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.)

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.