Unread Submissions, Insider Secrets, and Other Publishing Myths

“Guess what? I happen to know that many of those manuscripts [in a slush pile] will not even be opened, let alone flicked through.”

This assertion came from a poster on a LinkedIn writing group’s discussion of how to get a publisher’s attention in the submission process.

You do often hear this claim that “publishers don’t open all their submissions,” usually paired with the explanation that “publishers aren’t interested in books from new and unknown people.”

I can think of only two situations where the claim actually is true: if a magazine or publisher says they’re closed for submissions, and if they only accept submissions from agents. If you send your manuscript to either of those, then you can expect it to go unread, and probably unacknowledged. And you deserve it, for not treating the submission guidelines seriously.

Apart from that, don’t believe it. I’ve been around the industry for a long time and have numerous friends who are professional editors, editorial assistants, slushpile readers and published writers. I’ve heard many professional editors and agents give descriptions of what happens in the slush pile, and have read slush piles of my own. And I’ve never heard even the busiest editor or editorial assistant say, even in private, that they don’t at least look at everything they receive.

It’s true that editors often don’t look past the cover letter or the first page, because too often, we can tell right away that the submission is unpublishable, for any number of reasons. But we always at least look at everything -open every email and every envelope – because you never know whether the next envelope or file attachment you open might hold the next Hunger Games or Old Man’s War.

I don’t want you to think success is easy, or that mainstream publishing isn’t stacked in favor of the known, the successful, and the famous. It isn’t; and it is. But publishing is really not deliberately stacked against the little guys. You just have to prove that you’re as good as the famous guys, both in your writing and in your professional demeanor.

And you really do have prove that. There are no shortcuts in this industry, nor are there any “secret insider tricks” that the pros don’t want to tell you. Learn to write really well, learn all you can about how the industry works, work hard to have a lot of good stuff written – and have ideas and stories that are as good and as original as the big guys’ – and you do have a chance.

As for that writer who’s telling you that editors won’t bother to open your manuscript, or that they won’t publish anything from an unknown who is not their personal friend – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just about every person I’ve heard making this claim turns out to be an unsuccessful writer. He’s the guy who’s been sending out the same book for 10 years; who has never written anything else because he’s convinced that this first book is a work of genius that will make him rich. He’s collected dozens of form rejections, because he sends the book to any publisher he hears about, not just to the ones who actually publish his genre. And if you look at the sample chapters (or maybe the whole book) that he put on his web site, you’ll find that his writing is anywhere from “writing class raw novice” to “unreadably awful.”

As for the “publishing secrets editors and agents don’t want you to know,” that’s pretty much limited to their personal email address and cell phone number. When it comes to knowing how to get published, agents and editors really, really want new writers to know how the industry works.* We want you to know how and where to submit a query, proposal or manuscript, and how to produce a really good version of each of those. That’s why so many very busy editors and agents take time from their work to give presentations at writing conferences, write how-to articles and books, and maintain how-to blogs. Because the more we can teach novice writers about becoming professional writers, the less time we’ll have to waste on slushpiles of preposterous submissions.

*Note: this applies only to agents and editors that you’d want to work with – the kind who respect authors and treat them as valued business and creative partners. The other kind, who just want your money and all rights to your stuff – they do want to convince you they have “exclusive secrets to success,” so they can suck you into their sinkhole of predatory publishing. The only secret they really have is what kind of scam they’re using to get your money and your rights away from you. And that’s an upcoming post.




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