Malaika Adero has worked in pretty much every aspect of the book/publishing business. She started her career as a librarian, was a member of the Howard University Book Publishing Institute’s first graduating class, and worked as a college textbook sales rep before transitioning to editorial. As an editor, Adero spent three decades (at Simon and Schuster, then Amistad Press, then S&S again) publishing books by everyone from Maryse Condé to Prince (to me!). Oh, and she wrote a book called UpSouth: Stories, Studies, and Letters of African American Migrations, and produced the UpSouth International Book Festival. Most recently, she founded the online magazine Home Slice, a destination where readers find thoughtful curation of new reads, cultural events, and other inspirations.
In advance of her May 7th appearance at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival in New York, she answered a few of the burning questions many writers have about the selection and publishing process.
In addition to good writing that connects with the acquiring editor, what factors determine whether a publisher will acquire a writer’s manuscript for publication?
You’re right to consider that there are factors beside the good quality of the work. Publishers have to consider whether the project is marketable, e.g. Is the author well-known? Is there something about the work and/or the author that is media-sexy? Does the publisher have the influence with the author’s readership and the ability to make the author attractive to media and to retailers? The publisher has to consider whether they can afford the sign the author. The author might command a higher advance than they can pay. They also need to consider their existing commitments: do they have the time and resources to properly support the author and their project?
How does the editor/publisher decide how much of an advance to give a writer? (How much do social media following, and, where applicable, past sales, literary awards, etc factor into this decision?)
Acquiring editors in most publishing companies must create a profit and loss statement, a P&L, which includes their educated guess of how well the book might perform in the marketplace. They base these educated guesses on the sales track record of similar titles.
What should writers beware of in the boilerplate contracts publishers give them to close a deal?
Writers and authors need to pay attention to every clause in a contract. Make sure you keep a copy of your contract. I’m shocked by how often authors don’t have a copy of or haven’t read their contracts.
With self-publishing gaining more respect, and some authors finding success by selling their books via digital platforms/retailers, do you think writers still need agents, editors, and traditional publishers?
Writers need agents 1) to give them access to potential editors and publishers, and 2) to explain publishing practices and culture. They can help you sort out what is common contractual practice and what is not, for example.
You need editorial support to help you refine and polish the work. There are developmental and line-by-line editors to help you shape content, copyeditors to help you correct grammatical and punctuation errors and flag problems, and proof readers. You need other eyes to be sure the work you’ve done is presented in the best light.
How do you see the role of agents, editors, and traditional publishers evolving in the next few years?
In this time of transition, the role of publishing professionals will vary more and more from organization to organization. Writers will want to seek professional support that is tailored to their individual needs.
The current publishing landscape is requiring writers to be as focused on the business of writing as they are on creatively honing their craft. What resources would you recommend authors seek out?
The business of writing and culture has always been important for creatives to keep in mind. The difference now is that enough creatives have suffered that we should know better than to depend on someone else to take care of our business.