What Acquisitions Editors and Series Editors Do, and How that Affects your Book

Even though the resources I consulted when preparing my book proposal discussed the difference between an acquisitions (sometimes called an “acquiring” or “commissioning”) editor and a series editor, this distinction did not quite fully sink in until I was at the point of proposing my book. This post is meant to complement my post on types of personal connections you can have to editors. Knowing the difference between acquisitions editors (full-time press employees) and series editors (full-time professors who also work for a press) can help you better understand how you are likely to cultivate different relationships with each over the course of your academic career.

Acquisitions Editors: Who They Are and What They Do

Acquisitions editors are intelligent non-academics employed by presses. They specialize in particular areas, and find projects for the press to publish in those areas. It is to one acquisitions editor (and only only) that your proposal will be addressed, and it will be she with whom you will communicate throughout the book publishing process. She is the one to present your project to the editorial board, and who helps you navigate the whole process. When you hear people talking about meeting press editors at conferences, they are speaking about acquisitions editors. Usually, presses send acquisitions editors to relevant conferences in the field. You can think about them in two ways: champions and gatekeepers. They are champions in that they are paid to find interesting, cutting-edge book projects, as well as authors who are passionate about their projects, and who have established a reputation in the field, or who show great promise. They also, however, receive many, many more proposals than the press can possibly publish, most of which are not actually good fits for the types of projects the press publishes. In this way, then, they are like “gatekeepers”–when they receive materials from an author they do not know, they quickly assess whether or not the proposed project would be a good fit. So, if you are proposing a project to an acquisitions editor who does not know you, you have a very limited amount of time (in person) or space (in a proposal) to convince her that your project really is a good fit for the press and, what is more, that it is written in an engaging style.

How You Will Meet Acquisitions Editors

From an author standpoint, you are not likely to meet acquisitions editors unless you go out of your way to do so. Usually, you will meet her at a conference in one of three ways:

  1. You write to her in advance of the conference, and explicitly ask for a formal meeting to speak about your book project
  2. You speak to her less formally at a book exhibit at a conference, or meet her while she is attending a conference (Note, though, that if you plan to do this, you should treat it as you would a formal meeting. You need your pitch to be practiced, engaging, and targeted for the press).
  3. A colleague or mentor introduces you to her at a conference

Of course, you will also “meet” acquisitions editors when you send them your book proposal, whether or not you’ve “met” them in real life prior to submitting the proposal.

Series Editors: Who They Are and What They Do

Unlike acquisitions editors, who are full-time press employees and who are not usually academics, series editors are contracted by presses because they are senior scholars their fields. In Getting it Published, William Germano likens series editors to satellite dishes: their job is to identify and amplify distant “signals.” In other words, their job is to find projects and younger scholars who are doing promising work that acquisitions editors–being outside of academia–might not necessarily know about. When acquisitions editors receive proposals for books in a particular series, the series editor serves as a disciplinary subject matter expert.

How You Will Meet Series Editors

From an author standpoint, because series editors are “regular” professors like you, you are likely to meet several of them during the course of your normal scholarly activities. You might not even know they are series editors when you meet them. It is likely that a few of your colleagues at your current university (perhaps in other departments) are series editors. You are likely to meet them at conferences, and they are likely to meet you without you going out of your way to meet them. For instance, I first ended up meeting the scholar who became my series editor when he participated in a conference at UCLA while I was a graduate student there, and he attended a panel I presented on when I was in the first year on the tenure track. So, from an author standpoint, it is much easier to cultivate relationships with series editors than it is with acquisitions editors. It is much easier to have informal conversations with series editors, even before you have a book to pitch. Basically, you can think of series editors as experts that have a vested stake in how certain fields develop, and who are paid to have a finger on the pulse of what cutting-edge research is coming down the line in any given field. They are curious and want to hear about exciting projects much earlier on; whereas acquisitions editors usually* want to get involved when the book is mostly complete.

*As with anything academic book related, each acquisitions editor has her own working style. I have read of some who explicitly seek out early-stage projects, because they like to have a hand in shaping the project. However, this does not seem to be the norm.

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