I got my start the old-fashioned way, by taking out a contract on a senior editor and then being well-positioned to pick up his unfinished projects. Okay, not exactly. I started as an intern at Milkweed Editions several years back, and then hired on as the editorial assistant, then assistant editor, associate editor, and now just plain editor. This is a business ideally suited to the form of apprenticeship, and at each stage I've been fortunate to work underneath a senior editor who was able to provide advice.
Curiously enough, if you'd asked about my career ambitions at eight and twelve respectively, I would have said fighter pilot and computer engineer (I'm not making that up). Perhaps there's a progression here I'm not aware of. Coming out of college I knew I was interested in literature and working with writing, and suspected that a literary editor might be a good track for me. It appeals to so many competing passions—a desire to work in a creative field; close, collaborative work with authors; the solitary pleasure of reading; the challenge of making an artistic expression palatable within a consumer culture.
I'll always think fondly about one of my first acquisitions: Gary Amdahl's Visigoth, which is a collection of stories so potent and visceral I can't read them without laughing and recoiling, sometimes at the same moment. More recently I'm very excited about a book by David Rhodes called Driftless. I was fortunate enough to stumble across his out of print novels (originally published in the 1970s) and get in touch with him. Almost by chance he'd just finished the manuscript that became Driftless, and we were able to publish that along with a reintroduction of some of his older work. His is a great story of a deeply talented, but neglected author finally receiving his due attention.
Like almost every other literary editor, I read first and foremost for voice. A good story runs a close second to voice, but without that distinctive voice a book loses my attention quickly. I don't care how experimental or traditional a narrative is, I need to have a vivid sense for the people populating the story.
Having a manuscript recommended to me by one of my authors is probably the best vote for getting something onto my desk sooner rather than later. Otherwise, a cover letter that shows familiarity with our books will accomplish the same thing. I'm deeply impressed by writers who are also good readers, and demonstrating that in the cover letter is one of the best things an author can do (to my mind).
For some reason, a lot of the query letters addressed to me don't actually make it to my desk. Perhaps our interns are a little too discerning. As Milkweed Editions has an open submission policy, I often recommend simply sending along the manuscript. If that's not possible, I'm happy to hear from authors via email. Sure I'm drowning it, but I still take time to review queries that come in via email.
Yes, we're happy to accept submissions from self-published authors. But I think the author has the added difficulty of explaining why another publisher (in essence) needs to publish this book. If it already exists in the world, there needs to be a very compelling reason to bring it out a second time.
Milkweed Editions is happy to accept unagented submissions. We receive just over a thousand a year and we read everything we receive. Discovering a gem in the slush pile is one of the great joys of this business.
There are a lot of challenges, aren't there? First, I'm dedicating as much time to editing each book as I can to make them truly remarkable. I'm a firm believer that great books stand out in crowded marketplaces. There's more to it than that, of course, but without a great book no amount of advertising or word-of-mouth will propel it in the marketplace. Beyond that, we're being very strategic about where we put our resources, but giving each book as many opportunities as we can to establish it among readers. It's rather old-fashioned, but we rely on reviews (increasingly moving to book blogs), awards, and advertising where it benefits the book (using Facebook's targeted ads, for instance).
It's true that publicists are overwhelmed, but we try to keep this manageable by limiting our annual list of titles, which is the right place to start. We publish between sixteen and eighteen new books a year, and that's proven to be very manageable for our publicists and marketing manager. Beyond that, I'm constantly in touch with them to make sure we're taking advantage of any opportunities the books have, and, if need be, I'm pitching in to do some of that work myself. The benefit of a small press like Milkweed Editions is that there's a lot of opportunity to play different roles in any given day, and sometimes the line between editorial work and marketing work gets a little blurred. In the end, everything is driving toward publishing the books as well as we possibly can.
I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer this, both because I haven't worked for another publisher, and because I'm not truly close enough to our own operation to have a cogent critique. I'll only say that I think publicists are put in a difficult position of promoting books they may or may not believe are good/worthwhile/enjoyable books. Granted, that's part of the business, but I often wonder what would happen if editors were required to run publicity for each of their titles. Editors might find that it's not quite so easy to gain attention for their own books, or perhaps would be a little more selective about which projects they acquire.
I'm not sure I'm reading this question correctly. Are you asking whether acquisition decisions are made on the basis of talent rather than the sales performance of similar titles? If so, here the decisions weigh much more heavily on the side of the literary merit, or talent. Publishing by trend is something we're not interested in doing (it takes a massive infrastructure, for one), so we tend to overlook that information when making a decision about whether or not to publish a book. Of course, it comes into play later on when we're trying to convince our sales reps that this title has the potential to sell X number of copies and stack up against these other titles in the bookstores.
Sadly, I think it is becoming necessary (or may already be considered necessary). I say sadly because at heart I'm something of a purist and believe that a good book should stand on its own merit. But, realistically speaking, we're a culture obsessed with creators, so the author is put in a difficult position: either let the work stand on its own and risk alienating a readership, or act as an advocate for the book and build a community of readers around their work. There are examples of both kinds of authors having successful careers, but more and more it's difficult for a debut author to simply publish a work and stand back while the work receives recognition.
We're probably an anomaly in the industry, but these factors would all be secondary in that acquisition meeting. Without a solid book, none of these details would amount to much for us. However, if we're weighing two manuscripts, both beautifully-written and compelling, support like this would certainly make it a more attractive project.