I read an online article last week in which the author said that agents or perhaps it was editors, read manuscripts hoping to find flaws because they just couldn’t wait to toss it in the trash and be done with it. I don’t recall who wrote that. His name was not familiar, and I could barely see it anyway for seeing red. It struck me as utter nonsense. If I had believed that they considered themselves guardians against submissions, I would never have submitted my first manuscript decades ago.
There was a time when traditional publishing was easier. In the 1960’s the government had a program that funded textbooks and library books. I believe it was called Title II. It brought on an onslaught of books, many of them pretty poorly written. I entered the field just as the program ended, and the consensus was that the heyday was over for picture books. I sold six the following year. So much for that prediction. One of them required shortening by half. Another one needed the first person viewpoint changed to third person viewpoint. So both were flawed, but the editors saw something in the manuscripts that made them willing to take the time to help me make them publishable.
Editors and agents would be out of work if they had no manuscripts to edit or sell. New editors are anxious to acquire their stable of reliable, producing writers. One editor described it this way:
The slush pile [unsolicited manuscripts] sits at the edge of the desk. Every spare moment, including the commute between office and home, he opens a file to read. He takes a bunch home to browse on the weekend. He described how he reads the first page. If it had merit, he places it face down on his ample stomach and reads the second. Faster and faster he flips the pages and realizes that he is smiling. This one goes in the pile to consider. Most go in the pile of thanks but no thanks. Another goes into the third stack, to suggest revisions. That doesn’t sound like someone anxious to toss, does it?
Another editor told me that she read the title in the cover letter and wanted the story to stand up to it so that she could buy it. But that was then when editors took the time to tell you why they were rejecting or making suggestions for changes and resubmission.
It’s my opinion only, and you may disagree, but I think that impatience and misused technology is the reason so many publishers have closed their doors to all but agent submissions. When I first began, it was either manual or electric typewriter. The unwritten rule was that you should have a completely clean first page and no more than three typos corrected in pencil or white-out on the remaining pages. It meant a lot of retyping, and each retyping brought about revisions and a better manuscript.
Along came computers. How grand that we could correct and rewrite to our heart’s content before committing another tree’s worth of paper. But now we could make as many copies as we wanted with no effort at all. Enter the multiple submissions. Writers flooded publishers with submissions. The first readers could not handle the volume. Poor manuscripts multiplied like algae. Good manuscripts took valuable time while the editor explored potential illustrators, priced paper, glue, ink, print, binding, etc. to see what she could offer a newbie as an advance. At least one author I know of snapped up the first offer. The second, more attractive offer from a more prestigious publisher, arrived later. That publisher had invested a good bit in preparation and wasn’t likely to do that again.
So now we deal with closed houses. Those that do read unsolicited manuscripts tell us to wait, and if we don’t hear in six months, they aren’t interested. They probably tossed it months ago. My southern heart is incensed by the rudeness as I recall the days of adding a stamped address postcard to my manuscript where the reader could simply put it in the out box so that I knew it arrived. A SASE meant your manuscript would be returned for revision or sent elsewhere.
I still send a manuscript to one publisher at a time and tell them that it is exclusively theirs for consideration for three months, after which I will feel free to send it elsewhere. My method isn’t for everyone. But I want them to know that I chose them because I believe we are a good fit. I pay little attention to mail addressed to Occupant. I wonder if editors give much thought about multiple submissions.