Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Unsolicited Manuscripts

(Article originally written for The Readers Society of South Africa, to see the article click here)

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In the USA and UK it is not possible for would-be authors to submit unsolicited manuscripts directly to publishing houses. Instead, they must work via literary agents and scouts who act as a filtering system to find talent and present it to publishing houses.
In South Africa there are only one or two literary agents currently operating, and as a result many local publishers still do accept unsolicited manuscript submissions.
In September 2010, Pan Macmillan received 62 unsolicited manuscript submissions via email: 20% of these were non-fiction and 80% were fiction. This is about average for the number of manuscripts that we receive a month – multiply by twelve and you have a sense of what we are dealing with each year.
Piles of Manuscripts
The reality is that very few of these unsolicited manuscripts will ultimately be published, but in a keenly competitive and developing market we are always on the lookout for exciting new literary talent.

Pan Macmillan has a panel of internal readers that makes the initial call on whether or not we would like to see more of a particular submission. Some submissions it is possible to reject immediately. For example, poetry, fantasy and science fiction are not areas that we publish in, and so we do not spend time on these submissions.

Piles of Books

When I am doing an initial assessment of a fiction submission I start with three questions:
Is this well written? (never mind if it is or isn’t something that I would normally read)
Does this have extraordinary potential in terms of plot or characters or style? (then I can make allowances for it not being that well written but it has the potential to be crafted into something)
Do I want to keep reading? (which essentially taps into the first two questions, but is an important one to ask in its own right as it gives me an overall sense of my level of interest; and often I might simply have an instinctive feeling about something that says a manuscript has potential)
If a submission gets a two-out-of-three positive response from me, then I will pass on a recommendation to see more of it to my fellow reviewers.

Those who receive a “call back” will be asked for their full manuscript, and the review process moves to the next level, which involves external reviewers.

Tips for would-be authors
  • Do your research regarding publishers. Don’t submit a novel if the company only publishes coffee table books; or a fantasy novel if they don’t publish this genre.
  • Don’t send your full manuscript when you first approach a publisher. The ideal submission consists of: a synopsis (including a list of Contents in the case of non-fiction), three chapters, and some brief biographical background on the author. 
  • Do be open about how many publishers you have submitted your manuscript to.
  • Do be patient as the review process can be a time-consuming one – to wait six to eight weeks for initial feedback is the norm.
  • Don’t be discouraged if a publisher rejects your manuscript; there may well be another publishing house that will share your vision of the potential of your manuscript.

Helpful Resources:
- Article written by Andrea Nattrass for The Readers Society of South Africa


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