Writers with unsolicited manuscripts: think twice before diving into publisher slush piles

by | Mar 12, 2019 | Blog, Editorial Development, Improve your writing, Popular, Publishing | 83 comments

Is your unsolicited manuscript submission ready for literary agents?

One of my most popular posts, I’ve given my take on unsolicited manuscript submissions a makeover. The post is focused on submissions to Australian book publishers but is relevant to any writer seeking a traditional book deal who is considering direct submission to a publishing company.

If you’ve never heard of me before, I’m an expat Australian living in Brooklyn New York who has been a literary agent, a developmental/structural editor of fiction and nonfiction for many large book publishers, a book coach, writing mentor, and also the traditionally published author of two books of nonfiction. These days I focus on helping writers maximise their chances of appealing to literary agents and book publishers by editing their query materials and providing agent research and submission advice.
The important thing for you to know is this: I am speaking to you from direct experiences of writing books to a publishable level, helping others do the same, and also pitching and selling my former agency clients’ book projects to trade (commercial) publishing houses. There are not many people sprouting advice about how to get published who have covered all those bases. Just sayin’.

Let’s continue.

You need to be aware that most writers who submit their unsolicited manuscript electronically are wasting their time. Here’s why – and what you can do about it.

The slush pile

The slush pile is an unflattering but widely used publishing term for unsolicited manuscripts. They arrive direct from authors without representation (such as a literary agent or other referral) or invitation (from a prospective editor or publisher).

When I worked in-house at Pan Macmillan Australia, unsolicited manuscripts could be found in large piles under editors’ feet or in an unlucky junior’s office. They were full-length printouts, snail-mailed in by aspiring authors, and they seldom received attention. In importance they lagged a long way behind the manuscripts that had already been acquired and scheduled for publication.

In other words, we read unsolicited manuscripts every once in a while. During the bluest moon. There was no accountability, no reading deadline, and no feedback.

Why are Australian publishers accepting submissions?

Thanks in part to digital technology, many of Australia’s leading book publishers now actively invite unsolicited manuscripts. There are a few reasons for this:

  • FOMO. Despite the industrious efforts of literary agents, numerous writing competitions and prizes, writing industry workshops and meet-and-greets, publishers experience the Fear Of Missing Out. They are ever mindful of the possibility that one of these months, the next international bestseller (or its first 50-100 pages) may arrive via an unsolicited submission.
  • Using electronic submissions portals, publishers can determine when and how to accept unsolicited material (for example, the first Monday or Friday of the month).
  • Publishers can limit how much material a writer submits. Typically they accept the first three chapters or first 100 pages.
  • Publishers can also easily filter out work that does not respect their stated guidelines (for example, if a writer submits 55 pages instead of the set maximum of 50 pages, it will not be considered)
  • Anecdotally, publishers aren’t seeing enough exciting new voices from literary agents.

Like anything that seems too good to be true, publishers’ openness to unsolicited submissions is not all it’s cracked up to be. The points above reflect the power imbalance of unsolicited submissions. That’s not going to change.

Want to dive into the slush pile anyway?

If you want to dive into the slush pile without reading further, I’ve put together this page with links to the major houses’ electronic submissions pages. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

The problem(s) with unsolicited manuscript submissions

As a former literary agent, as the author of two books, and as an editor, book coach and writing mentor, I do not endorse the submission of unsolicited manuscripts. The main reasons:

  • The sheer volume of electronic submissions puts you at a disadvantage. Your manuscript is one in a crowd rather than part of the publisher’s to-be-read pile. Getting into the publisher’s reading pile should be your goal.
  • It’s easy to write a cover note that does nothing to appeal to the decision-maker.
  • It’s sometimes difficult to identify the reservations and questions a book industry professional might have about your project.
  • If you do not hear back, you will never know why. It could be that a junior reader who loathes fantasy / crime / (name your genre) happened to review your work, and didn’t have the experience to differentiate her own taste from commercially viable work. It could be that your work isn’t yet strong enough. Or it could be that there was a view that that publishing house had already acquired too many books on a similar subject. Whatever the reason, you will be none the wiser.
  • Similarly, you will never receive any editorial feedback. Most writers need some constructive feedback to improve their writing or their story structure. Too many writers submit work to publishers that is not ready.
  • If you do succeed in attracting the publisher’s interest, you will need a third party to help you understand which rights to give them, and which rights to keep for yourself. It would also be handy to have someone to ask all the questions about each step of the publishing process.

What can you do instead of submitting an unsolicited manuscript?

If you’re convinced your work is ready for submission to a literary agent or publisher, you need to connect with people active in the publishing industry. Like any other field of human endeavour, literary agents and publishers place value on word of mouth, referrals and personal introductions. I’m not saying it’s easy or even fair, but there are some ways to do it:

Take a class or workshop.
Look for courses, whether online or in-person, led by industry professionals such as literary agents or book publishers. Ask all the questions you can think of. Seek feedback on your work. Respond to it.

Enter writing competitions/prizes.
Literary agents and book publishers keep a sharp eye trained on competition shortlists and prize announcements, because they are a short-cut to good work they might have otherwise missed. If you keep missing out, seek feedback to find out why.

Develop connections with other writers online.
Whether it’s a Facebook group, a dedicated website for writers of a particular genre, or a Twitter hashtag, connecting with others with similar goals can help you gain confidence, knowledge, opportunities and even introductions. I won’t name names but I’ve seen it happen.

Get professional feedback.
If you’ve been submitting your manuscript and not hearing back, or if you’re not sure that your work is ready to submit, you could probably use some constructive professional feedback. Make sure your reader has experience in a commercial publishing house and is not a friend or family member.

Can I help?

Please contact me if you think I could help you along the path to publication. I’ve helped many writers achieve their dream of seeing their work in print.

My Publishing Insiders newsletter contains no-nonsense advice for writers working toward the goal of getting a literary agent and a book published. Please consider subscribing to join this community of aspiring authors.

Feedback-wise, I offer editorial reviews of your literary agent submission materials in a range of packages to suit most budgets.*
The Debut: two rounds of editing your agent query letter and synopsis (or chapter outline)
The Wordsmith: as above, plus a personalized detailed report with the top 25 US agents for your individual project
The Bestseller: all of the above, plus a 1:1 Zoom meeting about your project and publishing strategy, plus my detailed editorial response to your first ten double-spaced pages.
(*Note to Australian readers: I spend US dollars so must charge US dollars.)

I truly love working with writers and would like to help you if I can.


I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association because I do not meet their membership criteria. I regularly provide writers with feedback, mentoring, and occasionally publishing introductions, but these are paid services which disqualify me from membership. I rely utterly on my reputation in the book industry and the opinion of writers who’ve worked with me.

Check out what my clients are saying…

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