Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Slush Pile

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If you’re part of the publishing industry, then the title to this posting probably made you shudder. If you’re not in the business, then you need to know that the slush pile is the huge stack of unsolicited manuscripts — also known as “unsoliciteds” — that are sent to every publishing company in hopes the publisher will publish them

Although I’m primarily a freelance writer now, one of the many things working as an in-house editor has given me is insight into what happens to unsoliciteds. In my experience, every one of them is read, even though many publishers receive thousands each year. Balance that with the fact that only one or two of these is likely ever to be published, and you begin to understand why you may only receive a form letter with your rejected manuscript, and you’ll only get that if you send in a stamped, self-addressed envelope with your submission.

Some publishing houses divide out the unsoliciteds to the editors, with each one reading through her portion of the slush pile and then drafting responses. Other publishers have regular meetings at which all the editors gather to read through as many submissions as possible at one time. Still other publishers won’t review unsoliciteds at all. That’s a sad development but understandable — time really is money, in this case.

I know most writers are told to get a name to whom to send their manuscripts, rather than simply address them to “Acquisitions Editor.” Let me tell you how most overworked editors feel about this advice.

When I received an unsolicited manuscript sent specifically to me, then yes, I had to answer the letter. But much more important that dealing with that letter was the manuscript that had to go to the copy editor tomorrow, or the illustration comments that I had to send to the designer, or the — you get the picture.

I may have had good intentions to reply to the letter right away, but after a few weeks — okay, months sometimes — I realized I was going to have to answer it on my own time, away outside of work hours and you can imagine how I felt about that. Sorry, but I’m only human.

Unless an editor has given you her name or specifically asked for your manuscript, you’ll generally get a better response if you follow the directions for submitting unsoliciteds that you find on the publishers’ web sites. And follow those instructions carefully — that immediately marks you as a professional who can take direction.

Only send what the publisher requests. Even if you’re incredibly handsome, don’t include photos of yourself (yes, it’s been done, yes, the photos got passed around to all the editors and no, the manuscript wasn’t publishable) and don’t design the book, even if it’s a picture book.

Only send in samples or models if they’re really necessary for a craft book. Instead, wait until the publisher requests them. And when you do send them in, take a second to think about the box in which you mail them. Even before your query is read, editors are going to see that box. Do you really want it to be a diaper box? What do you think that says about what’s inside?? (The facts here have been changed to protect the guilty, but the box in question was even more inappropriate. Trust me.)

Don't send food with your submission. Would you eat something that arrived from someone you don't know?

I think when you’re submitting a manuscript to a children’s publisher it’s especially important to be professional. The editors take their work very seriously, and so cutesy submissions don’t go over well. No precious little animal stickers on the envelope thanks. Oh yeah, it's been done.

I’m afraid the best advice I have for getting published is of the “brush your teeth and eat your vegetables” nature. Make your manuscript the best possible by taking writing classes and getting any mentoring you can. Choose a publisher carefully, based on its past books and how well your manuscript fits into its publishing program. Follow the submission directions and then be patient — often months worth of patient.

I’ll write a post later about query letters, which are the letters writers write to accompany their manuscript (if it’s a picture book) or to describe a novel and ask if the publisher or agent is willing to read it. (A query letter is like a cover letter with a resume). But in the meantime, check out one of my favourite blogs about query letters: http://queryshark.blogspot.ca/

And Another Thing …
Happy Human Rights Day! It was just 65 years ago today that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was passed by the United Nations (UN).

I wrote about the UDHR in my book Eleanor Roosevelt: An Inspiring Life because Eleanor was chair of the UN Human Rights Commission. I admired Eleanor more and more the further I researched her life. She’d been appointed to the American delegation for the first meeting of the UN by President Harry Truman, and the four male American delegates didn’t think much of her, mostly because of her gender. So the men assigned her to what they assumed would be the least important committee: the one that dealt with culture, education and human rights.

But the UN Human Rights Commission, Eleanor’s group, had to decide such things as what to do with the refugees created by World War II. It ended up being one of the most important committees. Eleanor was terrified when she found herself debating a vastly more experienced Soviet lawyer, but she spoke eloquently (and without notes, as usual) and when the vote results were in, Eleanor’s side had won. One of the American delegates said, “I want to say that I take back everything I ever said about her, and believe me it’s been plenty.”

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved in 1948, all the members of the UN rose to give Eleanor a standing ovation, something that had never happened before. But she definitely deserved it!

Thanks for reading.

1 comment

Even though you did not technically solicit this comment, by writing a blog about 'unsoliciteds' you, at least tangentially, issued an invitation. What startles me about this blog entry is the picture of these slush piles of books--dozens? hundreds of them?--in publishing houses all over the world. So many stories sent out into the world hoping to find readers, that then wait in complete anonymity. What is it like to know some of your books are in those piles? And how satisfying--even exhilarating--is it when the publisher sends you a bound copy of a book that has found the eyes you had in mind? Nice...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Elizabeth MacLeod

Award-winning author Elizabeth MacLeod has written over 50 books for children. Her most recent book, Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries, was published by Annick Press.

Go to Elizabeth MacLeod’s Author Page