And by that, of course, I mean your work. But seriously. Following last week’s submission and subsequent rejection of several Jane Austen titles to a bevvy of publishers, an editor speaks out on why great work gets missed in the almighty slush pile.
The real reason that publishers miss good books is no secret, and it is nothing to do with literary judgement, knowledge of first lines or acquaintance with the classics. It is the same reason that film companies miss great scripts and record labels fail to sign up the most interesting bands. It is the numbers game – the sheer volumes of paper (and now, worse still, the email attachments), that cross our desk every day. Every year 200,000 books are published. This is far too many, and really the first duty of every publisher should be to publish fewer, rather than more, new titles.
But the situation is worse than that, because for every title that we sign up, we turn down 20 to 30 others. The ratio is worse still for new fiction. So the maths is simple. If an editor commissions 20 titles a year, which is probably about average, they are being asked to consider around 500 manuscripts a year. That is an awful lot of words. No one can be surprised to learn that not every manuscript gets the careful attention it deserves. It should not come as a shock that many manuscripts are returned unread to the sender. We need to clear our desks in order to look after the authors whom we do sign up, and the unsolicited manuscripts are often a chore to be dealt with at the end of the day by an overworked intern.