Lesson 3: Skiing across the slush pile
In this country, the big publishers each receive 3-5,000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts a year. That’s around a hundred a week. The situation is much the same in the UK, Canada and the US – publishers receive an absolute deluge of manuscripts week in and out, even when they state that they’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.
Publishing is a competitive and low profit business, and no publisher can afford to pay people to read all those manuscripts. Many publishers simply return them if postage is provided, or shred them if it isn’t. Where they do look at manuscripts, it will only be the professionally presented ones – perhaps half the total. Of that 2,500, say, 90% will be rejected on the first page and 98% by the end of the first chapter. That leaves 30-50 manuscripts, and they’re the only ones that will receive serious consideration. In a good year, ten of those might be published (out of the original 5,000). In a bad year, less than five.
Most published books come through agents, but no agent can afford to spend a lot of time reading manuscripts from unknowns either. Most agents won’t even look at an unsolicited manuscript and again, most manuscripts an agent does consider will be rejected on the first page. For the key faults a top NY agent sees in submitted manuscripts every day of the year, and how to fix them, see Don Maass’s terrific 2009 book, The Fire in Fiction.
The lesson is obvious: your story has to start in the first paragraph, with an interesting character facing some kind of problem that captures the reader’s interest or concern, and your very best writing has to be up front. Once you’ve done that, work on your contacts because agents get most of their manuscripts from referrals – it’s the only practicable way to filter out the few good books from the vast morass of manuscripts that aren’t publishable. Before you send your work off, make sure you follow the submission guidelines on the publisher’s website, and present your work in standard manuscript format. If you don’t, it’s likely to be discarded without another glance.
But how do you get your work in front of that agent or editor in the first place? Make contacts at book fairs, writers’ workshops and festivals, and other places where the industry gets together, then use them. Write to your contacts with your idea and perhaps a couple of sample pages (the first pages, obviously). If they like what they see, your manuscript is now a solicited one. It still won’t be published if it’s no good, but at least it’s at the top of the queue to be read.
For advice on those major Aussie publishers who are taking manuscripts, see my recent post: http://ianirvine.blogspot.com/2011/10/publishers-looking-for-manuscripts.html.