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April 17, 2024

Behind the book: submitting to a publisher

Behind the Book is the ASA’s series of articles demystifying the book publishing industry and providing behind-the-scenes insights from industry professionals.

This week we look at submitting manuscripts to traditional publishers. What are traditional publishers looking for? How is the slush pile assessed? Why does it take so long to hear back? This week, we’ll hear from Ruby Ashby-Orr, Commissioning Editor at Affirm Press, Christine Ebbs, Publishing Executive at Penguin Random House Australia, and Juliet Rogers, Publisher and Managing Director at Echo Publishing, about what you need to know when it comes to manuscript submissions and the slush pile.

What’s the process of submission?

Before you submit your manuscript to a publisher you must do everything you can to ensure that your work is at a publishable standard. You get only one chance to make an impression, so you want to make sure your work is as ready as it can be.

Once you’re ready, the next step is to do your research to find the right publisher for your work. No matter how wonderful your manuscript is, if you are submitting to publishers who do not publish the kind of book you’ve written, it will be rejected. This information is typically outlined in the publisher’s submission guidelines, but you can also look at the list of books they are currently publishing for guidance.

In Australia, most publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, either all year around, or at particular times of the year. This means you can submit your work directly to the publisher without the need for a literary agent, unlike markets such as the United States and the United Kingdom. You may also have the opportunity to pitch face-to-face in pitching opportunities like the ASA’s Virtual Literary Speed Dating.

Each publisher has their own guidelines for submission, and it pays to follow those guidelines to the letter. While it may not seem meaningful to you whether your manuscript has double-spacing or not, following these guidelines carefully demonstrates you’re someone who is capable and considerate enough to read and follow instructions – i.e. you’re someone they might want to work with.

Christine Ebbs from Penguin Random House Australia says, “One of the most common mistakes we see is writers who haven’t followed our submission guidelines exactly. It might seem a little arbitrary, but the criteria are there so that we can best understand you and your manuscript. I’d suggest treating your submission like you would a CV and cover letter for a job – make sure it’s clear, professional, easy to read, and responds exactly to the guidelines.”

What is a slush pile and how is it assessed?

When you make an unsolicited submission to a publisher, your work lands in what is called the slush pile, which is essentially just a stack of unread manuscripts and query letters. 

Juliet Rogers from Echo Publishing says “At Echo, we have one of our team doing the initial sort, with red for proposed rejections, green to highlight the submissions that deserve serious attention, and amber to denote the maybes. I then scan the red to make sure that rejection is the right decision. Then it’s on to the green pile and requests for complete manuscripts as needed, and then finally the amber group, and this is where it becomes harder. 

“These are the proposals with potential, but significant additional work is required. With the high workload of the editorial team, only the very best of these have any chance of acquisition. This process does take time and I understand just how frustrating this can be but try and be patient. A polite query if you haven’t heard within the publisher’s nominated timeframe is fine, but demanding phone calls and emails won’t achieve your desired result.”

Affirm Press also has a sifting process for the slush pile. Commissioning editor, Ruby Ashby-Orr, says “One of our editors sifts through the submissions and shortlists those that seem to have more promise based on their synopsis, bio and a quick read of the text. Then we split the shortlisted titles up between the editorial team members to consider more carefully. It’s an important job but one that always shifts to the backburner at busy times!” 

At larger publisher Penguin Random House Australia, Christine Ebbs says, “Team members from publishing, editorial, marketing, publicity and sales will assess your submission. We’ll be drawn in by a clear, succinct pitch and an enticing hook. Then we’ll read the sample material. Anything we’re interested in will be read more closely by a publisher who commissions in that genre.”

How do you stand out in the slush pile?

Publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts per year, and have limited time with which to review them. 

Christine says, “Make sure your manuscript and pitch are in the best shape they can be before submitting them to a publisher. Your first chapter, in particular, should be as polished as it can be. This is not only the publisher’s first impression but will also be the reader’s first impression when it comes time for them to read it! I’m always looking for a book that knows what it is. Who’s your audience? What’s the genre? Where would this book sit on a shelf? It’s also helpful to include relevant comparison titles to any similar books. A manuscript will stand out if it has a great first chapter where the reader is straight into the story. I’m always looking out for originality and a strong, clear voice.”

At Affirm, “Writing experience always gives a submission extra points, particularly previous publication in magazines, journals or newspapers. We’re also always impressed when a writer is very clear on who their audience is and has a strong vision for how to reach them. Showing knowledge of the book industry in general is always promising.” 

Juliet says, “Good writing and a plotline that draws you in and leaves you wanting more. An enthusiastic quote/recommendation can be great, but only if it is by someone who has the experience and credibility to be taken seriously. A long listing in an obscure short story competition run by a custom publisher that charges for their services, will do more harm than good. I’d also suggest that you pay attention to your title. An arresting or intriguing title can be enough to stop even the most hardened publisher in their tracks, especially if they are scanning through a list of 100+ submissions.” 

What are some of the most common mistakes publishers see?

“The biggest mistake I find is authors not thinking about the market for their book, or showing that they haven’t researched the publisher they’re submitting to. You need to show that you’ve considered where your book would sit in a bookshop. What successful books is it similar to? How do you think it might be publicised? And always read the submission guidelines: if the publisher only wants three chapters, don’t send the whole novel, and if they don’t publish poetry, don’t send them poetry (you’d be surprised how many people ignore this!)” says Ruby.

Juliet says “Don’t make it easy for publishers to ignore your submission. We want to give unrepresented authors a chance to get published, but slush piles are huge, and it takes time to read and sift through all the proposals, so a non-conforming submission makes for an easy “no”. Submit exactly the material that is requested, particularly the word count, look carefully at the areas of interest to the publisher, as there is no point in sending a children’s book to a publisher with no children’s list, and polish those words. Spelling and grammatical errors stand out for all the wrong reasons.”

Submission Checklist

  1. Make sure your manuscript is at a publishable standard – When you have been slaving over your manuscript for a long time it can be hard to remain objective. Early in your career, to ensure you are ready, the best step you can take is to have your work professionally read by an experienced assessor, or to work with a mentor.
  2. Understand the genre you are writing in – What are the best-selling comparable titles? Who is your target market? What type of audience will your manuscript appeal to? This knowledge is crucial in demonstrating to a publisher that you understand the market, which can set your submission apart from the rest of the slush pile.
  3. Do your research to find the right publisher for your work – Review lists of Australian publishers and their submission guidelines in the ASA’s Guide to the Book Industry, look at your own bookshelves to see which publishers are publishing books similar to yours, roam your local bookshop and note which publishers are dominant in your category, check out the lists of award winners as publishers are likely to feature in their specialist areas, or read review coverage and talk to authors working in your genre.
  4. Follow the submission guidelines to the letter It’s time consuming to have to prepare a different submission for each publisher, but that is precisely what you have to do if you are to have any chance of your work being considered. Submissions that fail to conform to the clearly specified requirements, are the first to be rejected, without anyone having read a word.