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Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Slush and all that…

I’m just going through our submissions inbox – otherwise known in the industry as the slush pile – and before I get too overwhelmed by the swathes of submissions, I thought I would peek above the parapet for a few minutes, gulp down some fresh air (and a coffee) and post some thoughts on slush…
Now, while we will quite often (perhaps one in thirty) take an unsolicited submission for a non-fiction work to our editorial meetings to discuss (and from there contract), it really is very rare for us to do the same for fiction. It sounds tough, I know, but that’s the way it is. It is much easier to judge the merits of an unsolicited non-fiction work based on a proposal and some sample material; it is also easier to gauge what market there might be for non-fiction titles, based on the subject matter, previous success of other books in that area, on local interest and so on. Fiction is much harder to assess. And also, there is so much more of it that hits the slush pile. Everyone has at least one novel in them; unfortunately, that novel tends not to be very good. That’s a pretty harsh statement – believe me, I know, I have been there and experienced this all myself (which is why I attempt to be as constructive and as encouraging as I can when rejecting manuscripts) – but I have also waded my way through thousands of novels and I’m afraid that this is the inescapable conclusion. But struggling novelists (particularly ones that have received a rejection letter from me), please also know that the ideas behind many of the manuscripts that are rejected are genuinely good ones; its just in their execution that they fall down – or it might be a case of a manuscript not fitting our list style, or that our list is full for the next year or so. There are many factors.
So how does one advance from the slush pile to be discussed by the editorial board?
You have one page, maybe two, to reel us in; if you fail there, then I’m afraid the manuscript is going to be sent on its way. Novels are particularly tough, as I say, but your manuscript will have a much better chance of being read and considered seriously if it has come from an agent. So for aspiring novelists everywhere, the best advice that I can give you is this: find yourself an agent. Not only will they work hard to get you the very best deal possible, they will help polish your work, know the best publishing houses to send it to – and indeed the best people within the publishing houses to send it to – and will help you to formulate your cover letter, synopsis and the sample material you send in. Look at market trends and see if your work is the in thing – it doesn’t have to be, of course, but if it is, tell us. Be explicit.
But if you don’t want an agent, all hope is not lost. You just need to box clever. Do the above (polish your material and synopsis) and then do some research – proper research – into publishers (and indeed, if you want an agent, do some proper research on them too before sending in your stuff to them) and make sure that your material is the kind of thing that they might be looking for. Polygon, for example, does not want a JRR Tolkein-esque book about elves and wizards; nor does it want to see a how-to book on yoga. Birlinn doesn’t want to see a walking tour of Amsterdam, or a Sex in the City style romantic novel. Other houses are the same; if you have clearly just BCC’d a load of different publishing houses’ submission addresses into an email and sent it out at the same time, it is patently obvious and your lack of effort and attention to detail is instantly discouraging. You took the time to write the book, take the time to submit it properly.
Following up. This is a good thing to do… but can also be very irritating for the publisher/ agent. As I have said, we receive hundreds of submissions a week; it takes time to go through them all. We will get back to you. Sure, if you haven’t heard from us for several months, send a chaser (but only do this if you really think that your manuscript is perfect for that publisher or agent – again, Birlinn does not want an endless stream of chasing emails over a romantic novel that we would never publish), but always remain polite. Finally, and I know this is difficult, if you are rejected, don’t ask the publisher for a critique as to why it was rejected. They should give you certain pointers as to the reason why they didn’t want to take your manuscript any further and maybe offer advice on who you should try instead; but a critique or opinions on how to improve your manuscript is just not going to happen.
Also, do not send back a venomous reply to being rejected (and believe me, for all that I try to be positive in my rejections and offer advice, I have had some real poison sent back to me). That will just blacklist you should you try to submit again in the future.
It’s a tough job, the old slush pile; tough for everyone. But there are ways to get your stuff read, I promise. Go out and buy a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (A & C Black). It’s a great book which offers decent advice on submissions and, crucially, lists pretty much every international and national publishing house and literary agent that there is, along with their specialities and contact details.
I hope that this has been a help (and not too disheartening). There is hope – over 300,000 new books are published a year (plus 2.9 million self-published titles – I’ll discuss this option another time). If you take your time, put in the graft and polish your work as well as you can, you will give your manuscript the very best possible chance of being picked up by an agent or a publishing house. Good luck!
Speak soon.

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