Get on top of the slush pile: what to do before sending your book to a publisher

After years of toiling away in front of your computer screen, notebook, or stone tablet, creating chapter after chapter of world-building, character developing, adjective-slinging brilliance, you’ve finally finished writing your masterpiece — your FIRST NOVEL — and now you just need to print it out, duck down to Officeworks for some snazzy binding, send it off to the publishing houses, and sit by the fire with a much-deserved cognac and wait for the royalties to start rolling in. Right?

Hmmm… not quite.

In Australia, the major publishing houses each receive about 5000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts per year. Of these, only the professionally presented ones will get any attention at all, approximately half. Of that 2,500, around 90% will be rejected on the first page and 98% by the end of the first chapter. Of the remaining 30-50 manuscripts, 10 might get published. If they satisfy all the right marketing and promotional considerations that is.

This is not a devious industry secret; the big players put this information right out there in the open for budding authors to see. For example, here is an excerpt from the ‘Submitting a manuscript’ section of the Random House website about what that particular publishing powerhouse requires in order to properly assess your submission:

1. A covering letter that includes the following information:

  • A little about yourself and how you came to write the book.

  • The target reading market for your proposed book and how your proposed book appeals to that market.

  • A list of all the ways you might be able to work with Random House to promote your proposed book, including any of your relevant media or corporate contacts or other contacts that would help in publishing and marketing the book.

  • Lastly don't forget to include all your contact details so we can get back to you.

2. A synopsis of your proposed book:

Keep it short, direct and straight to the core of what your manuscript is about; under one page is ideal.

3. A Sample of your work:

A few chapters (not necessarily consecutive) or at least 50 pages on white A4 paper, double spaced, not bound. Please don't send the entire manuscript if we need more, we will be in contact.

4. Please include a stamped, self-addressed envelope or POSTpak for the return of your material. If this is not supplied, your material will not be returned to you; it will be destroyed.

See? No fluff and bubble, just the facts. Publishing in general is a competitive and low profit business. Australian publishing, in particular, is struggling to meet the demands of customers who want to pay the lowest possible price for the best possible product, and are willing to go offshore to get it (even if that means buying the ‘American-ised’ version of an Australian book, with spelling and grammar changed to suit an American market, but that is a rant for another day). Hence, the closing down of major retail bookstore chains in recent years, the constant stress for independent book store owners trying to survive on meagre profits from book sales, and the lack of money in the publishing industry to pay for people to read unsolicited manuscripts.

So how do you get your manuscript, your pride and joy, to join that rare and coveted group of ‘The Published’? To start with, work on making it look professional! It’s a sad fact that brilliant writers often don't get published, but professional ones do — particularly those who know when to ask for help when they need it. After you’ve finished the first draft, get at least one (preferably three) trusted friends or workmates to have a read. And we’re talking the types of friends who will tell you if your manuscript needs a little more work — and friends who you’ll listen to (rather than deck) when they tell you.

Once you’ve taken your friends comments on board, and re-read and re-worked your manuscript accordingly, it’s time to contact a professional editor for some tender lovin’ manuscript appraisal. Your editor will read your manuscript, taking into account all the essential elements of your writing such as style, structure, and character and plot development, and point out any major inconsistencies or problems with your book, before finally providing detailed suggestions on how and where you can improve. They can also help you format your manuscript in a way that ticks all the ‘professional presentation’ boxes, and will get those publisher’s fingers flipping through the pages (rather than feeding them to the dreaded shredder).

After the hard slog of actually writing your book, the last thing you want is for it to end up at the bottom of a slush pile, never to be read, let alone published, because it doesn’t look ‘right’ according to industry standards.

Click here to contact a professional editor about assessing your finished manuscript.

For more information about submitting a manuscript to Random House visit:

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