Australian writers: think twice before diving into the publishers’ slush pile

Hope this is the right pool …

Have you noticed that some of Australia’s leading book publishers are actively seeking unsolicited manuscripts? It has been years since most publishers accepted an unsolicited manuscript, whether fiction or nonfiction. Until recently, most manuscripts arrived via a literary agent, whose decision to represent the author was supposed to indicate quality. This recent development is the publishing equivalent of looking up into the sky and seeing pigs flying in formation, one after the other, instead of ducks.

The three major publishers accepting submissions are:

Pan Macmillan, Manuscript Monday. If you submit the first chapter of your manuscript, plus synopsis, electronically between 10am and 4pm every Monday, you’ll have your work read within one month. Details.

Allen & Unwin, The Friday Pitch. This is a long-running program, by which authors can submit the first chapter of their manuscript, plus synopsis, each Friday. Details.

Penguin’s Monthly Catch. Submissions are restricted to the first week (1-7) of every month. Details.

I have to confess that when I worked as an in-house editor in the 1990s, unsolicited manuscripts were the bane of our lives. They haunted us as we worked on the dozen scheduled books we each had in different stages of production, stacked in piles by the door of our offices. Guiltily we would grab a handful every few months once in a while and read the first few pages chapter, just to make sure we weren’t missing a gem in the rough.

Back then, it was an extremely rare manuscript that made it out of the slush pile and into the production schedule. Today the odds are exactly the same, though the submissions process for unsolicited manuscripts is changing.

So why are these publishers looking for your unsolicited manuscripts now?

According to the Wheeler Centre’s recent interview with Penguin Publisher Ben Ball, it’s all about the digital transformation of the book industry. ‘Perhaps the main reason is that the digital world is bringing us closer than ever to readers, and therefore aspiring writers,’ said Ball. ‘We want to be an even more active part of that community.’

While the relationship between publishers and writers is more interactive than ever before, I believe other structural forces are at work in the industry. I suspect that a generational change is occurring in literary representation in Australia and that publishers have realised that they are not seeing enough new Australian writing from literary agents. In a recent meeting one publisher admitted to me that they were finding it very difficult to find exciting new voices, and that they weren’t seeing a lot of new fiction writing (in particular) from agents.

There are lots of reasons for this, but here are two. One, a lot of successful established agents have enough authors to represent, so are taking on fewer new clients. Two, their clients, often several books into their careers, seem happy enough with their respective publishers that they do not want to shift publishing houses. Put those together and that’s a recipe for leaving a lot of new writers out in the unrepresented cold.

Another development is also relevant. A few publishers in the US are setting up film production companies (see this Hollywood Reporter piece). In order to maximise their profits, they will need to retain all the relevant rights to the stories their book authors create – which is much easier if you’re working with an unrepresented author who knows nothing of his or her rights.

Things to consider before submitting an unsolicited manuscript
As a literary agent* I do not endorse the submission of an unsolicited manuscript via this electronic process. An agented submission means that the agent has done a lot of this gatekeeping work for the publisher, and is sending a manuscript to a particular editor/publisher because the agent believes it (a) is of a submission-worthy quality, and (b) might be to the taste of that person. The decision is based on knowledge of which editors like which sorts of books, of relationships built over time.

If you are impatient enough to consider submitting an unsolicited manuscript, be aware of a few things:

  • Without expert third-party advice, many writers who believe their work is ready are mistaken, and then disappointed when their unsolicited manuscript submission is unsuccessful. In my own case, I often do a lot of editorial development work with my authors to ensure the manuscript is ready for submission to publishers.
  • It is almost impossible to step into the same river twice – once you’ve been rejected by a big publisher, you can’t return with a revised version of the same manuscript. You would have been better off doing more work up front with an experienced editor or finding an agent who is willing to take you on, on the condition that you work on revising your manuscript.
  • The volume of electronic submissions will dazzle you. If you don’t follow the publisher’s guidelines, you won’t get read at all because there are plenty of people in the submission queue who did things properly. Take the time to read them.
  • If you do succeed in attracting the publisher’s interest, how will you know which rights to give them, which rights to keep for yourself, and what happens each step of the way along the path to publication?

Here is a great document from the Australian Society of Authors about the contractual agreement between a literary agent and an author. It explains what a literary agent does (or should do).

If you have any questions, please put them in the comments below or contact me directly.

*I am not a member of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association because I do agenting work only occasionally and do not meet their criteria for membership. I regularly provide consulting advice, editorial assessments and manuscript mentoring for writers whom I do not represent as an agent. All of those paid services disqualify me from membership.

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