In the world of publishing, it’s no secret that the slush pile is a murky business (the name kind of gives it away). Unsolicited manuscripts sit at the bottom of the submission food chain, submission readers and publishers are overworked and time-poor, and while the publishing industry is in decline, it seems submissions are at an all-time high. But just because it’s tough, that doesn’t mean publishers want you to fail. Take it from me.
As a former unsolicited manuscript reader at a major trade-publishing house, I read hundreds of submissions each week, ever hopeful of finding some gold within the slush (this is a slush pile reader’s dream). And while I sometimes found polished and glimmering projects, more common were submissions that let themselves down through the proposal – making life difficult for staff, and themselves, by not nailing the submission guidelines.
So, to make life easier for you and your reader, I’ve put together some handy tips on compiling your submission, using some of the most common fields requested by publishers in their unsolicited guidelines. Starting from the top.
In short: pick a title, but be prepared for it to change.
Don’t agonise for months over it, or get so emotionally attached that when the marketing team comes up with a new, money-making catchphrase, it breaks your indie author heart.
But, conversely, don’t be lazy. Don’t give us a list of every title you’ve ever come up with. Or refuse to provide one at all. A book named ‘Untitled’ or ‘I’m not sure yet’ is awfully hard to discuss and keep track of within a busy publishing house. Rest assured, you’ll have time to workshop your title later if your manuscript gets picked up.
In my experience, this field is one of the most misunderstood, and missed opportunities for authors pitching their work. Writers seem to see it as a trap, an opportunity for publishers to say “Aha! So it has been done before” and throw your submission in the trash.
However, what we’re really asking here is for you to help us place your work in the market – to show us your work is sellable, and that, as a writer, you’re in touch with the industry.
The key here is to pick realistic, relevant titles. Telling us your book is like Lord of the Rings or War and Peace just doesn’t feel right. Nor is telling us that your book is “unlike anything that has ever been written” helpful in inspiring confidence in the marketability of your book.
We want to hear that your book is like other books that have sold well recently. Extra points if you identify something on the publisher’s list – this shows that you’ve done your research and have identified the publisher as a suitable home for your work.
The question of genre seems to bring out something uncomfortable in a lot of first-time authors. A reluctance to ‘brand’ themselves; a kind of elitism, even.
But genre shouldn’t be a scary word. In fact, identifying your work within a genre can be a strong selling point for your work. Crime, romance and chick lit are known to be consistent bestsellers – the bread and butter for trade publishing houses.
The question of commercial versus literary fiction seems to be the most common sticking point. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read “literary with the selling potential of commercial”. Let go of your snobbery here. Commercial doesn’t mean “cheap and tacky”, nor does literary mean ‘“high and mighty”. They are simply different models for publishing and marketing fiction.
If you’re struggling to work this one out, go into a bookshop and try to work out where you think your book would sit on the shelves. If you can’t find a place – well, that’s probably going to be a problem for publishers and readers trying to sell and buy your book.
About the author
You may not feel that you’re particularly interesting. You may want your work to speak for itself. At all costs, you must put these impulses aside. Pep talk yourself in the mirror, treat it like a job application if you have to. Whatever your method, the worst thing you can do is to undersell yourself here.
Having said that, there’s a fine line between what’s relevant and what’s unhelpful in this section of your pitch. So I’ll make it simple.
Telling us your book is like Lord of the Rings or War and Peace just doesn’t feel right. Nor is telling us that your book is “unlike anything that has ever been written” helpful in inspiring confidence in the marketability of your book.
Things we want to hear: that you’re a previously published, awarded, recognised author; that you’re an expert in your field (crucial for non-fiction); that you have a strong social media following; that you have connections to a specific network of readers; that you have good media ties, etc.
Things we don’t want to hear: that you have a pet dog named Lulu; that you like long walks and hot showers; that you’ve been writing since the age of five; that your mother/teacher/girlfriend read your book and said it’s really great.
See yourself not just as an author working behind the scenes, but as an active selling point for your work. You got this.
Look, there’s no denying the synopsis is hard. Having been utterly immersed in your narrative from fifty to 100,000 words, you’re suddenly meant to boil it down to just 250. Take comfort in knowing that every other author is bashing their heads against the desk, too. And that the tears of frustration will all be worth it if you pull this one off.
Some tips: try to keep things as simple as possible. We don’t need to know all the characters’ names. Nor do we need a rundown of all of the complex side plots. What we’re looking for is a basic understanding of the narrative arc, the protagonist and the major themes covered in the work. As publishers, we understand that we’re not going to get the whole story from the synopsis. Your job here is to convince us to find out more.
If you’re struggling with this one, a good tip is to show your synopsis to people who have never read your manuscript before. If they’re confused, chances are, we will be too.
Your chapter sample is the final hurdle, and, like an Olympic race, there’s no guarantee your reader will get there. If you’ve failed to convince us that your manuscript is interesting, exciting and marketable in the submission, there’s a chance we might not even open the chapter sample (harsh, but true).
Having said that, if we do get there, this is your opportunity to seal the deal. It goes without saying that your chapter sample should be the best your book has to offer. It doesn’t have to be the opening of the book, but it should stand up well enough that your reader is not completely baffled.
On a nit-picky formatting level, your document should dive straight into the action. Skip the quotes, chapter list, prologue and introduction. Proofread your work and present it in a clear, professional way. If there’s a typo in the first paragraph, or your work is all in Comic Sans, chances are your reader is going to take you less seriously.
Above all, don’t mess with the word limit. If they say a chapter, submit a chapter. If your work has no chapters, don’t use this as an opportunity to submit your whole 120,000-word manuscript. Bending the rules or being cheeky is just going to put off your reader. Respect our time and our guidelines. If we want to read more, we’ll be in contact.
And finally: it’s worth it
I know these guidelines can feel a little cold and heartless, but they’re not designed to reduce, frustrate or intimidate potential authors. They’re there to make things fair, and to give publishers the best possible chance of discovering your manuscript. It may seem like hard work, but rest assured submissions do get read, and books do get picked for publication from the slush pile.
In fact, your submission is the one thing you can guarantee a publisher will read. By putting that extra bit of effort in, you’re giving yourself the best chance possible of getting to the top of that pile. Or, at the very least, you’re making one submission reader’s day that little bit brighter.
Rebecca Slater is a writer and editor from Sydney currently studying at the University of Oxford. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Overland, The Lifted Brow, Broadsheet, Award Winning Australian Writing, Seizure, Voiceworks and more.