What are the criteria an acquisitions editor uses to judge whether or not s/he accepts a manuscript for publication?
It varies so much that an entire book can be written on the subject. As a self-published author who has tried the traditional publication route, I will give you some ideas:
First, remember that it's always easier to say no than to say yes. To say no to a manuscript takes a second. To say yes requires reading it, thinking about it, contacting the author, and on and on.
An acquiring editor (or literary agent) is going to start with opening an email or envelope. If they see they you don't know how to follow the submission rules (e.g. what's in your packet, how you attached files), then they will reject.
Then they'll read the cover letter.
- If they don't see requested information (e.g. title, genre, length), then they'll reject.
- If the submission isn't a match for what they publish or represent, then they'll reject.
- If the author doesn't have a platform, they might reject. It depends.
Now they're ready to read the manuscript.
- Is the manuscript formatted correctly? If not, reject.
- Are there any obvious errors? Reject.
- Read the first paragraph or page. Does it capture their imagination? Do they have some sense of setting, character, or conflict right from the start? If so, keep reading. Otherwise, reject.
- Read the first few pages. Does it keep their interest? Are they involved in the characters? Is it written well? Do they want to read more? If so, keep reading. Otherwise, reject.
When I say written well, these are usually the things an editor is thinking about in a fiction work: * Setting * Character * Plot * Written craft / language / voice
Editors and agents read a ton, so they are often somewhat jaded readers. Therefore, they usually want a manuscript to shine in all of those aspects.
That's somewhat different than in the indie publishing world, where you can know your audience well, and write specifically what that audience wants.
Oh, and one more thing: an agent or publisher is also looking for someone who knows the conventions of the genre they are writing if, even if they choose to break them. If you claim something is science fiction, but it's written like a romance, they're going to reject.
If you've written something and it's exactly like another novel or tv show or movie, they're going to reject.
Now, let's say the agent or publisher has gotten all the way through and they love the book. They still need to consider:
- Do they have a slot in the publication schedule for a book like this?
- Do they have another book coming out that's too much like this one?
- Do they think it will do well commercially?
- Will the author be able to promote the book?
- Do they have budget left to acquire anything?
- Will they be able to promote it to book sellers?
By the way, if you've ever wondered why you're asked to pitch your novel in a single sentence, that's because:
- your agent has about a sentence worth of time to pitch it to the publisher
- the publisher has about a sentence to pitch it to book distributors who will decide whether to stock it.
- the publisher has about a sentence worth of description they can put on the back cover to pitch it to the reader.
I hope this helps.