that will result into books and meet the needs of the publishing house, is the responsibility for the editorial department. In the words of Datus C. Smith “The publisher who sits waiting for authors and translators to bring in manuscripts is going to publish an undistinguished list of books and have small profit. On the other hand, the publisher who wants to give good service both to the public interest and to its firm’s profit goes out and gets manuscripts.”

There are many ways by which a book project can be developed into a book. The idea can come to the editor from within the publishing house or outside it. Book ideas may also come from many places: directly from the author, his agent, a professional contact, through a friend or any other means.

Ideas from within the publishing house: People working in production and sales department are also fully conversant with the publishing programme of the company. They are aware of the area of experimentation and field of activity of the publishing house. These men come in contact with professors, librarians, book reviewers and authors in the process of their work of producing and promoting the books. In the process they may come to know of a prospective writer who has either written or can write the kind of books needed by the publishing house or the type of ideas the editors are on the lookout. These prospective authors are introduced to the editors of the publishing house who welcome such suggestions and sometime may succeed in finalising a proposal.

Discovery of author or book idea by reading / attending conferences: An ideal editor is said to be a superman, with world of events as well as literatures at his fingertips. The editor of school or college textbook acquires knowledge of the educational system by being part of the system or by studying and reading about it. Editors read other publishers catalogues to find out what is new in the market. What competition the new manuscript will have to face. They follow not only creative writing but also critical writers, watch closely the publications of their own trade, attend conferences/ seminars to contact established authors and explore possibilities of the potential authors and manuscripts.

Literary Scouts: A literary scout is one who researches for publishable literary property on behalf of a publishing house and is usually compensated by the publisher if a recommended property such as book idea of a manuscript is contracted.

Literary Agent: Another way an editor hears about a publishing proposal is through literary agent. The institution of literary agents have taken solid roots in the West, it is not as important a factor in India, though there are some operating in the Indian publishing arena.

Literary agents are men or women, who either alone or as members of firms, place the manuscripts of their client authors with publishers. Because, they know what the publishers are buying and who is publishing what. They have an intimate knowledge of the lists of various publishing houses. Literary agents receive commission, usually 10 per cent but sometime 15 per cent-of all receipts and they negotiate the terms of publishing contract on behalf of authors.

They are twentieth century phenomenon whose business depends upon personal contact, on the ability to attract author customers to them and to sell their wares to publishing trade, filmmakers and broadcasters.

Initially, publishers resisted the advent of literary agents as middlemen between authors and publishers and who could disturb the ‘cozy intimacy’ between them. The hostility has now become less pronounced when publishers realised that they intend to do a wonderful job of screening material and stopping such bad manuscripts from reaching the editor’s desk by submitting only what appears to have some kind of reasonable chance of acceptance.

Unsolicited manuscripts

A large number of manuscripts are received by publishing houses unsolicited, also called ‘over the transom’. These are called unsolicited because they arrive at publisher’s office at author’s own initiative and unexpectedly and without being asked by the publishing house to do so. These manuscripts are neither commissioned by publishers nor recommended by their editors.

It may seem astonishing why there are so many unsolicited manuscripts and why only a few of them see the light of the day. The reason is not far to seek. Although, authors may do a lot of labour on writing the manuscript, they do little research in finding out who would be interested in that kind of manuscript.

Another reason for mass rejection of unsolicited manuscripts is that—many unknown beginners try to start with the largest and most prestigious publishing house. The numbers of unsolicited manuscripts are swelled by the simple fact that many authors indulge in multiple submissions and send copies of the manuscripts to large number of publishing houses simultaneously.

Some publishers reject manuscripts with great speed. For most publishers the standard reason for turning down an unsolicited manuscript is ‘it does not fall within our list.’ There are other reasons too. Few authors would realize that each manuscript received by publishers whether rejected, as the – majority, are bound to be or accepted, cost the publisher some money. Publishers are choosy and they have to, because they know that most authors are known failures and they make their living out of a few successes.

The general accusation that publishers reject manuscript without reading cannot be accepted wholly.

The point that publishers as a class are not interested in works of new authors is not to be accepted without reservation. Unsolicited manuscripts pour in all the time even though, a few pompous publishers actually refuse to accept work that has not been invited or commissioned. But if everybody ‘adopted this pricy attitude, there would have been no Gone with the Wind, the classic example of a bestseller that literally came to its publisher through post.

Commissioning of manuscript

Publishers directly influence the content of what is written. The most pervasive and direct way the publisher can influence this is to conceive a work and commission an author to write it. The essence of successful publishing is ‘what to publish’ and ‘where to get it from’.

It appears to be increasingly common for works to have their genesis in publisher’s rather than author’s mind. Publishers call themselves ‘shapers of Culture’ and ‘gatekeepers of ideas’. They operate as sluice gates; they are gatekeepers in as much as they are empowered to make decision on what to let ‘in’ and what to ‘keep out’. They function as arbiters of taste and culture. There is considerable interaction between editors and authors and this interaction often shapes the nature of what is published.

Commissioning Editor

A commissioning editor is responsible for building up a publisher’s book list. Commissioning editor finds suitable authors for new books and for new editions of existing titles. He/she negotiates a contract with the author or the author’s agent and monitors progress of the book from commissioning to publication, working with other editorial/production staff.

Commissioning editors need to keep abreast of market trends in their area of publishing.

Knowing the trends in the book market is an important part of the commissioning editor’s job. It is the commissioning editor who has to decide what is likely to be profitable this year, and what could be difficult to sell the next. They decide on the sort of book titles they will publish and often draw up an annual publishing plan. They usually have to discuss their plans with other senior staff and prove that their ideas are likely to be profitable.

Responsibilities of commissioning Editor

The roles of commissioning editors vary between companies. Usually they are also responsible for ensuring that authors under contract deliver typescripts to specification and on time. They thus have an author management role. They usually have responsibility for ensuring that typescripts are of sufficient quality. In some (usually small) companies, commissioning editors are also responsible for overseeing the copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, and design of books, although in other companies this responsibility is assumed by other staff e.g. editors, copy editors, and production editors, often commissioning editors are also responsible for managing books that have already been published, for example by ensuring that stock levels are adequate and advising on when a book needs to be reprinted.

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