Executive Editor Don D’Auria acquires horror, thrillers and Westerns, but his take here on the rejection/acquisition process holds true for many editors, no matter what the genre. This column originally appeared in issue #61 of Cemetery Dance magazine.
Welcome to the first installment in what I hope will be an interesting column for anyone who’s curious about publishing seen from an editor’s perspective. I wouldn’t presume to say that I can speak for all editors. I’ll write about things as I see them. I edit a mass market paperback line of horror novels. Magazine editors or editors who work in the small presses will possibly have very different opinions. But I think we all see the same sorts of things.
One thing I hope to do in this column from time to time is answer questions that writers or readers have about the whole editorial process. So often what editors do is unseen or misunderstood. People tend to see the results of what editors do, but not the way it’s done or the reasoning involved. So if I can, I’d like to open the door a little, to let folks see what’s going on inside the office, and also inside my head.
For a lot of people, an editor’s job consists mostly of deciding whether a book is bought or not, so I thought I’d start with that perennial question, “How does a good book not get chosen?” Or to put it another way, as many writers no doubt ask when another book is bought instead of theirs, “What was the editor thinking?”
Is it just a question of whether a book is good? If it’s good, I buy it; if it’s not, I don’t? I wish. That would make things so much easier for me and for the author. No, there are a lot of other considerations that go into the decision. When I reject a manuscript, I’ll sometimes say in my letter that the manuscript was well-written but I still couldn’t buy it. And I wonder if the author believes me. But it’s true. I’ve had to pass on a lot of really well-written novels over the years. I wish I could have bought them all, but I couldn’t, for a variety of painful reasons.
The simplest reason is often that, even if a particular manuscript is great, there might be another one that’s still better. My job is to find not only good manuscripts, but the best ones. Leisure Books publishes two horror titles every month. Twenty-four per year. That’s what I have to work with, no more and no less. Every year I have to find what I consider to be the twenty-four best books to put into those slots. The really tricky part is that I did publish twenty-four titles last year, and pretty much all of those authors have a new book now that they’d really like to see me publish this year.
Editing a line of books is kind of like being a manager of a baseball team, with the writers as the players. The success of the line depends on the success of the individual writers, who are, after all, the ones who do the work that their fans pay to see. But I have to choose the best players and make sure they play at their highest level and make for a well-rounded team. No baseball team, even the Yankees, can afford to buy every great player out there. And they can’t buy too many of the same kind of player. Just like no team wants only good pitchers or good outfielders, I can’t buy only good ghost stories or good extreme horror or good…whatever. I need a nice mix. So if I find myself overstocked with, say, subtle psychological horror at some point, and a writer or agent sends me another one, unless it’s absolutely fantastic I’ll pass.
Also, just like a manager in baseball doesn’t ideally want a player who’ll be with them for just one game (or one season), I prefer writers who will continue to write and whose career I can build over the course of many books. This means that many of those twenty-four slots this year will be filled by authors who wrote books last year. The downside of this is I won’t have many open slots for newcomers. Given the hundreds of submissions I see every year, that’s a lot of competition for just a few positions on the team. So a lot of great potential players are sent home to try out for another team.
When I explain that I can only publish so many books each year, I’ve had authors say, “That’s OK, buy my book now and I can wait as long as it takes for you to publish it.” That would be nice, but from a business standpoint it simply won’t work. When I buy a manuscript, Leisure pays an advance. If we don’t publish the book for two or three years, we don’t see any sales from it, and thus no money coming in for years after we’ve laid out the advance. Not a good move financially. Plus, if I get too many books sitting in my inventory, waiting to be published down the road, it prevents me from buying anything I may see for a while until I can work off that inventory. And no publisher likes to close themselves off to submissions.
So let’s say for argument’s sake that a manuscript is really, really good, better than most of the manuscripts I’ve seen. In fact it’s one of the top contenders for the few available slots in my list. And it isn’t in a subgenre that I’ve published a lot of recently. Clear sailing, right? Close but no cigar. There are still some things that can trip up a manuscript just before the finish line. One of the most painful for me is simply bad timing, where I really love a book but I just bought a book with a very similar plot. It happens and it kills me. And I know it isn’t easy for the author either, because it isn’t his or her fault. If I had seen the same manuscript two months earlier, I would have bought it and the other guy’s manuscript would have been rejected instead. But I can’t publish two books with very similar plots, so the second one has to go.
I know. Ouch. It wasn’t the author’s fault, right? But none of these things is the author’s fault. (Assuming the manuscript is good.) Is it the author’s fault that I have too many books in my inventory or that I simply don’t have an open slot in the immediate future? Or that she’s written a vampire novel and I already published four vampire novels this year? Or that his timing is just off? No, the author did what he or she was supposed to do; write a really good manuscript. I wish I could publish them all. But I can’t. I can only look through them all and pick what I think are not only the best ones but also the right ones. Am I always right? Not a chance. And I know I’ve turned down a lot of great manuscripts that another house might snap up in a second, and it’s not because of anything the author did wrong. That’s why it’s so painful to write those rejection letters. (OK, maybe not as painful as it is to get them.) And that’s why it’s so important for an author not to get discouraged, to keep trying, and keep submitting their work. All of these factors outside of the author’s control can change. If your timing was bad this time, maybe it’ll be better next time. If my inventory is high today, maybe it’ll be lower in six months. If your manuscript isn’t right for one house, it can easily be perfect for another. But if you believe your work is good and you stop submitting it after a few rejections, you’ll never know how some of those factors might have changed. And if you don’t give your work the best shot you can, that’s really painful.