Australian publishers talk about the slush pile

Radio National recently lifted the lid on the Australian book publishing slush pile, that ‘unlovely place’ (according to Picador publisher Geordie Williamson) where unsolicited manuscripts go for assessment by an anonymous reader inside a publishing house.

If you listen closely to the 10-minute piece (online for another week or so), you’ll hear the lottery-level chances an author has of his or her manuscript being plucked from slush-pile obscurity. Two examples from the report:

  • Scribe Publications opens to unsolicited manuscripts twice per year for limited periods; asks to see complete manuscripts for about 25% of submissions (which surprised me at being so high) … but has published only 3-4 books from the slush pile in the past five years.
  • Text Publishing receives 100 hard-copy manuscripts every week, and reviews them each Friday in a team meeting at which each manuscript* gets read twice. It finds ‘a couple of things per year’ to publish. (*It is neither possible nor necessary for this number of manuscripts to be read in full – a manuscript that isn’t at a publishable standard will reveal itself in the opening pages.)

Allen & Unwin’s Friday Pitch, which accepts a synopsis and first chapter every week, is a relatively good bet for any Australian author attempting to submit an unsolicited manuscript. A&U publisher Louise Thurtell, who established the system ten years ago, reported that up to 75% of her list has come from Friday Pitch manuscripts, including well-known novelist Fleur McDonald.

So, should you submit your manuscript to an electronic slush pile?
My views on this topic have changed little since I wrote this post several years ago, which remains one of my most popular. The main problem with submitting your work this way is that

  • Rejection is a deafening silence – you receive no feedback from the publisher. (Unfortunately, this is also the case when submitting to many literary agents.)
  • Once rejected, you can’t submit your manuscript to that publisher again.
  • Your work may well be good enough, but is easily lost in the size of a particular publisher’s slush pile. As Geordie Williamson of Picador says, ‘You have to be lucky to get a good reader of the slush pile.’ Which means that it’s kind of luck of the draw, to an extent, as to who’s reading on the day it’s your turn.

Fed up with the silent treatment from agents too?
If you’ve been submitting to agents or publishers and not hearing back, may I make a few suggestions:

  • Try submitting to competitions – just make sure you check the fine print and don’t sign all your rights away
  • Take classes or workshops with industry professionals – you’ll get to meet folks working in publishing, and ask them all the questions you want
  • Join your state writers’ centre – they are a great resource for classes, competitions, literary industry events and other opportunities
  • Twitter is a fabulous resource for writers – if you can resist disappearing down the internet black hole
  • Get a professional manuscript assessment or consultation with an experienced publishing professional to see how you can improve your access to decision-makers, and your manuscript or project.

What has your been your experience of the slush pile?  Have you had success with any of the suggested tactics above? I’d love to hear from you.

(And thanks to Jenny Ackland and her Seraglio blog for alerting me to the RN report.)

2 Replies to “Australian publishers talk about the slush pile”

  1. Hi Virginia. Thanks for the link, it was a very interesting report. My question is: how different is the process if your submission is solicited? Our MS is currently with an editor at a major publishing house and we’re not sure how long we should expect to wait to hear back. Definitely don’t want to be pushy, but is there some sort of time frame after which it would be appropriate to make a follow up? Also, if the editor likes our MS, would it then need to be passed around to the other editors/sales & marketing staff before they contacted us? I realise that different publishers would have their own processes, but any insights you can give us would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for your comment. Yours is a nice dilemma to have, in some respects, but it’s still a dilemma. I’m hard pressed to estimate a time to wait, because it depends on what sort of relationship you have with the editor. If the editor has had your ms longer than eight weeks, then I’d say you are well within your rights to make a very brief follow-up email, perhaps forwarding your prior email contact as a reminder. ‘I know you’re busy, but I wondered if you’d had a chance yet to consider my ms TITLE.’
      If the editor likes the ms, she would need to take it to an acquisitions meeting to win support for making you an offer of publication. I hope that helps – and good luck! — Virginia

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