Thursday, 23 April 2009

There Are All Sorts Of Ways To Fail

When I worked as a full-time editor I was frequently amazed by the submissions that I received. I worked for a book packager which specialised in highly-illustrated esoteric non-fiction: we packaged books about retreat, meditation, religion and myth on behalf of publishers who didn't have the time or the in-house expertise available to produce the books themselves. And yet every day I received proposals for books which simply didn't match our very specific requirements. Among the many submissions I received were illustrated children's books, car maintenance manuals, fiction of all kinds, memoir, graphic novels and pet-care manuals. My favourite was a children’s story which, judging from the illustrations appeared to be about trolls but I couldn't be sure: it was written in Dutch, with no translation provided.

I received a query letter hand-written on scented, fairy-printed paper, with a sprinkling of loose glitter which fell into my coffee as I opened it; and an entire manuscript which must have been a third or fourth carbon copy (remember those?) judging by its feintness and blurring (that one was made even more memorable by the absence of any spaces, punctuation or paragraph breaks, so the entire text was one great big run-on word). Then there was the hand-written manuscript which arrived with a cover letter urging me not to destroy it, as it was the writer’s only copy—but no postage or return address was provided for its return; and one writer sent me a banana, surrounded in layers of bubble-wrap and encased in a cardboard tube.

All of the writers responsible for those ridiculous submissions must have thought they had a chance of publication with us, or they wouldn’t have bothered to send their work in: but because of the nature of book packaging it was very unlikely that we would ever be able to commission their books, even if those books had come close to our requirements. As a result, the writers concerned wasted everyone’s time and money by making a submission that had no hope of getting accepted.

Because the writers failed on so many basic levels, they failed to get published regardless of the quality of the work that they submitted. If they had only researched their market more carefully before submitting they could have saved themselves time, money and disappointment: and instead could have sent their work somewhere it had at least a chance of being considered for publication.

17 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

I never quite want to believe these glitter stories...but a banana? Yikes.

Word ver: dogeye (I'm hoping you never got one of those....)

Barb said...

A banana for a gift. What a strange idea.

Maybe they thought you would need to keep your strength up, as you read their manuscript that you wouldn't be able to put down.

Kate said...

Loose glitter in your coffee!! yikes!

Of course I'll do anything for a banana :-)

Nik's Blog said...

And we think writing's a difficult job! :)

Kristen said...

"I received a query letter hand-written on scented, fairy-printed paper, with a sprinkling of loose glitter which fell into my coffee as I opened it..."

This gave me my first morning laugh. Thank you!

behlerblog said...

Glitter in coffee...I'm laughing so hard, my sides hurt. At least you haven't had someone send chocolate that melted at the post office, thereby sending an army of ants swarming through a huge bin of mail. I really thought the PO man was going to throw me out the door when I came to pick up our mail.

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

You got off lucky really. Some years ago a complete nutter used to send Paula Yates a piece of toilet paper with a horrid skid mark on it with a note saying, 'this is what I think of the show'. She was a junior staff member who opened and replied to fan mail on the Sooty Show! She got these letters on a frequent basis. Some job eh?! Thank God for promotion.

mags said...

In the early 1960s I worked at ATV as a script reader for their live play production unit. The stuff we received was unbelievable; one memorable play was written on a brown paper bag, another in crayon on the back of a menu. But what took the cake was Ian Fleming's agent, MCA, submitting his first two books for consideration as live plays! I read them, feet on the desk having a blast, then told my boss they'd be better suited to film.

And they were, and I've always kicked myself for letting that opportunity slip through my fingers.

mags said...

This isn't a comment, but a request for contact. I've tried to email you, but the link goes nowhere. I'm a freelance book designer and typesetter, and also an author and my first novel will be publlshed by Macmillan in June. I'd like to volunteer to contribute to your 'trio' series. I'm sure my editor would be glad to get involved as well.

You can reach me via my website: www.maggiedana.com

Jane Smith said...

Buffy: a banana. Which was followed up by a picture of a gorilla, or a chimp; by the time a letter came the week after I'd lost all interest.

MOB: I am, once again, so glad not to be Paula Yates. Eugh.

And Mags, while you might regret that lost opportunity I can't imagine how a James Bond book could work as a stage play: so much action would have to take place off-stage that there would be holes, wouldn't there? So don't be too disappointed. Oh, and I've emailed you now: I hope it gets throught.

Samantha Tonge said...

Glitter always reminds me of a very funny story Dr Chris Steele told when one of his patients confused it with female deoderant - but i shouldn't really repeat that here:)

Banana? Goodness me. And i spend hours trying to decide whether or not to include a plain or picture postcard for proof of receipt - clearly i don't need to worry so much.

mags said...

The lost opportunity I regretted was in not following up the film possibilities, but funnily enough, a good friend of mine just retired as line producer of the Bond films.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Was the banana from those monkeys that typed a lot of 's' as mentioned in a recent post by Nicola Morgan?

And Buffy Squirrel I have a story titled The Man with the Dogeye. Should i be worried?

Donna Hosie said...

Someone sent you a banana?!

I am so glad I read this site first thing in the morning, because that has just set me up for the day.

BananaFail...hmmm, that's given me an idea!

Imogen said...

My mother worked for the Bodley Head in the 'fifties and has similar stories - both of wierd things in the slush pile and of titles turned down that were subsequently successful or popular. Plus ├ža change...
Lovely post, though; informative, and it made me laugh. Thanks!
Imogen.

BuffySquirrel said...

Melinda, so long as you don't post samples, you'll be fine!

David Dittell said...

Jane,

To be fair, they probably also mailed the publishers who would normally publish their work, and were rejected there as well.

Ultimately, if your manuscript isn't good AND the publisher isn't interested anyway, no number of shrink-wrapped bananas will help.