You are a writer with a manuscript ready to send to a publisher. Your hopes are high, your heart beating fast….will this be the one that gets accepted?
What are its chances?
Will you be a published author?
Perhaps I can help by answering some of the questions that you ask when you send me your submission.
Why do I accept some submissions and reject others?
Why do I reject so many?
Why didn’t I like your submission?
What makes me pick up a submission, read the first few chapters and know that I want to read more?
Your manuscript is precious to you. I know that. You’ve spent years writing your novel or memoir. Then you send your literary baby to me. Perhaps you imagine me sitting at my desk with not a lot to do, waiting for submissions to come in. But it’s not like that. This is what running a small publishing house entails:
• Most of my time is spent editing and checking and proof-reading a book that is under contract and will be published by Linen Press when ready. The author and I will usually work on one chapter at a time, or sometimes a section at a time, batting it back and forth until each of us is satisfied that it is as good as it can be. With an 80 chapter book (Blue Eyes, for example) it can take six months to complete a first edit. And that’s before we start on the nit-picking spelling and punctuation and hyphenated words and speech marks.
• From time to time I have a publicity onslaught, usually when we publish a new book or have a story to tell such as one of our authors winning a prize. I email editors of newspapers and magazines to see if they might be interested. The answer is usually No. In fact, I don’t often get an answer.
• There are book orders, book covers, type-setting, printing, publicity, interns, articles, foreign rights, emails and more emails…….
• And then there are the submissions.
I get on average 10 – 15 submissions a week. Sometimes, like buses, they arrive three at a time. I know your submission is special…..I know how much energy and emotion you have put into it. Perhaps you imagine that I stop what I’m doing, start reading and am immediately entranced. But it doesn’t happen like that.
Usually I wait until I have caught up with writing and editing, and can give my attention to all the new submissions that are languishing in my submissions box. Maybe 12. Maybe 20. I can delete some straightaway: the Ian Rankin lookalike written by a bloke, the illustrated fairy story for 4 – 6 year olds and the manuscript written in Hebrew. You think I’m joking? A recent submission listed in the cc sent box the other publishers and editors emailed. There were 73. Each, like mine, would have started, ‘Dear editor…’
So then, after the first sifting, one at a time, I pull the submissions up on my screen and start reading. I can tell after a couple of pages whether the submission is a definite No.
Why a NO?
1. The content
First, out go the plain wacky, bizarre and inappropriate. I don’t mean innovative and imaginative, I mean weird. Like stories written by dogs and budgies and science fiction set in some crazy land run by robots or The Truth About Who Killed John Kennedy.
Then there are the many personal life stories, disguised to a greater or lesser degree as fiction, fascinating to the writer but are they fascinating to anyone else? Are readers rooting about in a book shop going to pick up your story? These submissions are often written by someone whose life has hit/once hit a very rocky patch. The writer either learns to live among the rocks, or climbs over them. I get stories about bereavement, divorce, redundancy, cancer, chronic illness, disability. Some describe appalling tragedies which deserve to be told and yet…I have to remind myself that there may already be six or seven like them on Waterstone’s shelves.
Can I sell another one?
The answer is usually No.
2. The writing
I rule out the ones that upset me because the writer can’t spell or punctuate, writes sentences that are not finished or which have bits hanging off the ends, mixes past and present at random and uses lots of adjectives and adverbs. And the word ‘Suddenly’. Many times. There is no rhythm or fluency.
Next, out go the submissions written not badly, but not particularly well. I don’t want to be cruel but words that come to mind are pedestrian, ploddy, whimsical, ordinary, long-winded. Scrambled is another style I get – a text which jumps about all over the place without any continuity or structure to bind it together.
3. Our list
The submission does not fit our list. This is really important. When I first sent out my own submissions, I took every rejection as a sign of personal failure. But it needn’t be. After a couple of years running Linen Press, I have in mind a fairly clear idea of what I want to publish. I’m not very interested in a submission that is more chick lit than contemporary fiction, nor single-strand stories where the fortunes of one person or one family are related without any layers of social or political backcloth. I keep getting that story about the young woman who married young, picked the wrong man, had an affair and then her husband became ill and then she was torn and then……..
I have to explain timing to you. Once upon a time, I was a brand new publisher with very little experience and a small slush pile, waiting for the submissions to trickle in. Now I have a downpour. When I am neck-deep working on the structure or language of a novel, it is hard to withdraw and look with fresh eyes at twenty manuscripts that have arrived in my inbox. At the moment, I have signed contracts with authors that will take Linen Press to the end of 2012 so if a fabulous manuscript arrives, I will be in a dilemma because I am fully committed and will also want to squeeze it in.
There is a rhythm to publishing. At the end of a long, long run of editing a book, I breathe out and am in a more receptive mood for submissions. I have a little time to spare and look forward to some bed-time reading (yes, I do take submissions to bed). You may be lucky and send your submission during a quiet phase. I’m afraid the timing is luck.
Why a YES?
I make it sound so ordered and matter-of-fact, don’t I? I’m trying to make explicit for you a process of selection which for me is by now intuitive. I am not aware of following rules nor of making considered choices. Maybe I absorbed and stored that away a long ago.
I have developed a sixth sense for a a good manuscript.
I know after only a few paragraphs when something special has come in.
This is part of a first chapter that was submitted recently. I was caught by the originality of the language, the magical images and the puzzles like the Indian who flew like a bird. I asked for the complete manuscript.
The great cities of the world have built themselves upon the great rivers of the world. People need the rivers, not vice versa. People forget that. Rivers crisscross each other, roar along steady and strong or disappear. Some come from snows high-up or springs underground. They have various beginnings.
Lately I have been thinking about my own beginnings along the Susquehanna with its rivulets and hundreds of tributaries spread across parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. I am lonely for this river. The house with black shutters and large-winged crows. Red geraniums in summer and horse chestnuts in the fall. The abandoned old house by the creek. The Indian who flew away like a bird. The fish in the woods that walked down to the river.
And I break my own rules.
What did I write back there about not being confident about selling sad life stories?
A couple of months ago, a manuscript came in with the title James With A Silent C. I just loved that title. That alone made me read on.
The memoir is beautiful, compelling, down-beat, compassionate, funny. Kelly Mc Phail writes about an exceptional man who beat drug addiction and dealing on Glasgow’s gangland streets to find his soul-mate – and to be diagnosed with advanced Hepatitis C.
It took only six weeks for the manuscript to make the transition from submission to a book ready for publication and I am proud to feature it on our list.
Here is the beginning:
“Trust you!” I smile, stroking Jim’s still warm forehead. “For weeks I’ve been trying to get you to have an early night and now look at you!”
The clock on the wall says 10 p.m. exactly. I squeeze his hand gently and slip quietly from the room, aware that other patients are asleep nearby.
“Excuse me,” I motion to the male duty nurse at the desk.
He turns to face me, enquiringly.
“I think my husband has just passed away.”
He is visibly shocked.
“Oh, it’s all right,” I reassure him. “We’ve been expecting it.”
We? I said ‘we’. Did I mean the nurses and I? Rather, I realise, I meant Jim and I. Team McPhail, undefeated in sixteen years of battling liver disease. Only this is strange new territory – for both of us.
I nearly lost Jim two years before, in the emergency room. I stayed by his bedside for weeks, watching, waiting and hoping he would make it. He revived, thank God, but this…
Yet I know something now that I had only ever guessed at before. There is a reason for my remarkable calmness. I have experienced a strange kind of wonder that does not readily translate into words. I know instinctively that if I speak of it now, it will be instantly diminished by those gods of the human mind – reason and logic.
So I say nothing.Please keep sending in your submissions. Each one is a surprise. It may be a best-seller. It may win the Booker. I don’t know yet. Nor do you.