June 17, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Mimi Jones Hedwig
When I was working as an editorial assistant in my first job at Viking Press, an eminent book publisher, one of my tasks was to handle the slush pile – the unsolicited manuscripts that arrived as actual pages, wrapped in brown paper and twine, in those quaint days before the personal computer. It was so certain that they would be rejected that I was expected not even to read them.
But I was curious and idealistic. Day after day I would browse the pages of the manuscripts that weren’t obviously amateurish or deranged, hoping for that electric surge up my spine that compelled me to keep reading.
It took two full years for that to happen. One day in 1976 I opened a package and began reading, and, unable to stop, brought the book home with me that night, and the next day gave it to my supervising editor and said, “You have to read this.” The book, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, was the first manuscript to be published from Viking’s slush pile in twenty-seven years and became a blockbuster bestseller and a multiple Academy Award-winning movie, Robert Redford’s directorial debut.
But during the two years leading up to that happy discovery, after a few minutes’ perusal I would pack each manuscript up for mailing back to the author, including an ivory colored card printed with the publisher’s colophon and the brief message: “The Viking Press thanks you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We regret that it is not quite suited to our present needs. With best wishes, The Editors.”
If the author had not included return postage, the archaic courtesy that still prevailed back then required that I type up an envelope and send the rejection slip that way. Even that neutrally polite form letter sometimes provoked wrathful reactions; once I opened a letter to find the rejection card inside, smeared with some suspicious brown matter and the scrawled words: “Take a taste of your own sweet medicine.”
Nevertheless, authors knew at least that their manuscripts had been received, opened, and seen by someone. They were given the respect of a response and could cling to the hope that their work might “suit another publisher’s present needs.”
Publishing has changed greatly since then. There is no longer any hope for an author of being plucked from the slush pile of a major or midsize publisher; these companies do not consider or respond to unsolicited manuscripts, but rely on literary agents to be the gatekeepers. Thus, agents are besieged by hopeful authors. Now that computers have taken much of the toil and expense out of producing a book-length manuscript – no more typing, white-out or correction tape, retyping, photocopying, packing up, and mailing – everyone can relatively easily act on their certainty that they have a story or a theory or a self-help formula that the world is waiting for.
Most of the time the only way to present your work to an agent is a one page query letter, sometimes with a permissible inclusion of a few pages of the manuscript. Agents get hundreds of these letters each week – and somewhere along the line many of them, out of self-defense, adopted the policy of “no reply means rejection.” In other words, in response to their submissions most writers can expect to experience complete, invalidating silence.
The frustration of the querying process drives many people to writers’ conferences where, for an extra fee over and above the conference registration cost, they can meet one on one with agents to make a ten-minute case for their projects. Many authors line up sessions with as many agents as their budget and schedule will permit. If the agent is interested in your description (or, possibly, if he or she wants to avoid the awkwardness of declining the project on the spot), you will be invited to submit some or all of your book.
Filled with hope, you rush home and send each agent what they have requested, in the various forms they require. And then, you wait. And as the waiting goes on into the months, you begin to suspect that you have been – in the current parlance – ghosted, that is, treated as if you and your project were a mere waft of vapor dissipating into the chill mist of utter oblivion.
I think a lot of writers get disheartened, both by the submission process and the new requirement that they come to an agent with an established, robust social media following and a body of short work published in periodicals ranging from the obscure to the major. Also, with our vivid, writerly imaginations, we may speculate that the reasons behind those mute dismissals or pro forma responses are all the criticisms and deprecations that, in our worst moments, we level at ourselves and our work.
The end result of all this is that we may begin to doubt that there’s any point in trying to get published, or, perhaps, continuing to write at all. In effect, we reject ourselves.
Here are the steps I have resolved to take to avoid engineering my own failure and becoming one of the literary ghosts doomed to hover forever on the outside of the publishing world, looking in with haunted, yearning eyes:
- Write daily, always probing for what moves or excites or holds risk, my own truth, the kinds of stories I want to read.
- Seek every day to renew my passion for the process, because I believe that is the writer’s best and surest reward, no matter how little or much worldly success we achieve.
- Repel the sense of futility that discourages me from beginning a new writing project, knowing the huge amount of work it will require and the likelihood of rejection.
- Formulate a publishing strategy: for me, now, a tiered process, starting with querying every agent who handles the genres I’m writing in; moving on, if necessary, to independent publishers who don’t require agents or monetary contributions by the author; and, if no success with those, considering a financial partnership with a carefully vetted hybrid publisher.
- Compartmentalize this process as if, when undertaking it, I commute to a separate room, a bright, efficient, and emotion-free office that is not even in the same building as the sanctuary (solitary, hushed, low lit, mysterious) that shelters and nurtures my creative work.
- Believe in the possibility that someday my work will come before a curious, idealistic publishing professional — who, scrolling through my pages, will sit up straighter at the electric surge that compels them to keep reading and then to tell someone else, “You have to read this!”
After three decades as an editor at Viking Press and Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines, Mimi Jones Hedwig is working full-time on four novels and a memoir.