Another of our awesome speakers at the Houston SCBWI conference was Alexandra Cooper, senior editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, who discussed how and why a book is acquired.
Editors look for balance in their own lists, and among the lists within their imprint and publishing house. If you submit your work directly to an editor instead of through an agent, your chances of getting accepted are better if you find an editor who publishes books like yours. Go to conferences and do your research to find the right editor. (And of course, make sure they take unsolicited submissions-- most of the big houses don't, but editors who attend conferences generally invite attendees to submit to them.)
Alexendra mentioned that one reason the picture book market is tough right now is because they are expensive to produce; they're generally printed abroad using four colors on heavy paper. And unless you're the author/illustrator, remember that royalties will be split between the author and the illustrator, so the book must earn out the advance for both people.
Writers of picture books were happy to hear from her (like we heard from other speakers too) that although novels are hot right now, the market is cyclical and picture books will come back.
Not all mansuscripts are rejected because the writing is bad or the story isn't there. Sometimes editors have to turn down submissions they love. Why might Alexandra turn down a perfectly good manuscript? Like so many editors, she gets a buttload of submissions (my phrase, not hers), so she has to be really selective. Or she may have too many books in the same category, so the manuscript she's looking at wouldn't give her that balance she mentioned. And sometimes a story just isn't distinctive enough. Editors are responsible for contributing to the company's bottom line, so they can't always publish everything they're passionate about. They need a balance between backlist authors and new authors, literary and commercial fiction.
So what is she looking for? A great voice-- one that's original but comfortable, and a story that captures and holds readers' attention. In order to acquire your story, editors must love it; they have to be willing to defend it in an acquisition meeting and answer any questions that come up about the work. She also looks for authors she thinks she'll be able to work with again.
Alexandra usually does two rounds of revision with an author. The first editorial letter presents overall issues, like character dynamics and themes. The second letter helps to fine tune the manuscript by addressing details like line edits and tightening of scenes. From the time a book is acquired to the time it's published usually takes 18 months to 2 years.
Alexandra works with picture books, midgrade and young adult novels, not easy readers or non-fiction. There are a few exceptions, like some picture books about Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton that came from ideas she assigned to authors and illustrators.
When it's time for you to submit your own work, keep in mind that you deserve an editor who is as passionate about your book as you are!