Managers from Hell: Interview with A Big-Time Acquisitions Editor

Hiring Managers from Hell:
Interview with a Big-Time Acquisitions Editor
Interview conducted by Resumes from Hell co-author Jon Reed

Jon Reed: What's the number one thing you look for in an acquisitions editor?

Joe T Publisher: We look for that quality that used car salesmen have - the ability to negotiate from a position of strength, based on the ignorance of the customer.

JR: I never thought of publishers as sleazy before.

Joe T: Well, you were mistaken. Look, it's a business. Our only assets are our contracts with authors. Some publishers like to say that their only assets are their authors, but the truth is, it's the contracts they trick authors into.

JR: When you talk about taking advantage of the customer, who are you referring to?

Joe T: Well, I'm referring to the author as the customer. We sell them a dream in return for a contract.

JR: And what aspects of an author's "ignorance" can a publisher capitalize on?

Joe T: Well, let's break it down. The first problem someone buying a used car has is that they don't know what the dealer paid for it. In other words, they don't know what it's worth. Authors rarely join organizations or have any contact with experienced authors until they've gotten some books of their own published. In other words, they are lambs to the slaughter. So, authors don't know what good publishing contracts should look like, and they don't know that everything is negotiable. The acquisitions editor gives them the old used car story, "This baby is hot! It's now, or forget about it. Wait…let me go in the office and talk to my manager and see if we can work out a one-time arrangement just for you." An acquisitions editor says, "This is a better deal than we usually give new authors, but let me talk to my ed board." In the end, new authors not only get screwed on royalties, but they sign contracts so full of insidious clauses that some refuse to ever write another book.

JR: So let me get this straight: if you enjoy exploiting people for profit and corporate advancement, then being a big-time acquisitions editor might be right for you.

Joe T: Yes. It's difficult to find young English majors with this type of ambition, but once we get them in the door, we can mold them to the desired form and get them hooked on the perks of playing God in the lives of hundreds of authors.

JR: But is there not some redeeming aspects to this profession? After all, you're talking about getting authors in print, often for the first time. What about the joy of identifying and nurturing a creative project to its fruition?

Joe T: Oh, the art houses with the billion dollar backlists can afford to play those games. We just want someone who can negotiate a contract and who has better grammar skills than Microsoft Word. And for dealing with authors, it helps if they've already seen the movie "Lolita."

JR: What are the keys to being a successful contract negotiator?

Joe T: Start by asking for far more than you think you can get, and settle for far more than you should get.

JR: You mentioned English majors. Are there specific degrees or backgrounds you need to become a big-time acquisitions editor? I assume this is not a field you can break into from a random occupation.

Joe T: Well, we concentrate on English majors because we can get them cheap. Where else are they going to get jobs? We hire the occasional anthropologist, historian, or modern drama enthusiast - primarily at the B.A. level. If they have a graduate degree, they can do better teaching somewhere.

JR: What about folks who have been in the workplace for a while but want to move into such a role? What are their prospects?

Joe T: Well, if they ever sold cars for a living, I'd say their prospects are good. We generally don't want authors in-house, but we will employ them as outside development editors to actually write the books for the incompetent authors that we sign.

JR: You've expressed a startling level of cynicism about your chosen profession. Do you have any career regrets yourself?

Joe T: Yes. Do you remember the roll of toilet paper with the funny jokes? I regret that wasn't my idea. I could have retired years ago.

JR: Perhaps outside of the bigger publishing houses, there are better opportunities for folks who want to work with authors but don't want to feel like they are exploiting them?

Joe T: Sure, but it's a Faustian bargain. The big publishers are the ones who can sell the big numbers, and a little slice of Grandma's pie beats a big serving of stone soup.

JR: How much say does a typical acquisitions editor get over the selection of titles? Is it solely their decision, or do they make recommendations to more senior-level executives?

Joe T: Basically, except for the most senior editors, they have to get past the "ed" (editorial) board, who will reject the idea out of hand if it's not derivative, or if there is not a big celebrity's name associated with the project.

JR: It seems to me that in the big publishing houses, marketing executives have a much greater role in editorial decisions than ever before. Do you think that's true, and how do you see that impacting the quality of life for an idealistic acquisitions editor who wants to get quality books into circulation?

Joe T: Well, these days, the marketing executives are in bed with the chain store book buyers, and I mean that literally. So their quality of life is pretty good. :) I suppose it depends on your definition of quality. Cellophane tomatoes have been a great success through the years. I regret I didn't get in on inventing those also.

JR: But what about the acquisitions editor? How is the influence of marketing and demographic needs felt on the job?

Joe T: Well, rather than investing in market research and focus groups, we base all our decisions on Amazon reviews of similar books. In other words, we're not just out to save money by screwing authors; we cut corners everywhere.

JR: So what you're saying here is that the aspiring acquisitions editor is not likely to be able to select projects based primarily on the quality of the title, independent of market considerations?

Joe T: Oh, nobody gets to do that, unless they're related to ex-presidents.

JR: Well, this has been a very uplifting look into the publishing field. It sounds to me like acquisitions editors are going to enjoy their work more if they are teeming with business ambition and eager to exchange creative integrity for brand-name affiliations.

Joe T: We give bonus points at interviews if applicants can cite lyrics from our corporate song.

JR: Joe, good luck in your future endeavors - hopefully outside of publishing.

Joe T: Why, have you heard something?

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