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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 manuscript submissions? It has been years since most publishers accepted unsolicited manuscripts, 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, like ducks.

The major three 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 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 a 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 it, 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 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, I’ve even provided the links above.
  • 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 until recently I was doing agenting work only occasionally and do not yet meet their criteria for membership. Over the past several years I have regularly provided editorial reports on manuscripts for writers whom I did not represent, for which I have been paid. I’m not sure but I think that also disqualifies me from membership for a while yet.

{ 38 comments… add one }

  • Thanks for this post. From an author’s perspective, it is perceived as just as hard to get an agent as it is to find a publisher, in part I think due to the small scale of the industry in Australia (I’m only beginning to consider it now, with my third book). I have to wonder whether the major publishers are returning to unsolicited manuscripts because of a real desire for new writing or if it’s a bit of PR, given how many readers are aspiring writers these days.

    I wouldn’t rule out the slushpile, but with a strong caveat for unrepresented authors: know your rights!

    • Hi Jen, thanks for your comment. As always, I feel there’s probably a bit of both elements you suggest at work behind publishers’ embracing of the slush pile. I’ve heard too many comments from publishers about the reduction in number of manuscripts they receive from (some) agents.There seems to be a feeling among them that a few agents decided the combination of economic climate, the typically low sales of debut fiction, and the transformation of the publishing industry was an unholy trinity they decided not to pursue. As a result the pipelines of new work from agents to publishers has dried up a bit.
      You are quite right that there is only good PR to be had from publishing houses opening up their rusty front gates to unsolicited manuscripts. On close inspection of the publishers’ guidelines, however, they really are not committing to look at much more than a synopsis or a whole chapter. If they want more, don’t call them, they’ll call you. Which is no different from how it’s always been.
      Thanks for reading! Virginia

  • Hi Virginia! Great article, but I’m not sure you’ve really identified a recent theme here. Many Australian publishers have been accepting unsolicited manuscripts for years. Including Pan Macmillan, which you identify as a new addition. A few of them have started taking unsolicited manuscripts in electronic form for the first time, and I suspect the (relatively) onerous submission guidelines are added to make the flow of submissions slightly more manageable.

    The last Unwin Fellowship to come to Australia covered off quite a few of these issues in his report, which I think is available publicly. It’s not particularly kind to Australian agents, but it still has some useful things to say.

    At any rate, I tend to think the reasons for the high rate of unsolicited manuscript acceptance among Australian publishers is as much about our market as anything else. It’s a small country, and as I’m sure you know it’s difficult to sell foreign rights from Australia, so it’s very hard (and becoming increasingly so) to be an agent. So there aren’t that many of you. That creates the perception that publishers might miss something if they don’t keep the slush pile open. But that’s surely not a recent thing!

    • Hi Joel, thanks for reading and commenting. You’re right that unsolicited submissions have continued to be accepted by Australian publishers while in most major markets that channel has been blocked by gatekeeping agents for some time. I hope for publishers’ sake that the electronic submissions process makes sifting through them easier and quicker, as that will reduce the agony of waiting for writers as well as the publishers’ dread of a pile of unread submissions. It’s always great to hear about a great writer “plucked from the slush pile”, because agents certainly are not infallible. But that person tends to be the exception who proves the rule, which is that the slush pile is a very difficult route towards publication, and leaves the successful author relatively vulnerable with regards to his or her rights.
      Thanks also for your reminder about the Unwin Fellowship report, which I will find and make some points about here.
      Good luck with Momentum, which must be keeping you and your colleagues rather busy!

  • Perhaps there are other things at work, too. Literary agents have gained a reputation for being an unscalable fortress for new writers (not so much gatekeepers as guardians of a drawbridge permanently raised), and an intractable battering ram by publishers. They way they operate at Frankfurt book fair for example, reinforces this: their own ivory tower on level 6 with stern minders at the reception desk. So, I don’t think they have done themselves any favours, particularly from the view of unrepresented authors who so wish to have representation. Combined with this, the activities of some in acting as e-publishers for their clients, thus diminishing the value they bring to publishers, has understandably led publishers to circumvent them.

    For a publisher, one of the advantages of sourcing through an agent is risk-reduction. That hasn’t changed. But, with the increasing economic pressures on publishers, the agent is becoming a risk-reduction policy with too high a premium. Weighing that against the undoubted benefits, as you mention, makes hedging their bets more sensible.

    All that you say regarding the value agents bring is true, and notwithstanding my comments above, I believe they play a valuable role, especially your second bullet point. Once agents start to lose the trust of publishers, and don’t have it from the new writers because they are appear closed to them, then their position in the chain is starting to look uncertain. I think it is beholden on the agents as much as the publishers to address this. Your comments make it seem as if it is the publishers who need to re-think and the new writers who need to beware, which sort of lets the agents off any hook.

    As a published (print and digital), but unrepresented author of very little note (but very great talent, of course), I had initially decided I did not want to approach publishers directly but wanted the reach, knowledge and connections of an agent. Mostly what I got was a world-weary sigh, and often not even that. The number I contacted, both in Australia and the UK (where I started) who didn’t even respond, was disturbing. Of a dozen I contacted not one even agreed to accept a submission. So, with more hubris than sense, I said, ‘Sod you’ and did it myself. OK, I started with the creme de la creme (AP Watts, Curtis Brown, WMA and the like) but it hardly made me feel that they were actively pursuing new talent.

    Advising writers to tread carefully about direct submissions when most feel as Jennifer – that agents are as hard a nut to crack as publishers – does provoke a certain exasperation.
    Alan Skinner recently posted..Pass the hatchet, please

    • Hi Alan, thank you for reading my article and for your thoughtful comments. I did not mean to imply that publishers should rethink what they’re doing with regards to accepting unsolicited submissions. If I were a publisher I might well make the same decision. I simply noted its prevalence in Australia and wondered why that might be the case. The great comments I’m getting on this post indicate there are plenty of factors at work, which are worth exploring in other posts.
      It is always disappointing to hear of the rudeness (there is no other word for it) and unprofessionalism of so-called book publishing professionals who do not bother to respond to inquiries. This industry is built on human relationships, no matter how digitised aspects of acquisition, production and distribution continue to become. You are quite right that agents who are either battening down their hatches or undercutting publishers by e-publishing books by clients that might otherwise have gone to a traditional publisher are doing themselves and their profession a disservice. But equally writers must know their rights and not be flattered into accepting the first offer that comes along from a publisher without questioning the terms of a contractual agreement.
      All of the things you mention are leading towards a blurrier line dividing writers, agents and publishers. Agents do need to work to maintain and build trust with writers and with publishers. I have been very surprised, for example, that the agent of a writer whose memoir turns out to be fabricated seems never to get censured, it’s always the publisher.
      As an aside, in the US we’re also beginning to see agented self-published books, in which the agent seems to be acting as a kind of curator among what is often a huge volume of poor-quality material. I’ll have to leave thinking about the implications of that for another post.
      Thanks again for writing, I’ll check out your website now.

  • A fascinating insight, thanks, Virginia. Great to see the considered responses, too.

    If you’re right that a “generational chance” is happening, I wonder if part of that might be to do with genre? Would it be fair to say that younger players are less focused on the need to discover “literary” talent, and more focused on fostering the aspiration of writers who read, write and enjoy genre fiction, while publishers – especially ebook publishers – recognise genre fiction’s commerical possibilities and see that as the profitable way of the future? The electronic slush pile of that paradigm makes a lot more sense than the stacks of unsolicited manuscripts gathering dust in the old editorial office.

    There has certainly been a perception among aspiring and writers I know that, until recently, agents in Australia haven’t been interested in popular fiction, especially women-dominated genres such as romance and women’s contemporary fiction. Many of the published authors I know have sought representation elsewhere, such as the US or UK, or have attracted the attention of editors via competitions and only become agented once they have a publisher’s interest, and yet several of these have become internationally best-selling authors – though their names continue to be barely recognised in Australia, except by devoted fans.

    I’d be very interested to know your thoughts.
    Elizabeth Lhuede recently posted..AWW2012 Wrap-up

    • Hi Elizabeth, I’m very happy to have found your comment – Wordpress has a funny idea of spam sometimes! I am intrigued by your argument about agents and genre fiction. While it’s quite true that some agents have had a “literary” focus, it’s also true that there are successful agents who have been around for years who represent writers of romance or crime fiction whether as a special focus or as part of their larger stable of authors. Certainly it is increasingly difficult for an Australian agent to pursue a purely literary focus, whatever we mean precisely by that rather unstable term. Any reputable agent should be fostering their clients’ aspirations. I am interested to learn that there is a perception of some Australian agents’ lack of interest in contemporary women’s fiction. One of my clients, Fiona Higgins, has a wonderful novel called THE MOTHERS’ GROUP that is as contemporary as women’s fiction gets. That book is released in March by Allen & Unwin, who are doing a brilliant job of bringing it to market. In our information-flooded era, perhaps it’s inevitable that winning competitions and so on is a faster route to getting a publisher’s attention. That’s why there’s such a sense of urgency about platform-building and using Twitter etc to establish some kind of profile in the absence of published works and stand out from the competition for the attention of so-called gatekeepers.
      Thank you again for writing. I will now have to check my spam folder regularly to ensure I’m not missing out on other insightful and thoughtful responses to my posts!

  • It takes hours to prepare every submission in keeping with each agent’s requirements. One of the agent’s functions is surely to help writers not waste time in non-creative activities. But the search for an agent is surely one of the most dispiriting non-creative activities that eats into a writer’s time. I feel I would rather spend my non-creative time approaching a publisher rather than an agent but publishers have surrounded themselves with barriers – of course, I can understand why. As to agents sifting through the chaff, I am not sure that they do that job very well. The slur against self-published books is that they have not been through an editing process, but that is not always true. And even when a book is edited by a publisher disasters can still happen – witness Robert Hughes’s last book which was riddled with errors. Hughes is a polymath. His best work might be behind him but a good editor with the same broad sweep of knowledge as Hughes would not have let those mistakes get through.

    • Hi Aline,
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree that querying agents is time consuming, but I think if you spend the time to come up with a strong pitch, a synopsis, and some thoughts as to what other books are already out there in the marketplace that might (however tangentially) be considered similar to yours, then those elements should stay consistent in your approach to every agent. What would change would be the sentence(s) about why you approached that particular agent. For example – how did you discover her? Does s/he represent an author you love whose work relates to yours in some way? Did s/he recently sell several books in your genre? It’s like sending out your resume, you alter the cover note to suit the job and the person to whom you’re sending the application.
      You’re quite right about sloppy editing, it can be a problem for major trade publishers as well as self-published authors. I have no knowledge of the Hughes book you mention, but there are reasons that poor editing can creep into the books of well established authors. Sometimes those reasons have to do with the author’s willingness to revise or to check proofs; sometimes the publisher gets lazy in the belief that the author’s name will be enough to sell the books even if they’ve cut corners by not getting a proofreader. As I say, this is pure speculation but based on experiences I’ve seen close up.
      I appreciate your comments and wish you good luck with your writing.
      Virginia

  • Hi Virginia,

    Great article, but I have to disagree “It has been years since most publishers accepted unsolicited manuscripts.” My website contains a list of over 1000 worldwide, all currently accepting book proposals and submissions.

    Check it out, and I hope you will be good enough to leave my link here to help your followers!

    • Hi Brian,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, you’re quite right that there are many places where authors can send their work uninvited (a list of 1,000 boggles my mind and must have taken you years!). This post was really about the major trade publishing houses in Australia promoting the fact they are seeking book-length manuscripts. In the back of every writing magazine there are classified ads screaming for unpublished authors’ attention. Come to think of it, I should write a post about those … My point is that authors should be clear about their goals and their rights when they do submit their work, because it is too easy for them to be lured by the prospect of publication to think clearly about what exactly the publisher is offering in a contract.
      Best, Virginia

  • I have to say after years of trying to be published, I’m more confused than ever.

    What does it mean when a publisher says: “this is good, better than a lot of other work we’ve received, but not for us at this time?” (That was from Penguin a few years ago).

    I’ve re-written and polished my novel several times and sent it to all three of the publishers above and still was still rejected.

    So could you please tell me what I’m doing wrong?
    Thanks :)

    • Hi Olivia,
      Thanks for reading this post. It is hard not to feel disheartened along the road to publication, although many great writers have felt the sting of rejection for long years before finally seeing their work in print. Your questions have prompted me to write a new post attempting to answer them, which I will publish in the next day or so. –Virginia

  • Skye

    Hi :) so I wrote my book, polished it and did all of the boring stuff. I sent it off to random house who replied that they were interested in my writing style and the storyline and they would like me to send the entire book. Nine months on, no reply. Either they are still genuinely considering and reading it, or they just forgot to tell me that they’ve decided to not go with it … anyways, I’m just curious as to the general selection process.
    Thanks so much this is a great site :)

    • Hi Skye. I appreciate your taking the trouble to read and reply to this post. Unfortunately I hear a version of your story a lot. It’s too easy for an unrepresented author to slip through the cracks. Often it’s nobody’s fault, there are many ways that it can happen. It’s a great idea to do a post about how publishers select books. It’s a lot slower and more complex than you’d expect. I will contact you separately about your work. Best wishes –Virginia

  • Jaq

    I would suggest that the reason more major print publishers are open to submissions these days is because they are aware that a lot of writers, and I mean a lot, are simply turning to self-publishing ebook platforms to get their novel out into the world.
    And who can blame writers for doing so, many of whom have had their story rejected time after time after time.
    Twilight began life as an ebook did it not?
    50 Shades of Grey also.
    JK Rowlings has just released her first non-Harry Potter novel as an ebook.
    I’m fortunate to email with a number of well known midlist authors, in the UK and the USA…they tell me that the situation for midlist authors is the most dire it’s ever been. Citing that the five big publishing companies seem to want bestselling novels only, and now have little interest in even well known midlist authors.
    Advances are down. Publishing contracts are down. It is now harder than ever for midlist authors to make a living from writing alone.
    When one of the most popular MilSF authors of recent years tells you this, with the added information that his twelve book MilSF series was cancelled at book three, you have to sit up and take notice.
    A well known thriller writer I chat with had to get his last novel published by a small press in his home town…and it sold as well as the first three books in the series that he had published by one of the big five.
    A popular author of Sci-fi action in the USA just emailed me to say from now on he’s going the self-published ebook route, because the publisher he has been with for years declined his latest book…this despite his numerous fans around the world. His books sell consistently, including his back listed books.
    So when well known authors are going the ebook route, is it any wonder many new authors are doing the same?
    The big five publishing companies are well aware of this and are looking at ways to encourage more submissions, I’m sure.
    For far too long the publishing companies and agents have been reveling in the false security that authors need them to be published; this is no longer true.
    The ebook revolution is underway and the big publishers are struggling to keep up.
    Note: I say big five publishing companies, rather than six, because I understand Penguin and Random House have now become the one company?

    • Hi again Jaq,
      There’s a lot of interesting points in your comment, and it’s true that today’s publishing environment is radically improved for writers wishing simply to get their work in book form. Self-publishing offers many writers a path that is often better suited to the type of books they write. However it’s also true that the traditional publishers offer marketing, publicity and distribution that self-published authors — even the most successful — find hard to match. Which is why several of the best-selling self-published authors have signed publishing deals with traditional publishers after finding success with independently published works. So all up I think it’s an exciting time for the publishing industry.
      Good luck with your writing. –Virginia

  • Dave

    I’m nearing the end of writing my first book (fiction). I’ll be the first to admit I’m clueless about where to start with publishers etc etc. Hence I really appreciate the candid article you’ve written.

    My one let down is punctuation. Honestly it’s horrid. Fortunately my life partner is an ex old school type setter, she really is a gem! Not that I envy her task but along with adding all the correct punctuation, it gets proof read too.

    I do have one question. Is there generally accepted format which one should submit to a publisher or does each publishing house have its own unique criteria?

    • Hello Dave, thanks for reading. Each publisher has a “house style” in which all the books they publish are printed. For example, most Australian publishers prefer ‘single quotation marks (“doubles for quotes within the quote”)’ whereas US publishers prefer the other way around. But you are not expected to know that. Adapting a manuscript to house style is something that copy editors and typesetters do as a matter of course. On punctuation, you should present as clean a manuscript as possible, but a publisher who loves your work is going to overlook some errors of punctuation and grammar. By far the biggest issue — and one of the reasons I wrote this post — is that most people who think they have finished their book-length work, whether fiction or nonfiction, are nowhere near finished. There are still many drafts to go, major revision, cutting back or expanding as the case requires. These things take time, tough constructive readers who are not related to you, and steely determination. Most manuscripts I see are completely undercooked, nowhere near ready to present to an agent or a publisher. So please think about those things before proceeding to show it to the decision makers. Typically they will only consider your manuscript once.
      Having said all that, I wish you well with your writing. –Virginia

  • Virginia,
    many thanks for the insights. I’m afraid I was caught by the difficulty of getting a proper agent and agreed to an agent who, I feel, may have conned me into self publishing and then dumped me. I struggled for years as a result and it set my writing back a decade as I wasted my time trying to do my own marketing. I won’t go into the details here. I am now so wary of agents I will approach publishers first, so I like the idea that they’re accepting direct requests.
    Alternatively, how do I find an agent that I can trust and is genuinely open to new authors? Do they even exist?
    Wayne

    • Hi Wayne,
      Thank you for reading and commenting here, though I’m sorry to learn about your experience. If an agent asks you to pay for anything up front then they are not reputable. The speculative model — by which an agent assesses the commercial viability of unpublished manuscripts and attempts to match them with a publisher, and sees no remuneration until that match is made (via commission made from the publisher’s advance to the author) — is in many respects quaint and is certainly full of risks for both parties. In the context of your experience I can understand why you would prefer approaching publishers directly. If you had a personal connection or invitation from a publisher to submit you work to them directly then that would be preferable. However what I find increasingly is that writers come to me after they have tried and failed to attract publisher attention with their electronically-submitted first chapters, and it’s often because the work is still several drafts and a long way from being of publishable standard. A good agent will not only never ask you to pay for anything up front, but should be able to provide editorial advice that will increase its chances of getting across the line. Though the line, it must be said, is more like an Olympic high-jump bar. As for finding an agent, there are resources online to help. But you must do your homework and only approach agents who are looking for the kind of writing you do. Hope this helps, and good luck. –Virginia

  • For now, I will just express my thanks, to you, your readers and the intenet which enables these conversations to take place; South west australia is quite remote otherwise. Thank you Virginia ( discovered via Jennifer Ackland’s link)

    • Hi Selina, it’s lovely of you to leave such a nice comment. Best wishes — Virginia

  • I’m wondering if there are complications in submitting a work to a publisher or a literary agent if the manuscript has already been self-published. I have a number of these titles, and many have already been favourably reviewed by experts such as Shelleyrae at Book’d Out, and Brenda Telford. Most of my titles are collections of romantic Short Stories, though I also have three novellas. Despite these reviews, sales are just not happening and therefore I am considering my options.

    • Hi Margaret, thanks for your great question. These days it’s not unusual for the author of a self-published title to seek representation or approach a publisher directly. The critical point is to know what rights you hold to your work, in which territories and for what duration. Typically you would hold all rights yourself throughout the world but a publisher will insist on proof. If a publisher were interested in your title(s) then it would insist on the self-published edition being removed from the Internet. Unfortunately it is also true these days that whether you are traditionally published or self-published, authors are expected to do a large amount of promotional work themselves. There are loads of resources online to help you in that regard. Good luck — Virginia

  • Brenda Rudolph

    Helpful, thank you. Please could you tell me how recent this page is, and the comments thereon?
    Thanks,
    Brenda

    • Hi Brenda,
      I first posted this in Aug-Sep 2012. Most comments date from the first month after that but others are more recent. The freshest comments are listed from the top. I will update some of this information in a new post shortly. Thanks for your interest — Virginia

  • Tiana

    I would LOVE to have my novel published by a traditional publisher. Unfortunately, not one literary agent I have contacted, both in Australia and (more recently) internationally, has even considered looking at my manuscript. The only literary agent who requested my manuscript took almost a year to reply, telling me that they assume I had found someone to represent me by now.

    As it is, I’m left with sending queries directly to the publishers and, if failing that, self-publishing.

    Any ideas on how I would be able to find a literary agent? I have been sending queries to those who publish in my genre, with no success.

    • Hi Tiana,
      Thanks for reading and leaving this comment. Your frustration is shared by a lot of aspiring authors around the world, which is why self-publishing has become such a popular channel for some writers.
      As to advice, my first thought is about the strength of your query. Have you researched carefully what constitutes a good query letter? Have you had a trusted adviser (writing group peer, online acquaintance, serious reader friend) look at it? Unfortunately I see query letters that shoot themselves in the foot, from authors who reveal themselves to be clueless about what an agent’s looking for and the business realities of publishing. Given that the query letter is your first impression, you need to put loads of thought and effort into it.
      And, saying all of that about the query, your novel must be the best it possibly can be in order to get across the line. I’m not sure how much third-party advice you’ve sought or received about your work, but many novelists take years writing and revising before finding a publisher.
      The other advice I’d suggest is to submit to writing competitions and contests in your genre. Getting shortlisted or noticed in such things helps you stand out from others who are querying the same agents.
      It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. Good luck! –Virginia

  • Yasmine BONNER

    Reading the below comments, reminds me of my one occasion that I submitted my chapter etc. to a literary agent, only to be told that i did not comply with her directions! Upon further emails to her, she retracted that statement and found my correct submission. I thought this pretty unprofessional. I also think that there is an awful lot of censorship going on in relation to what they will even look at let alone what they might publish. My thoughts on your comments with respect to the author’s rights, any agreement whether it be verbal, written or both can be pursued in the courts. I have heard a few times from different people in the industry that they have no rights! rubbish! It is not hard to obtain a copy of the new ACL (Australian Consumer Laws) from your local Fair Trading office and read up on the section pertaining to your complaint. This is another way to frighten people off from contemplating even looking at an agreement. There are departments that can help you in understanding your rights and how to read agreements or at the very least point you in the right direction to get that information for a reasonably low cost. I also think that the industry is in dire need of ‘BASIC’writing skills courses. There is a huge gap between generations and how they were taught to write! Me included. I have relied on a paid editor to help me in the next stage of my memoir and that was just for the basics. Some one should put their hand up, I think they would be overwhelmed at the response, and this in turn would raise the level of quality. Just my thoughts. Thanks for your ideas in your article.

    • Hi Yasmine,
      Thanks for your comments. I hope in regards to submitting to agents that you didn’t stop at one! It’s true that agents are selective about what they will consider, but it’s less a matter of censorship (after all, the agent is not the only path to publication) than of individual reading preferences and knowledge of the market. For example, I don’t represent fantasy or science fiction or children’s books, because I don’t read them myself and therefore am no judge of what’s good or what’s selling in the current market.
      As for rights, you’re absolutely correct. Another good source of information for writers considering a publisher’s contract is the Australian Society of Authors.
      On the topic of basic writing skills, I will respectfully disagree with you about the demand for editorial services. Unfortunately I’m of the view that those aspiring authors most in need of editorial help are those least likely to seek it.
      I’m starting a monthly newsletter soon so please look out for the signup form on my website. — Virginia

  • Jeff Martin

    Have to shake my head at your utterly off-the-mark explanation for publishers seeking to acquire manuscripts directly. The REAL reason publishers have opened their door to direct submittals is because agents want NOTHING TO DO with authors that write fiction. Especially commercial fiction. They issue knee-jerk rejections of said manuscripts as fast as they can get them out the door. This trend has become so rampant worldwide that publishers are not getting the volume of manuscripts in certain genres that they should. In short, agents are not doing their jobs. These lazy snobs are deliberately damaging the careers of talented new authors because, quite simply, they can’t be bothered to invest in them. Story quality doesn’t matter. Story originality doesn’t matter. Story creativity doesn’t matter. 5-star reviews don’t matter. Nothing matters. Unless the newbie is a celebrity! Then they’ll fall over themselves to request the manuscript. Stephen King himself, if twenty-five years old today, could not get published because of these agents that should be more properly be viewed as roadblocks. In fact, in light of this, some time ago, King advised new authors to skip agents entirely and submit directly to publishers. He said a new author has a better chance of his/her manuscript being plucked from a slush pile and read than an agent reading it. He was absolutely right. Just so you know, Virginia, I sent a query for my outstanding work of (eerie) commercial fiction to thirty-five agents in the U.K. that stated their literary preferences included the genres of horror, the paranormal, fantasy, etc. Thirty-five. The novel had received rave reviews from major websites and top reviewers on Amazon. The query letter contained those reviews, of course. Guess how many agents requested the full manuscript, Virginia. Zero. Guess how many agents requested reading material, Virginia. Zero. Well, that did it for me. I changed course for good. Sent my manuscript (as a soft-cover book, complete with artwork. Very slick looking.) straight to editors/senior editors/editors-in-chief with the top publishers in the world. Within six weeks, four had replied with personal messages! Two informed me they would take a look at it. (One of them — an editor-in-chief — asked for the story in MS Word form.) The third — an editor-in chief — said to get an agent! LOL! (This person is utterly disconnected from reality.) The fourth actually wrote a personal reply, commending me on my ‘compelling’ query letter. Added he is not able to accept unsolicited submittals, however, and wished me well. But he has the book. In response to his note, I thanked him for his courtesy and asked him to give the novel to someone outside the publishing industry for his/her feedback. Should he do that, and that person comes back two weeks later and tells him the story is great (and it is great), he may well skirt the rules, read it himself and take it on. At the very least, he will regard the book differently than before that may lead to something. But NONE of these four publishers would have even become aware of me/my novels had I not done as Stephen suggested. If left to agents, my books would have died on their computers right then and there for agents are in the business of not helping authors of fiction but stopping them from going any farther. They ruin careers. And they enjoy it. They actually think they speak for the literary public when they most certainly do not. 75% of all agent-approved published books are flops. 75%! They don’t make a dime. Book bin material two weeks after release. That tells everything you need to know about agents’ judgment. But ask yourself, Virginia — how many best-selling authors can you name that have PUBLICLY COMPLAINED about the number of rejections they received for their works? Off the top of my head, I can think of Stockett, King, Meyer, Rowling, Grisham and Forsythe. No doubt there are others. No doubt. What do these authors have in common, Virginia (beside the fact they are/were best-selling authors)? I’ll tell you — they all write commercial fiction. The biggest selling books in the world are those of commercial fiction. And what do agents do when they receive this genre from new authors? They reject them out of hand no matter how good they are. Isn’t that amazing?! THAT’S why more and more publishers want to directly deal with authors. Oh, and by the way, the editor-in-chief of Tor Books in London, fed up with the number of complaints she has received from authors regarding agents’ outrageous behavior towards them, invited authors to submit to Tor. No agents needed or wanted. Well, as of late September, Tor has, I believe, acquired nineteen manuscripts that had previously been rejected and likely numerous times by know-it-all agents. If I were the chief editor of Tor and so alarmingly discovered that publishable material was routinely being tossed in the garbage by these incompetents, I would never use agents again. I mean, what do I need them for? They are DAMAGING my business as a publisher, keeping from me tales I can sell. In point of fact, Tor’s open submittals portal has yielded TONS of excellent product neither this publisher nor any other would ever have seen if left to agents. Stephen King was right. Submit to publishers. Forget about agents. Don’t waste your time with agents. And, Virginia, I do not want you making excuses for these people. I have no interest in reading anything you have to say in defense of them. And likely neither does Tor. I have all the proof I need of agent arrogance and apathy towards authors of fiction, and nothing you say is going to change that. But tell you what, Virginia — YOU write a work of commercial fiction and submit it to as many agents as you want anywhere in the world. Use a pseudonym. Jane Smith. See how far you get, Virginia. Yes, get ready to paper your house with form rejection letters from people that didn’t read a word of your manuscript, don’t want to and perhaps didn’t even finish reading your query. Yes, good luck with that.

  • Mike

    Sometime around 1990, Harper’s Magazine began accepting non-solicited fiction. In the mid-90’s I heard Lewis Lapham, the long-time editor, speak at a Writer’s Union meeting. He concluded by saying something like, “All you have to do is do great work and you’ll find your way into Harper’s.”

    He opened the floor up for questions, and I said that my short fiction had been receiving raves from Harper’s editorial assistants (i.e., grad students)for years, but nothing seemed to have ever been passed on, and no reason was ever given for the stories being returned. I then asked how many unsolicited stories they received a week, and I asked if they’d ever published an unsolicited story.

    Mr. Lapham noted that Harper’s received insane amounts of unsolicited work and that in all the years since the policy began, they’d never published a single unsolicited piece of fiction (which I guessed, as they published one story a month, and most were by famous authors).

    Similarly, the fiction editor of The New Yorker, despite their policy of accepting unsolicited fiction, acknowledged that their last acceptance of unsolicited fiction was decades in the past. She said they bought sophisticated fiction and she doubted a writer without an agent was even capable of writing sophisticated fiction (she, while part of the literary elite, clearly lacked certain social graces).

    After Mr. Lapham (in a much more gracious fashion than the New Yorker editor) explained the bleak reality facing the unsolicited story, I asked, “How does one get published in Harper’s?”

    And he said, “You get published by doing what you’re doing. By making a case that your work should be read, by finding a way to get your work into an editor’s hands. Stop by the office on Monday, and I will make sure your work gets read.”

    I wish the story ended with Harper’s buying my short fiction. I did get some stories into his hands (or, at the very least, he signed someone else’s long rejection letter), and I did get an education.

    These pinnacles of American short fiction are not looking for unsolicted talent; they are looking to engage with their readers. They don’t want to be associated with the idea that they don’t accept unsolicited work, but that is the reality. They want would-be submitters to subscribe.

    Of course, had I truly nailed one of those follow-up stories, I might have been the exception. I blame myself.

    And what Mr. Lapham was saying really was (in a more gracious way than The New Yorker editor), “If you can, get an agent.”

    If you can.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks so much for taking the trouble to write this long and fascinating comment. I think a lot of publications are being disingenuous in having policies that welcome unsolicited submissions without the intention of ever publishing one. I’m not sure how much that policy strengthens their subscription or renewal rates, however. Hopefully your stories found their way into print elsewhere, and you didn’t give up after trying for the highest reaches of the US short fiction market. Certainly you should not blame yourself.

      Perhaps the point being made beneath the suggestions to get an agent and/or to get your work into an editor’s hands, is that relationships are everything. Certainly in the US it seems to me that college, MFA, residencies, workshops and conferences, are the necessary merry-go-round to ride in order to meet editors and agents. In these environments are forged the sorts of connections that remain invisible yet all-important to one’s chances of publication, despite the infinite tactical and craft-based information about getting published available online.

      Thanks again and best wishes — Virginia

  • Hello Virginia,
    I had my book published and the publisher who was supposed to publish 500 books only published two. I also paid them. After seeking legal advice, I have the rights to my book. Where do I go from now? Thanks.

    • Hi Renee,
      I’m sorry to hear about this experience, but it’s impossible for me to advise you without further information. Please feel free to email me at the address given in my Submissions page. –Virginia

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