Thursday, 14 May 2009

Manuscript Display Sites: What Are The Chances?

On Authonomy’s message-board a while ago, a writer commented that she thought that HarperCollins would probably find one manuscript on Authonomy each month that was good enough to publish.

One a year might be a more reasonable hope.

When I was an editor I’d have been thrilled to find one publishable submission a month. But the vast majority of submissions I received weren't even readable, let alone publishable. Perhaps 10% were coherently written and showed a reasonable understanding of spelling, grammar and punctuation: but we considered very little of that 10% for publication because most of it just wasn’t suitable for our lists. We published non-fiction but fiction made up about half of the submissions we received; and the non-fiction that was submitted rarely fitted into the genres we worked within.

Based on what little I’ve read on Authonomy I’d say that a lot of the writing showcased there would come in the top 10%, so is already ahead of the game. But most of it is still a fair distance away from being publishable, as is perhaps evidenced by the fact that so far, just one book has been picked up for publication from the many that appear there.


Sally Zigmond said...

Jane has once again nailed it.

As I'm registered with Authonomy (although I don't intend to post there.) I get regular emails listing the five submissions that have got to the top of the pile. It's well worth following the links to see what professional readers are looking for in a submission. I don't read the actual scripts or other members' comments (life's too short)but I pay close attention to what the HC's readers say about them. They're very measured and polite but you'll always find the reasons that prevent HC from wanting to publish them. (It's helpful when I apply it to my own writing.)

Out of the 5 that were chosen last week, only one writer was asked to submit a full synopsis. And, as Authonomy point out, that doesn't mean publication by any stretch of the imagination.

So out of all the scripts posted that month on Authonomy, five got a full read, four were rejected and one got to the next stage in the process.

Authonomy, as Jane so rightly points out, is not a bad place by any means and it does no real harm but it's basically a clever way to get other people to do the 'dirty work' for them ie sifting through the huge and reducing the slush-pile in what appears to be a democratic and fair way.

However, those five manuscripts would probably have got to the top anyway. Authonomy speeds up the process but doesn't make any difference in the long run.

Derek said...

Jane, you've probably seen this before, but a while back Salon/com ran an article by a former editorial assistant at a big New York publisher. In two years' worth of slushpile submissions, she found precisely one (1) that got published.

Confessions of a slush pile reader

Barb said...

Hi Jane,

What actually was it that stopped the manuscripts you received being published? If it was in the right genre and the grammar was reasonable, are you able to say what the key issues were that stopped it progressing?

Also, do you have any experience of the Secret Attic? I looked at your previous blogs posts but I couldn't see any references. Apologies if you have blogged on this, and I have missed it.


Jane Smith said...

Barb, the problem was just that the books weren't quite good enough: they were dull, or predictable, or too similar to others already published; or the writing was too business-like and not inspiring or entertaining enough, that sort of thing.

As for Secret Attic, I've not heard of it: email me if you like ("hprw at tesco dot net" should reach me) if you'd rather discuss it in private, or comment further here.

catdownunder said...

There are computer programmes for spelling, punctuation and grammar. They do not pick up all the problems. I find they pick up enough to be useful. Why do people not use them? Are they just designed for cats?

Daniel Blythe said...

My students often ask me about the "chances" of being published. They want me to put a figure on it, as if it's the lottery or being struck by lightning. I tell them that if you're good, your chances are good (but by no means assured) but if your writing is not ready yet, you will not be published. It's amazing how many people just don't get this.

Derek's link to the slush-pile reader, although 7 years old, says a lot of worthwhile things that bear repeating.

Derek said...

Another development you all may or may not have heard ... Amazon is to cream off the best of the self-published books and republish them:

Introducing AmazonEncore--Unearthing Exceptional Books and Emerging Authors for More Readers to Enjoy

Dawn TurtleDove said...

It would be helpful if those who have worked in publishing works of fiction, especially novels, would write an article about WHAT publishers look for in works that are publishable, and WHERE they look. Writing an article about what doesn't work, steers writers away, but isn't helpful in steering us towards accessing the process for successful publication.
Are there any former or present publishers, agents, companies, who would consider taking up the cause to outline WHERE WE CAN LOOK TO FIND OUT HOW PUBLISHING REALLY WORKS, rather than how it doesn't work? Now THAT would be sweet.

Dan Holloway said...

I'll comment twice on this if I may - once, as an Authonomy Top 5er whose ms was requested by HC, after I've read the other comments and can respond to any points.
But I want to say first that I echo what Jane said about the quality of mss there, only with a positive spin (take it as read I appreciate all the "needs more polish" comments). It's very easy for we writers who spend our time on writers' sites like Authonomy to get disheartened when we compare our work to what else is there. I know when I first signed up to a writers' site at the start of 2008 (youwriteon) I quickly assumed I was THE worst writer in the country and nearly gave up on the spot. Inside that bubble it's easy to forget that the fact you've done enough research to find out such sites exist already sets you apart form the majority.
I had a very interesting form rejection form an agent who'll remain nameless for decency's sake, but I'm sure Sally and Jane will recognise them from what I say. The letter wasn't the usual one or two lines, but gave some general advice, most promininet of which was the remark that the odds aren't as stacked against you as you think when you read about the vast number of submissions and tiny number of authors taken on - 95% of the manuscripts s/he received, the agent said, were so bad they were almost unreadable. So if you have a decent ms, it's worth persisting.

I'll come back later on the Authonomy point.
Thank you for another fascinating post.

Dan Holloway said...

DawnTurtleDove, I've read quite a few things by agents/publishers about what they look for and I would say 99% of the time it boils down to one thing: a fresh, original voice.
I used to coach students for Oxbridge interviews (sorry, this is an anecdote I'm always telling, but the lesson bears repetition). Students frequently asked me what they could read to improve their chances. The fact is, what a top university is looking for in its students is pretty much what a publisher is looking for in its new authors. It is certainly true that if you dig up a piece of coal with a diamond in it there are things you can do to make that diamond sparkle, but if there's no diamond there, all you'll ever get is a nicely carved piece of coal.
I generally knew within two sentences, or thirty seconds, if a student had a hope of getting a place - and I was almost always right. They came from all backgrounds, ranged from extreme introvert to extreme extravert, but what they had in common, if I had to put my finger on the equivalent of "voice" was they'd all taken things "one stage further" - their questions were qualitatively different.
There are lots of comments on Authonomy bemoaning the fact that x book or y book isn't published - "because it's beautifully written." As someone who a long time ago taught some logic, I'd point out to them that whilst being beautifully written is quite possibly a necessary condition for publication, it's hardly a sufficient one.
I'm a magpie reader - so are most of my friends. Whenever I go into a bookshop there are twenty, thirty books that catch my eye every time. They're all beautifully written. I don't have the money or the time to read them all, though (I'm there almost every lunchtime, after all). So what I want to know is why I should read THIS beautifully written book, rather than the other 20 beautifully written books. And it sounds callous to say it, but mostly you CAN tell within the first paragraph whether this is a book you want to spend time and money with - and that's to do with voice.

Jane Smith said...

Thanks to Dan for two very perceptive comments (and if anyone is still wondering about what the slush pile really is like I suggest you read Slushkiller on Making Light, as it's a fantastic post). Yes. To all that you've written.

Nik Morton said...

Dan's right. It's highly competitive out there - so you have to stand out from the crowd. Voice is one way. Original content may be another. Bottom line is, though, that the majority of publishers don't know what they're looking for - until they find it.