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.)

Call for submissions: The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Writing Prize

Australia’s unique landscape has inspired writers for generations. Now with the support of the McLean Foundation, the Nature Conservancy Australia has announced a generous prize for the author of an essay between 3,000 and 5,000 words about place.

The Nature Writing Prize is worth $5,000 and will be judged by The Australian’s literary critic Geordie Williamson and Dr Janine Burke, historian and author of The Nest.

As someone with a long history of involvement in the not-for-profit sector I am always thrilled to see philanthropists supporting Australian writers. I checked the Philanthropy Australia website to confirm that the McLean Foundation is indeed a grant-making member. The foundation’s stated goal is to promote and celebrate the “literature of nature in Australia”. The Nature Conservancy, with more than one million members, works globally to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people.

According to the press release, the winning entry will be that which is “judged to be of the highest literary merit and which best explores his or her relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape.”

The prize is offered every two years. The inaugural winner in 2011 was Annamaria Weldon for her piece “Threshold Country” from a field of 130 entries. I have a feeling there will be quite a few more entries this time around.

Your deadline is 16 November 2012. The winner will be announced in March 2013. It’s always wise to  read the guidelines and conditions first. You will need to contribute an entry fee of $25 with your entry form.

On the entry fee, it’s not clear the extent to which the McLean Foundation’s support is paying for the prize money and/or other fees (such as for the judges’ time, the administration and promotion of the prize), or to what extent the entry fees will cover the admin side of things. The May-June issue of Poets & Writers magazine had a special section on writing contests, in which one article examined the economics of writing competitions. Either way I feel this is a generous prize for an essay contest and if the Nature Conservancy raises some money during the process then why should they not? I’d love to hear your views on this topic, actually, so please comment away.