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Forming a publisher relationship: The acquisitions editor

For aspiring higher education authors and content writers, one of the first goals is to connect with a publisher. The next step is to leverage that connection into an immediate contract offer or build a working relationship that will one day result in a contract.

In this first installment of a three-part series, I’ll provide some insights about acquisitions editors. The acquisitions editor is the gatekeeper to forming a productive publisher relationship, so it’s particularly useful for authors to understand who acquisitions editors are and what typically motivates them.

Let’s start with a brief overview of the acquisitions editor’s role, key responsibilities, and performance metrics. Then I’ll cover how authors can leverage this knowledge in building a relationship with a publisher.

The Acquisitions Editor’s Role. The acquisitions editor is typically the publisher’s only employee who is authorized to initiate new projects. Traditionally, acquisitions editors were promoted from the sales force. However, in recent years their backgrounds have become more diverse. Interestingly, acquisitions editors often don’t possess academic preparation for the subject areas in which they work. Their skills are meant to complement an author’s talents, rather than duplicate them. Therefore, most acquisitions editors possess deep knowledge of:

  • Their publishers’ operations and investment priorities
  • Project management skills
  • Sales and marketing know-how
  • Strategic planning

Acquisitions editors have many responsibilities in addition to signing up new projects. Consequently, they can have a number of job titles—sponsoring editor, product manager, or brand manager, for example. Some acquisitions editors also oversee other acquisitions editors; examples of their titles can be managing editor, executive editor, publisher, or senior product manager. Most acquisitions editors directly or indirectly manage assistants, development editors, and digital/media developers. They also work closely with colleagues in marketing, production, manufacturing, and sales to guide a project through its various stages.

As educational publishers reposition themselves to become digital or print/digital (“hybrid”) learning solutions providers, some are avoiding the word “editor” altogether; it’s perceived to be too print-centric and out of date. So don’t assume a potential acquisitions contact will have the words “editor” or “acquisitions” in his or her job title.

List Management. No matter what they’re called, all acquisitions editors have one thing in common: They’re primarily responsible for the overall management, revenue growth, and profitability of a portfolio of products, commonly called a “list.” A list is a group of print titles and digital learning solutions organized by subject area, such as psychology, chemistry, or English. Industry consolidation and organic growth have resulted in some very large lists, so it’s not unusual for multiple acquisitions editors to share responsibility for the same subject area.

Growth and Acquisitions Goals. Acquisitions editors are tasked with profitably increasing their lists’ revenue performance over time. There are three fundamental ways to organically grow a list:

  • Publish completely new products (“first editions”)
  • Increase market share for existing products (“revisions”)
  • Increase prices

Smart acquisitions editors prefer the sustainable growth achieved by introducing new products and increasing unit sales for their existing products—acquisitions editors don’t have much control over prices anyway. Just as important, the consistent introduction of successful new products is key to building an acquisitions editor’s name and reputation in the industry.

Strategies for Success. There are a number of strategies authors can employ that recognize what acquisitions editors do and how they are rewarded. Two of the most important are:

1) Use timing in your favor.

Most acquisitions editors are held accountable for achieving new product acquisitions goals. Goal achievement is commonly measured annually and according to revenue projections, but it’s sometimes based on numbers of titles acquired.  Some companies pay a bonus for each new contract signed. In others, reaching the acquisitions goal is a prerequisite to qualifying for the company’s incentive plan. In all cases, acquisitions editors who consistently miss their goals jeopardize their jobs.  Savvy authors understand this key motivator. They know they’re in a stronger negotiating position toward the end of the calendar year or whatever date has been set by a given publisher to evaluate an acquisitions editor’s performance.

Due to industry consolidations some higher education publishers have de-emphasized their new product acquisitions programs. In their judgment, infusions of formerly competing lists and titles mean fewer opportunities for new product launches. At those publishers acquisitions goals are less aggressive than previously, and their acquisitions editors have become more selective or focused on finding commissioned writers, rather than authors. Therefore, it pays to find out how an acquisitions editor is being evaluated for new product acquisitions before presuming that overall goal achievement or timing are key motivators.

2) Make the value of your project easy to understand.

Corporate downsizing, industry consolidation, and an achingly slow and uncertain transition to digital product and business models make the acquisitions editor’s job much more challenging than it was even five years ago. The key to successfully connecting with an acquisitions editor is to realize that she or he is being pulled in many directions at once. Prospective authors who make it easy to understand their projects’ value stand a much better chance of forging productive relationships. So when interacting with acquisitions editors it’s important for authors to:

a) Research and summarize pertinent instructional trends, particularly those involving digital innovation

b) Describe typical customers’ needs and how the targeted course is evolving

c) Discuss competing titles’ strengths and weaknesses and demonstrate how the proposed project is better or more useful to customers

d) Articulate a clear vision that is distinctive, but still conforms to the generally accepted scope and sequence for the targeted course

Read the next installment, Forming a publisher relationship: 3 Steps for submitting your project, on how to develop a winning proposal that makes it easy for an acquisitions editor to recognize a project’s value.

Sean Wakely is Vice President of Product and Development for FlatWorld. He is also coauthor of Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide.