The editor you met with at a writers’ conference liked your proposal and asked you to send it to her after the conference. She was already talking about format and promotion ideas. Or you submitted a proposal and received an enthusiastic response from the acquisitions editor. Four (or maybe six to eight) months later, a rejection letter showed up in your inbox or mailbox.
No matter how much editors like potential books, they don’t have final say in sending contracts A lot of other people are involved in the decision of whether to issue a contract or a rejection letter.
Before becoming an agent I worked 11 years as an acquisitions editor and later as an editorial director for Bethany House Publishers. Most publishers have two physical board meetings to help make the decision whether or not to publish a book. This process varies from publisher to publisher and each company has its own name for its board meetings. Thus many authors get confused when hearing different labels.
Some rejections state that “the book did not get past the committee.” This statement can mean a lot of things. It could even mean it didn’t get past stage one below. So take a comment like that with a grain of salt, or at least get clarification if you wish to know how far your book actually went in the process.
Let’s look at the stages your proposal goes through in this process (all of this presupposes that you already have a literary agent who has helped your craft your proposal so that it will get reviewed by the right person at the right publisher):
Stage One: Editor
The first stage is with the editor, one-on-one. This person must decide which book projects he or she wants to sponsor to colleagues. Most rejections happen at this desk. For some reason it didn’t click. Rarely does anyone else in the company see the rejected proposal at this stage. Some junior editors may show it to a senior editor, but not in a formal presentation meeting.
Stage Two: Editorial Board
The second stage is the editorial board. Editors gather together and pitch their discoveries to other editors. The editors create consensus for the project and occasionally brainstorm a different direction for it. If you get approval at this stage, many editors will call the agent or you and tell you the good news. But this is only a mid-level step.
Stage Three: Publishing Board
The third stage is the publishing board meeting (aka pub board). This is the biggie. Again, each company operates differently, so consider this description as a generalization. In this meeting are the company executives, presidents, vice-presidents, sales and marketing folks, and editorial representatives. I’ve heard of these meetings having as many as 20 people in attendance. Likely it is closer to 10 at the most.
Most editors have worked hard prior to this meeting. They have put together pro-formas that show the projected sales and profitability of the project. Likely they have already gone to the sales department and received a sales projection. Some go as far as gathering printing bids for the book prior to the meeting. Each member of the committee receives the pro-forma and a copy of the book proposal. (I can’t emphasize enough the power of a top notch proposal.). The executives receive this information before the meeting but not all are able to read it in advance.
It is this meeting where every objection possible is thrown at the book. Participants come up with reasons why this idea is a failure and why it should never be published. The discussion can be brutal. The editor is the advocate who defends the book against objections. If it survives this gauntlet, it will likely survive the general marketplace. In my time at Bethany House each project took a minimum of 15 minutes to present and receive rejection or approval. But some discussions lasted an hour.
There were times I went into the meeting expecting a slam dunk and got rejected. Other times I thought I’d get shot down but ended up with approval. An editor considers it a good day when 80 percent of what he or she presents in the pub board meeting gets approved.
Reasons for approval can be everything from pure economics to personal agendas by an executive. If that executive loves the topic, he can push the rest of the meeting toward approval. If everyone is tired and cranky, then the proposal may be doomed for publishing success. This is a subjective business, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the pub board meeting.
At this stage, the editor has company approval of the book. Some publishers authorize the contractual parameters in this meeting. Others have to have a separate meeting with the finance department.
But now is usually when the editor calls you or your agent with the good news. Negotiations begin on the contract, and you are on your way to your next published book.
Originally published in The Advanced Christian Writer, September/October 2005. Revised 2009 and 2015.
So, after everything we go through in the agent-query stage, triumphantly finding one who loves the work, we have to face more of the same, perhaps three times over. And if that final board is tired and cranky, forget it.
It’s a good thing that I love to write, and can’t put it aside. If I wrote to publish, I’d be be an optimistic fool.
I have my my agent, after months of rejection, and thought I was in the home stretch. Now I’m not sure.
Rebecca Barlow Jordan
Great blog, Steve. The information will be helpful to so many. I’ll recommend it often, and link to it soon, so even more writers and readers can benefit.
Terrific info, thanks!
There were several times prior to my recent three-book deal where my agent would tell me we’d made it to the editorial board or pub board (only to get shot down). I never knew for sure what that process was like, so this is wonderful to see it broken down so clearly. Thank you!
I appreciate you sharing this with us. As a “rookie” novelist, it can be discouraging to get rejection letters. I appreciate your insights here.
Nothing drives the advice, “Don’t quit your day job”, home better than articles like this. Thanks for the insight.
This is a fantastic blog. My book in in stage 2 and I finally understand how it works. thanks so much.
This is crazy! I’m just getting started, so YIKES! Thank you very much for the information. I have finished book one and am on book two. I knew that the Book Proposal was important (still working on mine for the 1st book), but this makes it even more intimidating to get it right!
This is a great description of a complicated process.
So that’s what goes on in those back rooms, where the air hangs heavy with the smoke of cheap cigars, and rotgut is mixed with off-brand beer to fuel working lunches.
It’s a lot like the process of getting an academic position…first comes the search committee, which sifts through the resumes and makes its ‘long list’ of ten or so candidates.
The long list is then shortened by approval from the chair and dean, to 3-4 candidates that will be called for interviews. Sometimes this involves a phone interview, and this stage always involves heavy politics. A candidate from some schools, or who worked with some individuals, will be summarily rejected.
As an example, I did my doctoral work in structural engineering at UC San Diego, and there was no way a UCSD alumnus was going to be hired on at Illinois-Urbana, Berkeley, or University of Colorado Boulder. The bad blood between the chairs and admin people was long-lasting, and based on more than professional disagreement.
One reason professors do what they do is so they can play politics to their heart’s content after getting tenure, secure in the knowledge that they will never be fired if it goes wrong.
Back to the process…the on-campus interview is the next step, and it may or may not be very relevant. Sometimes the decision to hire a specific candidate has already been made, and providing he or she shows up at the interview, it’s a done deal. The other candidates arrive as filler, and they often know this.
The final step, which is usually a rubber stamp, is approval by the dean and the board of regents, or board of directors. Occasionally there will be an upset here, if the department chair has a favorite candidate and the dean hates the chair.
Usually the process is at least mostly merit-based, but to characterize it as objective, and a reflection of a university’s truth-seeking mission is to completely misunderstand how a university and its faculty really work.
Sylvia A. Nash
Been there! I submitted to an editor who was very enthusiastic about the book in question. At the end of that road, I received a very nice email from her in which she tried to encourage me by saying my book made it all the way to the top level–however many levels that publisher had. That was nice of her to tell me that, and I appreciated it, but it did nothing to change the facts that it was a rejection and that I still had no idea what impressed at the lower levels or didn’t impress at the top level. That’s right up there with someone telling you your book isn’t ready for prime time. Oh, well, it is what it is!
I appreciate you going into detail about what happens in each meeting. I knew publishers hold pub board meetings, but reading the who’s and what’s of each meeting gives me a clearer picture of the process as a whole.
And to be honest, that third meeting sounds very intimidating. However, I definitely see the value of being so critical of a project a publishing house is considering.
I’ve never heard the process in such vivid detail. It’s always been a little foggy. Thanks for shedding light on it!
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Clear and concise, and much needed! An editorial board was enthusiastic and already planning marketing for two of my books, then the publishing board rep emailed me six weeks later to say that board had decided not to go in the new direction my books represented. I did not understand the publishing board’s function in the process until I read this. I had the impression that was the governing board of the organization, basically just occasionally exercising veto power over book proposals approved by the editorial board, rather than participating in another full-out consideration of the proposal. I appreciate the insights!
Does an agent begin the whole process over again with a different publisher after a refusal at the publishing board level in one house?
Been there, too, more than once. where at acquisitions editor raved about the story but then the enthusiasm waned somewhere up the ladder. I’ve learned to practice an attitude of cautious excitement when an editor says they love the book–profound gratitude coupled with a determination to count no chicken before its time.
As an author, I appreciate the rejection that comes with a reason–even if it’s something I can’t fix or control, like the publisher already has similar books in the pipeline, etc. I know they can’t give this kind of feedback for every rejection, but it seems to me that the farther the book travels up the decision-making ladder, the more the author is entitled to some feedback–even a sentence–when it is ultimately rejected.
And if the reason for rejection IS something fixable, then wow–that’s golden information to receive.
You have a rare ability to be truthful in a helpful way. To stay brave and be successful, this is what has worked for me (“do your best” includes “do your research!”)
Do your best. Ignore the odds. Persevere.
It blows my mind that a book doesn’t cost more with all the steps and people involved in a publication decision.
Thanks Steve for this informative post. It’s a great tool to help explain things to friends & family who know I have an agent and wonder when the book is coming out!
Thanks for the wonderful post, and for your honest and enlightening information. It all seems overwhelming to me. *heavy sigh* So, I plod on. So many things to consider.
Clarification appreciated! Thank you.
This is the most helpful information I have ever read about how publishing companies work. Thank you so much for sharing. I had always assumed the editorial board made the final decision. But this makes complete sense. At the end of the day a publisher’s decision to publish a book is a business decision. This requires input from all the major players (Publsihing Board). I appreciate your insight.
Thank you so much for creating this website ! It’s invaluable.
If the Editorial Director of a publishing company requests to see your self published book, what does that mean?
Jessica J. Scott
I appreciate you sharing this with us. This is a great description of a complicated process. Thank you.
Love to read your Fun Fridays (and laugh or cry) and blogs for writers, I came to this years later than the original post.
Held breath. Read on. The commencement of head-banging resumed.
I ‘get’ the process. Groan. Doesn’t mean it’s vaguely close to likeable.
Oh, look. My head destroyed the table. Sigh. Excuse me while I bumble my way to the wall after a few Tylenol. Then, back to editing #2.
OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU
Thank you so much Steve for making many of us look out for your posts. God bless you. It all goes to show that we must not forget that favour comes from God! And at His own time, He will make all things beautiful for us writers. Keep on writing everyone. Knowing that God sees the beginning from the end in our writing career should help us go through those rejection letters if they do come. As we go through the ‘furnace’, we will come out stronger and better. By God’s grace, Amen.
Thank you Steve for the post.