Most publishers no longer read unsolicited manuscripts – but that doesn’t stop writers sending them in. Aida Edemariam, who has rejected more submissions than she cares to remember, investigates
I will not be the only person who reacted with amusement to the news that HarperCollins has just launched a website that encourages would-be authors to upload sample chapters, which will then be judged not by professional editors, but by readers. Amusement at the company’s chutzpah, specifically – but amusement tempered with some sympathy, too.
In the mid-90s I did a five-month internship in New York at a magazine that published both long-form reportage and fiction. Mostly this meant that very American pastime of rigorous fact-checking (I will never forget calling up the bemused manager of the KFC in Giza and asking him to measure out the exact distance, in yards, between his establishment and the Sphinx’s nose) – but it also meant responsibility for reading the manuscripts sent in by hopeful writers, aka the slush pile. There were four of us unpaid minions, and whenever the pile got so high it wouldn’t stay up of its own accord we’d retire to the boardroom, divide the orange envelopes between us, and set to work.
It is a dispiriting business. Like everyone who has ever done this, we began in great hope. We would discover the next Tom Wolfe, the next John Cheever … but reality quickly set in. The vast majority of it is just bad. You start doubting your own judgment (particularly when the stuff that you do pass on to senior editors gets ignored, or immediately rejected), get distracted by prisoners who think it a good idea to include a picture of themselves with a gun pointed at the viewer (true story), and quite quickly find yourself reading the first two paragraphs, putting a pencil mark or something on page six (so the outraged author doesn’t post it back with a note pointing out that they can tell you haven’t read it), and slipping it into an SAE. Not without a mounting sense of guilt. Continue reading