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An acquisitions editor is a specialized editor at most publishing houses, who focuses on finding and acquiring new manuscripts. Depending on the publishing house, this type of editor can include sorting through unsolicited manuscripts, but he or she may also be responsible for contacting existing writers about new projects, or interacting with agents exclusively. An acquisitions editor largely guides the direction of a publishing house through the books they acquire, but ultimately they have to defer in their decisions to superiors as well, so they rarely have a completely free hand in acquiring books.
At publishing houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts, an acquisitions editor may devote a fair amount of his or her time to reading through potential manuscripts from new or emerging authors. Most acquisitions editors have a support staff, comprised either of junior editors or of interns, who help read through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. These subordinates then set aside any manuscripts that they think may be of interest to the acquisitions editor, so that the editor has far fewer manuscripts to work through in his or her search for material with potential.
At houses that don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, an acquisitions editor will largely deal only with agents or existing authors. In this case, the editor will build relationships with agents to bring in suitable work. Agents act as a sort of preliminary screen to make sure that writing of a certain quality gets through, making the acquisitions editor's work much more focused on the good stuff.
It is very important that an acquisitions editor actually like the manuscript, or have some other reason to have the desire to promote it. This is important because once a manuscript has been chosen, the acquisitions editor's work is far from over. He or she will have to convince others within the publishing house that the book should be produced. Even mid-level publishing houses require a consensus among many different people, including other editors, executives, legal advisors, and sales managers. With enormous publishing houses, this list of people grows even longer.
Generally, a publishing house will spend around $50,000 to $100,000 US Dollars (USD) to produce a basic book. This is a great cost on an established author; it's even more of an investment if the author is less well known. The success or failure of this investment rests largely upon the acquisitions editor who decided to promote that particular manuscript in the first place. His or her reputation in turn depends on steadily choosing winners, or at least books that break even, and an editor who finds themselves consistently choosing failing books will soon find themselves out of work.
The best acquisitions editors build close relationships with key people in the business, including a network of agents, authors, and sometimes even smaller presses. They use this network to tap into talent and find golden manuscripts before other publishers discover them. As a result, a truly successful acquisitions editor needs not only to have a keen eye for good, marketable writing, but also needs to have the ability to make connections and keep the trust and respect of the best authors.