In December, I had the opportunity to attend the Random House Open House. It was a fabulous event, providing valuable information to writers and readers alike. One of the highlights of the open house, though, was a panel discussion with Ballantine publishing team behind Justin Cronin’s bestselling book THE PASSAGE–and now the sequel THE TWELVE. This panel included editor Mark Tavani, who shared an insider’s perspective of the acquisitions process for a blockbuster like THE PASSAGE and what goes into bringing a book like that to the market.
I’m delighted to host Mark for a 2-part Q&A session here at DIY MFA. Today we’re focusing on submissions and acquisitions, and later this week we’ll do a follow-up article with his take on the Author-Editor relationship.
When an agent sends you a manuscript, what is the first thing to catch your attention?
The first thing that catches my attention is the energy of the agent’s description. Sometimes an agent describes a project and immediately I can’t wait to read it; other times, something sounds worthwhile but not extraordinary. Given the low percentage of submissions that I buy, I’m most excited by the projects that have already generated true excitement for an agent I know and trust.
Do you have specific criteria you look for in a manuscript?
It would be hard to describe specific editorial criteria, because every project is unique. But of course I’m always looking for things that compelling, professionally presented, unique, and at least to some degree marketable.
Compelling: Boring is the worst thing a submission can be; if I’m being bored when I’m getting paid to read it, readers who are paying for the privilege will give up right quick.
Professionally presented: Sloppiness in a submission is not in every case a dealbreaker but it’s a huge distraction and reflects poorly on the author; writers need to realize that we’re considering not only publishing your book but becoming your business partner.
Unique: Even if something is good, it would be difficult to acquire it if it felt very much like one or a few books already on the market; if it already exists, why would a reader need it again?
Marketable: Even if I’m crazy about something, I very well might not offer on it if I can’t honestly say that I have an idea of how to position and sell it; no author wants to be published by an editor who thinks their book is meant to entertain or inform only a handful of people.
Is there a moment when reading the submission that you stop and think “I have to have this book” and how would you describe that moment?
The moment you describe is a great one for editors, a pretty rare feeling of things lining up, a project making sense from numerous angles–the author profile, the concept, the writing, the writing, the writing. It’s a brainy little rush–which is almost immediately replaced by a fear that another editor is reading even faster and moving on it.
Once a book has captured your interest, what happens next? What does that acquisitions process look like: from the initial spark of interest to finally acquiring the book?
Depends on the book, but generally speaking I seek support from colleagues who will–if I’m lucky enough to buy the thing–help me down the road to position, package, and sell it. Could be editorial colleagues or folks in promotion. If the interest is serious, a business conversation also begins: how should we value this project and how should we go about trying to acquire it?
Who else is involved in the acquisitions process?
It varies, but basically: my editor-in-chief, my publisher, my associate publisher, my publicity director, my director of foreign rights. They’re asking questions to explore the book’s quality and marketability and to make sure it’s a fit for our list, specifically. The information I need to share include things like these: the title and the author, the agent and the agency, the concept, the material and a summary of my reaction to it, the reactions of any editorial colleagues who have read it along with me, comparable titles and an analysis of their performance, a hypothetical profit and loss statement, and a list of the rights on offer.
Any words of advice to writers “on submission” and waiting to hear back from a publisher?
Be confident in what you’ve written but try with everything you’ve got not to let your sense of yourself hang on the reactions. And while you’re waiting, keep working.
Mark Tavani is an Executive Editor, Vice President, and the Editorial Director of Fiction at Ballantine Bantam Dell, a division of Random House. Having studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, he joined BBD in 2000, and his varied interests have led him to acquire commercial fiction, literary novels, narrative nonfiction, and a book about a 5-foot, 9-inch journalist who becomes a sumo wrestler. He works with bestselling and award-winning authors including Jim Abbott, Steve Berry, Justin Cronin, George Dohrmann, Aaron Fisher, Jack McCallum, and China Mieville. He lives in Rutherford, New Jersey with his wife and daughters.