The process for acquiring a book varies by publisher, but here are the typical stages involved once an editor receives your book proposal.
Stage 1: Read. First, the editor (or her editorial assistant) will review your cover letter to see if your book is a possible fit. If you’ve submitted a cookbook to a fiction editor, or if you’ve only written the first five chapters of your first novel, the editor will probably pass immediately. But let’s say you (or your agent) did your homework, and your book is a match for what the editor is currently acquiring. The editor will read your summary, sample chapters, bio, and whatever information you provided about your platform. If she likes the proposal, she'll move on to stage 2.
Stage 2: Research. If you’ve published other books, she’ll look up your sales numbers on Bookscan, a website where booksellers report their actual sales. She might check out your books at sites like Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, and BN.com. She’ll research comparable titles - books that are similar to yours in terms of category, theme, and author platform that have been published in the last year or two, and she’ll look at their sales using Bookscan. She’ll check out your website, blog, and social media pages. If you’re a nonfiction author who is in the news, she might Google you or watch your interviews or speeches on YouTube. Sometimes the editor will have a call or meeting with you and your agent to ask and answer questions and get to know each other. This is most common if you’ll play a key role in marketing the book, and may involve someone from marketing or publicity as well.
Stage 3: Consult. If the editor thinks your book has strong potential, she’ll present it at an editorial board meeting. Here, other editors and the editorial director/editor-in-chief may ask questions, share their experience with similar books, and volunteer to read the proposal and give the editor feedback. Often, the editor will write a memo about why she thinks it’s a good acquisition and prepare a summary of the project. She’ll use these documents along with the proposal to make a presentation to and solicit feedback from the publisher and people in the sales, marketing, and publicity departments.
Stage 4: Run Numbers. If the consensus is positive, the editor will determine the format(s) as well as a projected publication date based on when the manuscript could be delivered, when other books are scheduled, and any events or promotions that make sense. For example, if you’ve written a Christmas novella, it will likely be a small-trim hardcover and it needs to be published in October to be eligible for retailers’ Christmas promotions. The editor will then run a P&L (profit and loss) statement (she may also do this prior to soliciting feedback from other departments). The P&L helps the editor determine if publishing the book will be profitable and what advance against royalties she can offer. If the editor thinks the P&L looks good, she’ll discuss it with the editorial director and/or publisher, make adjustments as needed, and together they’ll decide what offer to make.
Stage 5: Offer. The editor will usually call to make the offer, and follow up with an e-mail outlining the key details in the form of a memo. This initial offer typically includes the amount of the advance, when the advance will be paid (often in portions on signing, acceptance of the manuscript, and publication), the territory (typically world rights all languages), the royalties by format (hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, eBook, audio), and the author's share of subsidiary rights, which are rights the publisher can license to another company (like translation or book club rights). Once the offer is extended, the editor will negotiate with you or your agent. If more than one editor is interested, there may be an auction, with each editor submitting an offer and increasing it until a winner is determined. In an auction, you may look at just the advance, but you might also factor in which editor you feel most comfortable with and which publishing team you think will do the best job.
Bonus Stage: Celebrate! The successful editor will share the good news with her colleagues, and get in touch with you to celebrate.