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 fiction in fine health, according to recent diagnosis

[F]irst novels that reshape familiar historical material with originality and dash; sustain their strange tales with assurance; move confidently between countries and eras, intimate and national histories; offer two more indications of the present and future health of Australian fiction.

From Peter Pierce’s insightful review of The Secret Son by my client Jenny Ackland, and of Leah Kaminsky’s The Waiting Room, in The Australian over the weekend.

A book party for Jenny Ackland’s THE SECRET SON

Here’s my client Jenny Ackland’s wrap-up of the launch of her novel The Secret Son a few days ago. It was a large crowd at the Bella Union in Melbourne. Jenny did a very smart thing by wearing a flaming red dress so everyone could see her. There are several photos including one of me reading out a message from Jenny’s publisher, who could not attend the event. She missed a great party, the only book launch I’ve ever attended that featured a belly dancer. Why? I urge you to read this wonderful novel and find out for yourself.

Jenny Ackland’s debut novel asks: Did Ned Kelly have a secret son who fought at Gallipoli?

Isn’t this a gorgeous cover?

The Secret Son explores the provocative idea that Australian bushranger Ned Kelly had a son James, who not only fought in Gallipoli, but stayed in Turkey and lived out his life in a remote mountain village. Cem, a troubled young Turkish-Australian man, comes to the village a century later to uncover his family’s past.

Jenny Ackland’s stunning debut novel is fresh on the shelves but already getting the attention it deserves, with this wonderful review on Readings’ website and a pithy piece in the Sydney Morning Herald that concludes:

Ackland effectively interweaves the past and the present as well as the voices that tell the story, James, Cem and the old Turkish woman, Berna, who links them. The Secret Son is infused with Ackland’s love of Turkey and its people. It is a powerful story of good and evil, and belonging.

Jenny lives in Melbourne but she lived in Turkey for a long time, and it’s her abiding love for the country and its people that makes for such a visceral reading experience.

I know that two men are coming up the mountain, at this moment, including the boy from far away. I wonder what my grandson’s face will look like. This is a boy in the skin of a man. I know the boy is innocent, that it’s his family soul which is guilty.

But wait, there’s more! Here’s the exhilarated author using a stack of her books as a pillow.

More about The Secret Son from its publisher, Allen & Unwin

My clients are so good looking! And other client news for November


Reviewing my client list the other day, I was struck by the fact that they are really a fine looking bunch of writers. When I get around to updating my website, I must add photos. The chap on the left, for example, is Brad Hutchins, whose memoir Game, Set, Cash! will be published in 2014 by Black Inc.

Given that I typically find my clients on the quality of their query letters and manuscripts, without clapping eyes on anything but their prose, it’s a serendipitous result.

But enough of that. Some exciting things have happened for my lovely clients in November, such as:

  • Lily Brett’s novel Lola Bensky (of which I was the editor, not the agent) has been nominated for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin award. She’ll be appearing on Wednesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City.
  • Author of the bestselling The Mothers’ Group, Fiona Higgins, showed me her freshly baked novel and I can’t say much right now except IT’S FANTASTIC and will be published in September 2014.
  • Cartoonist Nate Neal is a guest of the inaugural Short Run Festival in Seattle, talking about his ‘silent comics’.
  • Naomi Cook has started blogging for leading health website  Health Engine. It was her popular Nurse Naomi blog that drew the attention of Australia’s #1 Health Directory as rated by Neilsen.
  • Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel just_a_girl got this thoughtful review by Angela Meyer to add to a heap of great reviews for the work, which I’m now shopping to US editors.
  • Jenny Ackland has submitted a very exciting new manuscript which is both literary and gripping — basically your Holy Grail for literary fiction publishers, who are skittish as cats these days.
  • And as of the last days of the month I’ve found a publisher for a fascinating work of nonfiction/biography which I won’t disclose until the ink’s dry on the contract. But the story of its path to publication is worth waiting for, and I couldn’t be happier for the author.

So why bother listing all of this? I want you to know that publishers DO want to publish great stories, well told. It’s just a lot harder to do than many unpublished writers think. I hate saying no to so many queries, but the truth is that most of them are not nearly ready to go out into the world. Even when the manuscripts are of a high quality, there’s still more editorial development work to be done, whether it’s with me or with the publisher, or most often, both.

Here’s my question for you: What sorts of things do you want to know about how the book publishing industry works?  I have the most experience in Australia — as an in-house editor, published author, and literary agent — but I’ll answer a genuine question from anywhere.

This Big Issue makes me smile

So great to see my client Jenny Ackland’s wonderful short story The Dead Man’s Cake included in The Big Issue’s 2013 Fiction Edition, this year themed ‘Make Me Smile.’

I hope I’m not too late with this post to encourage Australian short story aficionados to buy a copy of this wonderful fortnightly publication. Not only has the annual fiction issue become a highly visible event on the publishing calendar, but The Big Issue itself is such a remarkable and effective organisation.

The Big Issue is a not-for-profit social enterprise that finds solutions to help bring about change in the lives of some of Australia’s most disadvantaged people. The Big Issue magazine is an independent magazine sold on the streets by homeless, marginalised and disadvantaged people. Vendors buy copies of the magazine for $3 and sell them for $6, earning the difference. The magazine, which covers arts, entertainment, current affairs, lifestyle, news and opinion, is edited by Walkley Award-winning journalist and author Alan Attwood.

Jenny’s story is a gem among several shiny objects in this terrific issue. As she was too modest to mention publication on her own blog, I urge you to pay it a visit. Seraglio (not a pizza place) is another kind of gem — a witty and honest reckoning of one writer’s life, book by book and workshop by workshop — by a serious writer in the making. Congratulations, Jenny!