Thursday, April 13, 2006

We really loved your stuff, but...

The Literary Saloon provides a link to yet another experiment on the reliability and validity of slush-pile readings. Mark Sanderson, a man who clearly has his ear to the ground, reports the case of John Howard, author of children's book The Key to Chintak, who began to suspect that those who sent him rejection slips weren't actually reading his ms.

How could he have even dreamed such a thing? He should, to quote Muhammad Ali, have apologised.

Anyway, John tested his hypothesis. He typed out a new ms, entitled The Tin Drum, and for the text used extracts from a washing-machine manual. And, as you would expect:

'Dear John, Thank you for your submission which I read and enjoyed. Unfortunately...'

If you visit John Howard's web site for The Key to Chintak, you will find that he has some formidably impressive quotations from trade professionals who actually did read his book and liked it. All in all, The Key to Chintak seems to be a self-published success story. The Bookseller says that it has sold 5,000 copies. And, as anyone in the UK book trade knows, selling even 10% of that number is not to be sniffed at.

Of course, the classic text on the slush-pile business (and on the writer/publisher relationship in general) is my own On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, which is available as a free ebook. Essential reading if you wish to remain sane in a mad world.


Zeno Cosini said...

I can't help bridling at this story, as I did when I read it on the Complete Review site (and actually what follows is almost identical to what I emailed to Literary Saloon).

I work for a successful agency in London ; there are four full-time agents here, including myself. We welcome unsolicited manuscripts, and tend to receive somewhere between 50 and 100 each week. All the agents here have had success representing authors who've written to us unsolicited, and – of course – one of the most exciting experiences you can have as an agent is to pick something out of the pile and find yourself reading a superb debut novel or work of non-fiction.

Agents are the first port of call for new writers, the front line; publishers receive manuscripts that have already been filtered by us. 99% of what we receive is, to put it kindly, unpublishable. My agency takes on probably four or five unsolicited writers per year, and we only take on writers whose work we love, whose work gets us genuinely excited. Remember that all the advice and editorial work and submission strategy provided by an agent is given against the possibility of future commission. If the author doesn't earn anything, we don't earn anything.

The sheer volume of material we're sent necessitates an expedient way of sifting and responding quickly to aspiring authors we're not going to take on (so as not to keep them waiting for a reply and wasting time they could valuably spend approaching other agents, and we could spend working for the authors we already do represent). Of course I understand that a one-size-fits-all response from an agent is dispiriting, but with the best will in the world we simply haven't got time to reply to each manuscript individually. That'd be about seventy letters per week in our case. It'd be financial suicide. Authors sometimes seem to forget that agents aren't a public service; there are plenty of author groups and editorial forums and creative writing courses that can and do provide feedback on new writers' work. We literally can't afford to comment on work we're not going to offer to represent. (And it would rather beg questions if we did - how seriously could you or would you take critical feedback from an agent who WASN'T going to represent you anyway?)

Every manuscript that's sent into this agency (and every other agency I've worked for) is read – usually not from cover-to-cover unless it's excellent, but until the agent in question knows that he or she isn't going to offer to represent the book in question to publishers. And sure, mistakes are made, good stuff is turned down because it just doesn't appeal to that particular agent – it's a subjective business after all.

All agents receive rubbish, jokes (like John Howard's photocopied manual) and hate mail. Someone recently sent me a "novel" written entirely in numbers. A hoax? A Georges Perec-esque experiment? I don't know, and I don't care. It wasn't publishable, and the author received our standard form of rejection.

As I said in my email to Literary Saloon, there are plenty of industry practices you could (and do!) validly criticise, but a reluctance to enter a dialogue with someone who's set out specifically to waste an agent's time isn't one of them.

I'll definitely read your essay on the survival of rats in the slush pile.

Anonymous said...

Zeno has, I think, missed the point. The issue is not whether the publisher's representative has read the manuscript but the morally questionable practice of sending back a form letter which implies that he/she has. To say 'I enjoyed your manuscript' when you haven't read it is to tell a falsehood. It's a falsehood which is cruel to the writer, because it encourages them to go on trying with other books and other publishers, and ultimately self-defeating to the publisher who will go on receiving other mss. from the same source. Far better morally and financially for everyone concerned to say: "Dear Sir, this is rubbish. Give up, and don't send us any more." But I suspect that publishers would be reluctant to give up the faint chance of striking gold by discouraging the production of dross.