Publishers stop reading new writers

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Publishers are turning their backs on aspiring first-time novelists by refusing to read unsolicited manuscripts.

Publishers are turning their backs on aspiring first-time novelists by refusing to read unsolicited manuscripts.

In the past, celebrated authors such as William Golding and V S Naipaul achieved success through the "slush pile", the stack of story outlines sent in by eager writers hoping to be "discovered".

Penguin, Black Swan and Fourth Estate are among publishing houses which have stopped employing readers, people hired solely to wade through the thousands of works which arrive in the post.

Others have reduced the number of people they pay to find the next Harry Potter. Macmillan now has one reader compared with three five years ago, for example.

Editors at publishing houses are instead relying on the skills of literary agencies to recognise potential best-selling novels. The number of literary agencies has virtually trebled in the last 10 years and there are now 90 in the UK.

Publishers argue a bestseller emerges once every three years from the slush pile and they no longer have the time or the resources to wade through the remaining "dross".

An average of 100,000 new titles a year are published in Britain - the greatest number per head of population anywhere in the world.

Penguin said it no longer had the time to dedicate to reading unsolicited manuscripts. Instead of the usual rejection slip, it has now produced a special pack giving advice on obtaining an agent.

"It's the literary agents now who look for the gems," said a spokeswoman. "There is a lot more volume so agents can be a lot more choosy. But it is now getting to the point where people can't get an agent."

Fourth Estate no longer takes unsolicited manuscripts but it has a policy of still sending them back. "It's so difficult because of the sheer volume," said Jessica Axe, a publishing editor. "It's company policy that we return them. People link them to a particular theme - my heart sinks when someone says it's written in the style of J K Rowling." The most popular genre with first-time writers is the confidential memoir recounting an individual's true life experience from being a single professional female to living on the dole.

The second most frequent trend is emulating successful published books such as Alex Garland's The Beach and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.

Some aspiring novelists will go to excessive lengths to be published. Brett De La Mare, an Australian, paraglided down the Mall to Buckingham Palace in an attempt to gain attention for his unpublished work, then touted the manuscript round every agent and publisher in London without success.

Industry experts say the only way for aspiring first-time novelists to get noticed is to obtain an agent instead of entrusting their treasured writings to publishers.

But agents say they are overwhelmed by the number of wannabee writers flooding the market and will only take on one out of the hundreds who contacts them.

Clare Alexander is an agent at Gillon Aitken Associates, which "discovered" Sarah May and her well-received first novel, The Nudist Colony. The agency takes on only two novels out of every 500 it receives. "In the past the agent read your contract - there is now a higher value on mediation," she said. "People have been told quite wrongly they can write, but for every Golding there are several thousand not-Goldings.

"It's not surprising in a cost-driven age that publishers have stopped reading manuscripts. The problem is authors are not in a literary world - its hard to know how to get an agent unless you are part of the London publishing scene."

However, the Society of Authors, which advises published authors, criticised agents for being too selective in choosing new talent and publishers for limiting opportunities for first- time writers. "One of the rewards of publishing used to be looking out for a gem from the slush pile and it's cheap," said Mark LeFanu, the society's spokesman. "But now [that] the small companies have been taken over by the conglomerates, publishers no longer have staff dedicated to reading manuscripts.

"The best agents are already busy - they have to be pretty smitten by a book to accept it. They tend to go for young people - if you are retired then the chances are non-existent. If this tradition [the slush pile] dies out altogether it will be dreadful for new writers."

Writers who have achieved success by way of the slush pile fear its demise will mean talented aspiring novelists will remain undiscovered. Colin Bateman, the author of Divorcing Jack, was rejected by countless agents and publishers until his first novel surfaced on the slush pile at HarperCollins. The book, published in 1995, was a commercial success and was made into a film starring David Thewlis, Rachel Griffiths and Robert Lindsay.

"I know it's time consuming to read manuscripts but most of these publishers have students they can use - it's not like the managing directors are put in a room and forced to read them," Bateman said. "Authors are always vaguely embarrassed by what they write and very few people are likely to have the confidence to go out and say I need an agent. These days it's like being in showbiz."