Wednesday, April 13, 2011

From the Other Side of the Desk

 by Dina Sleiman

In the past few weeks something new and exciting has happened in my career. I’ve become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire Publishing, the small press that recently contracted my medieval novel. If you don’t know what an acquisitions editor does, in layman’s terms, I help pick the books we publish.

On one hand, I was surprised to realize that after spending so many years figuring out how to write books, I actually knew exactly what I was looking for. How to spot the duds, the not-ready-yets, the don’t-fit-our-lines, and even the true gems. I realized I can detect plot holes, pacing issues, point of view problems, and even restructuring needs. On the other hand, I’ve learned so much about life on the editor’s side of the desk in just a few short weeks. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and all that.

I’m not quite sure I’ve gone a whole mile yet ;) But I’ve certainly discovered enough to fill a blog post. So I’m going to tell you what it’s like to be an editor. What they’re looking for. What makes them happy. What makes them sad. What makes them gag. And I think most of this information applies to agents as well.

1)      Editors are cheering for you. They want to find good books. Every time they open a file their fingers are crossed, and they hope against hope that this will be “the one.” Even if the query letter is not perfect, they think maybe you just didn’t spend enough time on it. They peruse your proposal hoping to find something to get excited about. And even if it’s not perfect, if there’s some potential in the proposal, they peek at the writing sample dreaming that it will wow them. Unfortunately, it rarely does. So after the mediocre query, the so so proposal, and the lackluster first page or two, they give up, hoping the next one will be better.

2)      Editors are looking for something special. As you may have noticed in point number one, editors are looking for some aspect of your book that will wow them. A great voice. An exciting premise. A cool plot twist. An unusual character. An amazing bio. Something—anything—that will stand out from the crowd. You probably have five minutes to catch an editors initial interest. If you do catch it, you might have 20-30 minutes to convince them they should read the full manuscript. If they request the entire book, they are definitely on your side hoping it will work. At this point you’ve proved your book is at the least a diamond in the rough. If it seems easy enough to polish, they will likely recommend it for publication.

3)      Editors are looking for something that will fit. While editors want something special and unique to stand out about your book and catch their interest, they also want something that will connect to their company’s goals and their existing titles. For example, WhiteFire’s current books are historical, romantic, spiritual, artistic, adventurous, edgy, and exotic. So we’re looking to branch out with books that overlap our existing line in certain areas and that will appeal to our customers in some way.

4)      Editors are looking for people to say yes to. Often editors say no to good books because they can only say yes a limited number of times. They might like your book, but like another book even more. Or they might need a different book to fill a certain slot in their line. I know that next year WhiteFire will be looking to expand in certain directions. So we will be especially looking out for those books. The following year our needs might change.

5)      Editors are looking for books they like. Editors are people. Readers. Booklovers, not so different from you. If they don’t like a book, they’re not going to get excited about it. They’re not going to want to work with it for a year or more. They’re not going to try to convince a committee to purchase it. So in addition to learning about the company, learn what the specific editors enjoy and chose.

6)      Editors will not dig out the gem in your book. Sometimes an editor will look at a proposal and say, “Hmm, there might be something here.” But if your writing doesn’t quickly and clearly demonstrate that you know your business and have the skill to properly execute your idea, then forget it. While an editor might be willing to chisel off a few rough edges, polish up your gem, and put it in a pretty setting, they are not in the business of starting with a lump of coal and trying to find diamonds. You have to prove to them that you’ve done the work and the gem does indeed exist.

7)      Editors get annoyed. When people waste an editors (and especially agents for this one) time with proposals that aren’t professional, books that don’t fit their guidelines, amateur writing, sloppy manuscripts, etc…guess what—editors get annoyed. Don’t annoy them.

8)      Editors are nice to people they know and like. Now please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not talking about nepotism here. No editor is going to publish your book just because they know you and like you. But the simple fact of life is that people go out of their way for people they like. So an editor will give more time to a proposal from a writer that they like. They’ll search a little harder for that gem. If they think it might be there somewhere, they’re more likely to offer advice and ask for a revised version. Or to ask you to write something different that will fit their current needs.

I think there’s a common thread to all these points. Editors are real live people. So go to conferences. Meet them. Find out what they’re looking for, what their interests are. Do they have any pets? Treat them with respect, but get to know them as real people. If you don’t connect, that’s okay, find one you do connect with. The acquisitions process isn’t as cryptic as you might think.

Editors buy quality books they enjoy and can sell from people they want to work with.

Pretty simple.

Do you have any questions about the editing or acquisitions process? Have you had any positive or negative experiences we might learn from? If you had the opportunity to be an acquisitions editor, what would you look for in a book?

 Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion, will release with Whitefire Publishing in 2011. She has recently become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire as well. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. Good morning, Dina. Thank you for this most important glimpse into an editor's life. And congratulations!

    I would definitely look for a book that evoked emotion right up front. Whether that emotion be a tug at the heartstrings, a smile from deep inside, laughter, or some sense of deep familiarity. If it doesn't do that, I think it would be hard to spend time editing it. In my opinion, nothing is more boring than editing a book you don't enjoy reading.

    Good luck in this fun new adventure.

  2. So true, Suzie. I find laughter is a big one for me in those all important first pages. A little poignant sadness can be good, but it should be wrapped in something hopeful like humor or beauty. I can handle a really hard-hitting book. Just don't hit me too hard until I've had time to connect with and like the characters. If you totally depress me in the first 20 pages, I'm probably out of there.

  3. Helpful insights Dina! Getting a book published is so much more than writing a great story. Timing is a huge component.

    Congratulations again on the editor position. I hope you find some WOWs along the way!

  4. Thanks, Deb. I've actually seen a few wows already. Pretty cool.

  5. Congratulations, Dina. I'm thrilled on several counts:
    - that you've got a job you obviously love
    - that you're getting a chance to use your formal education
    - that you're an Inky

    No, that last part doesn't mean I'm going to take advantage of you and your situation... it's just nice to personally know an editor to get a peek at the 'other side'. That's why I'm thankful for your post today.

    Experiences with editors? Hmmm... not that I'd want to publicly share at this point. Haha. But I'll think about it...

    Anita Mae.

  6. I guess I always thought of editors as the naysayers of the world. That was the first thing that struck me. Editors want to find good books. They want to find people to say yes to. That's their job.

  7. Congratulations again on the position! Your professional, caring attitude is a blessing to your bosses and to the folks whose work you read.

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

  8. Dina, this is so helpful! I'm saving it for the next time I'm ready to submit something. It's so easy to see the "us" vs. "them" mentality, but that's not true at all.

  9. Niki, it's really not. I've met some great ladies who are acquisitions editors and very encouraging. I'm sure sometimes they get swamped and get in a rush to push through those slush piles, but that's when it really helps to have any sort of personal connection. One of my friends connected with the editor who finally bought her manuscript over talk about pets :)

  10. Thanks, Susanne. I hope a live up to that praise.

  11. Editors are mean people who eat nails for breakfast and kick puppies for fun. All this nicey-nice stuff is just another head fake you play on hapless authors.

    I can hear your diabolical laughter from here.

  12. Well, I'm definitely laughing. We also like to come up with cheesy suggestive titles just to drive you nuts, CJ ;)

  13. Congratulations on the book contract as well as the new job. Your willingness to share your expertise last summer in our writing class made me finally start writing fiction. And once again you are sharing your tips on the next steps... I've been a lurker on this blog since last summer - guess it was time to finally post. Thanks again for all the encouragement!

  14. That's awesome, Sandy. So glad you're still at it.

    Thanks, Gina.

  15. Oh, and Sandy, be sure to check out our writing links for other blogs and websites that focus specifically on writing, although of course we're thrilled to have you here as well :)

  16. Great post! I liked knowing what editors are looking for. Thanks!

  17. It was so weird, Lisa, after just a week or so of doing this I saw things in a whole new light.

  18. Thanks, Faye. Glad you enjoyed it.

  19. Because editors are people, I suspect they're different and those differences come to bear. One editor might be more inclined to give a story time while another doesn't get past the first few pages. Either way, it has to be a good story told well, but what appeals to one editor may not appeal to another. That's why it's important to remember rejection is not personal.

    Congrats on your new role, Dina! Nice to hear about another new market.

  20. So true, rejection is not personal or even about your writing skill, it's based on lots of factors, including timing.

    Let me also mention, Patricia, that WhiteFire is very open to books with protagonists of varying ethnicities. I've heard that can be a hard market to crack with the big publishers.


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