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 promotional 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.
No matter how much editors like potential books, they don’t have the 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 of whether or not to publish a book. This process varies from publisher to publisher; 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 usual stages your proposal goes through in this process (presupposing that you already have a literary agent who has helped you craft your proposal so 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 (usually via email). This editor must decide which book projects he or she wants to sponsor to colleagues. Most rejections happen at this desk. 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 one another and to their editorial director. 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 midlevel 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 teams, and editorial representatives. I’ve heard of these meetings having as many as 20 people in attendance. It is likely closer to 10 at the most.
Most editors have worked hard prior to this meeting. They have put together official documents 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 proforma (profit/loss projections) 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 of them are able to read it in advance.
It is at 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 smooth and easy acceptance and, instead, got rejected. Other times I thought, This one may not succeed; but it ended 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; nowhere is that more apparent than in the pub board meeting.
At this stage, the editor has company approval for 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 Advanced Christian Writer, September/October 2005. Revised 2009, 2015, and 2023.