Media: Looking for diamonds in the slush pile

Most publishers will tell you the same story: only one in a thousand unsolicited manuscripts shows promise. So why do they keep reading? Because the rare winner can be worth millions. Liz Thomson assesses the task of the as-yet-unpublished writer.

Michael Ridpath, Bill Bryson, Carol O'Connell, Minette Walters, Roddy Doyle, Iain Banks. Six names that should put hope into the heart of every unpublished writer. Each of them was plucked from an agent's or publisher's unsolicited pile and is now very successful indeed. Millionaires all; posterity assured. It does happen. It could be you.

Chances are, though, it won't be. There are only so many hot-shot undiscovered writers out there and, as in everything else, there are laws of supply and demand. The vast majority of manuscripts and synopses that land on the desks of harassed publishing folk simply don't cut the mustard.

"It is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Sue Freestone, Hutchinson's publishing director. "We have someone come in to go through the slush pile, which averages 15 or 20 submissions a week. It's not cost- effective - but you have to do it. That's how Paul Sidey found Carol O'Connell, and we made her a dollar millionaire overnight." O'Connell, a New Yorker, had sent her work to Hutchinson simply because they published Ruth Rendell, a writer she revered above all others. Rendell, too, was plucked from the slush pile, though 30 years ago publishing was less harried and more "gentlemanly", and fewer people felt compelled to dispatch their literary efforts to white-stuccoed offices in Bedford Square. Now there's a perception that "anyone can write a novel" - a perception fostered, it must be said, by some of the rubbish that does make it into print.

The rewards for uncovering a gem can be considerable, which is why small publishers tend to take the search more seriously. Carol O'Brien, editorial director of Constable, says, "I rarely go in for big auctions, so I have to be more creative and inventive. Our reader passes five or six typescripts a week to me and perhaps one a year results in a book contract - a recent example is The North of England Ghost Trail. Authors can and do write in with good ideas, but working with an author from scratch is always more time-consuming than working with an agent - and then, perhaps, it doesn't go to contract."

Not all publishers believe the slush pile is worth the trouble. Transworld, for example, have taken the decision not to read unsolicited manuscripts unless they are addressed to a specific editor. "It was taking up such a huge amount of time and energy," reports the managing director, Patrick Janson-Smith, "and I personally can't recall ever having taken something on."

HarperCollins likewise. "We had a policy change last year," confirms Nick Sayers, the publisher. "Everything is returned, and that's 200 or 300 submissions a week to the fiction department alone - but manuscripts are not accepted unless they are addressed to an individual. Then the editor or editorial assistant will look at projects. It's rare to find something, and anything good really stands out." Sayers himself can recall only one author he's bought from the slush pile: Colin Bateman, whose novel Divorcing Jack arrived on his desk in 1994.

At Michael Joseph/Penguin, publisher Tom Weldon explains that if he and his colleagues went through the 50 manuscripts that arrive each day they'd never get anything else done. "We send everything back, though as we're doing so, if a really good letter catches our eye we'll take a look."

At Little Brown, though reference books state no unsolicited manuscripts, the editorial director, Alan Samson, says well-presented proposals, properly addressed, do get a reading. "We get 3,000 a year, and going through them can be a terrible bore. But you have to remember that Iain Banks came from the slush pile with The Wasp Factory [when Samson was at Macmillan] and he's now one of our star authors. Then there's Peter Biddlecombe, with French Lessons in Africa, which is now a staple of the Abacus backlist, and, more recently, Harry Pearson with The Far Corner, which has been nominated for two awards. But going through them all can be a bore - out of those 3,000, we probably take on one."

Macmillan's entry in The Writer's Handbook is fairly non-committal. In fact, they employ a reader to go through submissions, though individual publishers deal with anything sent direct to them. "If someone phones to ask what we want, we tell them an outline and sample chapters," says Suzanne Baboncau, editorial director, "and that saves time and postage all round. Anything that comes across my desk gets a considered response."

Hodder Headline's entry makes its position clear, "We welcome submissions and we get 60 or 70 a week," says Sue Fletcher, deputy managing director of Hodder & Stoughton. "A high proportion are fiction and come in as complete manuscripts, some as synopses plus a letter. We have someone who comes in three days a week to go through them. She's very skilled at dealing with them, and if she feels it's worth encouraging someone she will. Sometimes she'll look at a second or third draft - and, of course, if we take on a project she's found, it's a real thrill for her.

Jane Morpeth, publishing director of Headline, is also positive. The statistics are not dissimilar - 50 to 60 submissions a week, a strike rate of one or two a year, with a reader sifting the material and passing on anything interesting. "You just never know. You have to remember that everyone, at some stage, was an unsolicited author. We all want to discover that jewel. And I think it's as difficult to get an agent as it is to get an author."

"More difficult, says Carole Blake, of Blake-Friedmann, who regularly addresses writers' groups and leads seminars. Indeed, she concedes that, were she an aspirant writer with no contacts in the publishing world, she would probably despair. Nevertheless, Blake attends daily to her slush pile - usually between 20 and 30 submissions. "I used to pass them round the office, but my staff all wanted to love everything. I don't, so now I read them myself.

"As an agent, I'm not looking for new clients - I've got enough already - so it has to be special. You can tell very quickly, and I skim. On most I write a big red 'R' and they go back with a standard letter." Her skimming has, in the last few years, yielded the historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick, who won the Betty Trask award, and Ridpath, who had been turned down by three agents and who is now an international success story.

Gregory & Radice Associates, who specialise in crime, sift through some 60 submissions a week; it was they who found Walters, selling her to Macmillan. More recently, Sara Jane Macdonald was plucked out for potential stardom and has been acquired by Headline. Jane Gregory agrees with Blake. "You can tell very quickly, and I think most agents spot anything worthwhile."

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