The Acquisition Decision: How I Pick a Manuscript

I’ll be the first to admit I HATE sending rejections. I usually save them all up to do every few weeks, blast the Frozen soundtrack, and force myself to type out those emails to agents and authors I admire. In life, I am a yes person. But as an editor, I have to also be a no person. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, because even the worst book in the world has merit. All the mediocre books are steps toward creating art. And the great books have the ability to change lives.

So how do I choose those handful of titles that will be mine? Dozens of wonderful manuscripts come across my desk every year. And yet I only get to choose a select few to publish.

First and foremost, I have to fall in love. Not “oh, I could keep reading this because I have nothing else to do.” Not “hmm, that’s pretty good.” It has to be L-O-V-E love

This doesn’t mean the manuscript is perfect. In fact, I do sometimes acquire books I know will need a lot of work because I see incredible potential in them. For me, love means that I can’t put the book down (or close my Word window). It means that I will sit at my desk and read all day, which I know means I will have to work all night but I JUST DON’T CARE BECAUSE I NEED TO READ MORE. Every book that I acquire needs to be something I would give five stars on Goodreads, recommend to a friend, and post all over social media in a fit of manic excitement. Anything less simply will not do.

Second, I have to believe there are readers out there who will love this book as much as I do. As an editor, I’m responsible to my company, and that means I have to prove that a book has both literary and commercial value. If I can’t sell a book, it doesn’t do my publishing house or my author any favors. Usually, the answer to “who will read this?” is quite clear. On occasion, it requires some research. But there always needs to be an end reader for the book.

From there, my acquisition approach works on a sliding scale of sorts. It is certainly not an exact science, and may not be any kind of science at all. In fact, most of my criteria are hugely subjective. But here’s a look inside the brain of an editor and when I go from read to reject.

  • Step one: Open email and read synopsis and author bio
    • A. Is this book something I would acquire?
      • Has someone sent me an adult nonfiction proposal? An erotic romance? A car maintenance manual? Immediate rejection.
      • Do I have another book like this on my list? If yes, reject.
      • If this falls under my genres and interests, keep reading.
    • B. Does the synopsis intrigue me?
      • If yes, keep reading.
      • If no, reject. There are too many good books out there to waste time on something I’m not interested in from the start.
    • C. Who is the author?
      • *insert five to ten minutes of Internet sleuthing*
      • If this person does not exist on the Internet, I am likely to reject. I love working with debut authors, but if I can’t find you on a blog, website, or social media, I get spooked.
      • Is this someone I am interested in working with? If yes, keep reading.

Congrats! Making it past the pitch is often the hardest part. I’m now taking the time to read the text and see where the story takes me.

  • Step two: Read the first chapter
    • A. Are there noticeable typos, cliches, or tropes? If yes, reject.
      • Typos = turn off. You wouldn’t go on a first date with spinach between your teeth, would you? Typos are the spinach-in-your-teeth of manuscripts: small, but hugely distracting.
      • I want to see a novel that is new and original, not something that’s been published a million times before.
    • B. Can I answer yes to all of these questions? Keep reading.
      • Is the voice strong?
      • Is the plot unique?
      • Am I invested in the main character?

First chapter is make or break, a lot like reading the copy on the back of a book. A snap judgment is necessary, and I’ve learned to trust my gut. If the first chapter isn’t working for me, I can’t move forward. But if I’m hooked, I’ll read more.

  • Step three: Read the next two or three chapters
    • A. Am I lukewarm on this book? If yes, reject.
      • (See my love rant above)
    • B. Do I have to find out what happens next? Keep reading.

This is my last step in the 30-minute vetting stage. If the manuscript has kept my interest and attention through three or four chapters, I’m likely to continue.

  • Step four: Read the rest of the book
    • Only one question matters: do I love it? Like I said before, it’s Nat King Cole L-O-V-E or bust.

If love is in the air, I will then contact the agent or author to let them know I am interested in pursuing acquisition. There are still about a million steps that separate me from making an offer (learn about the full process here), but if I’m in love, I will fight for a book until I get it or it is pried from my cold, dead hands. Metaphorically, of course.

Stay tuned for more posts on the acquisition process, as well as how YOU can make an editor fall in love.

4 thoughts on “The Acquisition Decision: How I Pick a Manuscript

  1. Sara says:

    Thank you. You justified my obsession with perfecting the first chapter of my novel. I’ve revised the whole book 7 or 8 times, but the first chapter is probably in draft 20 and has been read by dozens of people. A friend of mine doesn’t get it, but I know the first chapter determines whether an agent or editor even considers the rest of the book. The rest of the book is important too, but no one will get that far if chapter 1 isn’t amazing.


    • Jillian says:

      You’re completely right! Pitch and first chapter are make or break for an editor. Unfortunately there isn’t time to read the full manuscript for every submission, so hooking the reader early is key.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Melissa says:

    Thank you for this super insightful post! I’m always fascinated how different editors determine which books to reject or not, as each editor’s process is slightly different. This post has made me want to look over my first few chapters and do some more intensive editing. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

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