Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tales From the Slush Pile

It's a little tricky sometimes to talk about slush submissions without giving away the identity of the manuscript or writer. But some situations crop up so frequently that they take on an almost generic flavor. I thought today we would look at two common ways people get themselves rejected.

Following Up Too Soon

You know the old saying, no news is good news? This is very true in publishing, especially in houses that take unagented submissions. We get so much material, avalanches of queries and partials, that we develop particular methods for moving paper. Some editors apply the one-touch rule. If they open a file and start reading, they don't stop until they make a decision one way or another. I used to do it this way, but my response time was lengthening until even the easiest (for me) rejections were taking months to make. I suspect many of the editors whose response times are measured in years instead of months have relied on the one-touch rule.

When it became apparent that the one-touch rule was actually burdening me with too much paper, I started another method. I set aside blocks of time to do rejections. When I get a good number of new submissions in, I scan them all very quickly to see which ones can be ruled out fast. These all get form rejections. Usually, an author won't have to wait more than a month for this kind of rejection, but that can extend to six weeks or so when things are very busy. (To give you a frame of reference, yesterday I read just under 60 such submissions. That's more or less 700 pages -- 10 pages of manuscript plus a one-page synopsis and a cover letter per submission -- which all had to be crunched in a single morning. I won't read any more until next week at the earliest. Of all those submissions, I think two survived the first cut.*)

Although a manuscript may be ruled out quickly at this stage, the rejection is not necessarily an indication of quality. I know, for example, some particular inside rules that we don't discuss in our generic submission guidelines on the website. A good example of this: our publisher has an abhorrence of first person point of view. The rest of us like it pretty well and would be perfectly happy to take on an occasional story in first person, but we've been mandated to reject these. At best, you might get a revision request, but a first person manuscript has to meet certain other standards in order for us to even think along these lines.

So what this all means, really, is that if I can't reject a story in this first pass, it ends up in a reading pile of manuscripts that might be suitable for us, were tolerably well written at first glance, and weren't subject to a quick rejection for some other reason. If you end up in this pile, I'll either pass it on to another acquisition editor (Hi, Alicia! You busy? *g*), or I will save it to read myself. All of which takes time.

So if you follow up a week or two after submitting -- and trust me, there are people who will follow up within hours, neophytes who think that submissions are no different from any other form of correspondence -- you mark yourself as an amateur. And amateurs require a lot of training and hand-holding. And we don't have time for that sort of thing.

All of which is to say, please be patient. We know that slow wait times are frustrating. It's okay to follow up if you've waited a while -- say, half again the expected response time. But try to remember that if you don't get a fast rejection, that's a good sign, and let that cheer you while you wait.

Being Bratty in Follow-Ups

If I had a dollar for every snotty follow-up email I've received....

If you want a rejection, this is a good way to get one.

Dear Editor,

I submitted my manuscript to you on January 1, 2009. It is now January 22, 2009, a full three weeks later, and you haven't bothered to respond. How long does it take to read a book? I can read one in a weekend! Sometimes two!

About-to-get-rejected Author

Or how about,

Dear Editor,

You've had my manuscript for four months now. Does your boss know you take this long to read things? I'm copying your boss on this email, so if she didn't know it before, she knows it now.

About-to-get-laughed-at-by-your-boss Author

Yes, I actually get emails like this, and yes, they lead to form rejections on things I might have taken more seriously but for the author's attitude.

Let me contrast this with a happier story about the right way to follow up. We had some trouble with our automatic forwarding system on the generic submissions email address last year. For reasons that are totally mysterious, some people simply were not able to get through to the first reader. We don't know if it was particular mail servers, addresses, attachments, or some other factor that caused these emails to be screened out instead of routed to a reader. In fact, because it was so random, we aren't even completely sure when the problem started or how many submissions may have been affected.

One author submitted a partial in accordance with our guidelines. She followed all the rules and waited a few months before following up. When she did follow up, she was polite and friendly, but her follow-up also vanished. I found out about this author's situation very recently, and contacted her personally to apologize and explain the situation. She sent me her manuscript, along with a very warm and polite cover letter that made me think she's an okay kind of person. You know, the uncrazy kind, the kind we like. I started reading her story the same night I received it -- yes, that same night, because she was so nice and I felt bad for her -- and I wasn't halfway into it before I was eyeing the editorial calendar to see where we might slot this one. I haven't had time to finish reading it yet, but things are already looking good for this author just because she wasn't a brat.

What does it all boil down to? We're doing the best we can on this side of the desk. Be patient and polite, and hang in there.


* Since processing that group of 60 or so submissions, an almost equal number has arrived in my inbox. And that's in just under 24 hours. We never really get caught up on them, no matter how hard we try.


Ian said...

I actually appreciate that you take the time to reject at all (although I forgive you for rejecting my first-person story LOL). One of my biggest gripes is querying the agents who say they'll "only respond if interested." Honestly, I'd rather get a form rejection. How long does it really take to hit "reply" and paste in your standard rejection?

Anyway, thanks for the glimmer of insight into your habits.

Riley Murphy said...

Great information! Thanks.

Cathy in AK said...

Newbies: Read the submission guidelines, where a response time is often posted, and practice patience. Fret all you want, but keep it to yourself for 3 months.

Ian, I've read more than one agent post that they will only respond if interested because of the backlash they receive from form rejections. It's because of other writers' lack of professionalism that the rest of us must suffer the frustration of no response or wondering if our submission was lost somewhere.