Secrets from the Slush Pile

One of the most fascinating aspects of my current job in publishing is dealing with the many unsolicited manuscripts we receive. I look after what publishers call, rather unkindly, the slush pile. I am the gatekeeper for all the aspiring authors. They send me their precious manuscripts and, more than 99% of the time, I will respond in several weeks’ time with a carefully worded rejection letter. I should point out that the fact that we consider unsolicited manuscripts at all is unusual. I work for a non-fiction publisher, where the practice is still common. Most fiction publishers, on the other hand, will only consider submissions from agencies. I’ll be starting a new job in a couple of weeks and looking after the slush pile will no longer be one of my responsibilities. So now seems like an opportune time to reflect on what is, for many, one of the most mysterious aspects of the publishing process.

For me, the most intriguing thing about the slush pile has not been the manuscripts themselves (sadly!), but the subtext of the covering letters, and the romantic assumptions about the book trade that they betray. Here are some of the most common misconceptions, which will guarantee that your proposal goes to the bottom of the slush pile:

Publishers don’t need to make money: This is, without a doubt, the most widespread fallacy. Many a proposal has been rejected on the grounds that it ‘will not sell enough to be viable’. I have sent countless rejection letters to this effect and, in response, have received a fair bit of hate mail accusing me of being a dirty capitalist. The underlying assumption is that that books don’t need to make money because they are intrinsically valuable.

Many people love to think that the book trade is special, but the fact is it is a business, and like any other business, it needs to make money. Paper and printing costs money, ebook distribution and production costs money, editing and marketing cost money, and so on. When a publisher decides to publish a new book, it is because they believe they will make a healthy return on the investment. If they don’t believe this is true of your book, it’s not publishable.

You must be a kindred spirit: Maybe it’s because authors see me as anonymous, or maybe because good writing must come from the heart, that they love to tell me loads of personal, and irrelevant, information. Romantically, they imagine that it will make me feel a connection with them that will convince me to publish their book. It won’t. Instead, it makes the author look unprofessional and not like someone we would want to work with.

My story needs to be heard: I receive many manuscripts that were clearly written as therapy. The writers have endured terrible personal misfortunes: divorces, death of children, life-threatening illnesses. They tell me that putting their story on paper has helped them to come to terms with it all and has created meaning out of the chaos. I can agree with all of that. But they then make a leap in thinking that therefore the book needs to be published. They tell me ‘writing the book has helped me, so surely reading it will help others’. They are certain that their story ‘deserves a wider audience’. Often, this thought pattern is coupled with a strong sense of destiny. Though the writing process may have been beneficial for the author, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the book has a large market.

I’m a diamond in the rough: Some writers admit in their covering letter that their writing isn’t very good and ‘needs an editor’. Again, there’s an element of fantasy. They imagine that the editor, with her super-human abilities, will be able to see past the mediocre writing to the gem that lies beneath. In reality, few editors have time to nurture and mould writers who aren’t up to scratch. If they are going to take the risk of publishing a new author, the material has to be very good indeed.

Publishers are fairy godmothers: Continuing the trend of imagining that editors have magical powers, many authors, both aspiring and published, see their editor as a fairy godmother. She can wave a wand and make their dreams come true: a bestselling book, fame and fortune. Though such miracles do happen, they are extremely rare.

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