Publishing Secrets

Home / Publishing Secrets

Battle of the “UNs”

Unagented/Unsolicited Submissions

By Jeff Herman

Most major publishing houses claim to have policies that prevent them from even considering unagented/unsolicited submissions. “Unagented” means that a literary agent did not make the submission.“Unsolicited” means that no one at the publisher asked for the submission.

It’s possible that you, or people you know, have already run into this frustrating roadblock. You may also be familiar with the rumor that it’s more difficult to get an agent than it is to get a publisher—or that no agent will even consider your work until you have a publisher. On the surface, these negatives make it seem that you would have a better shot at becoming a starting pitcher for the Yankees or living out whatever your favorite improbable fantasy might be.

But, as you will soon learn, these so-called policies and practices are often more false than true, especially if you develop creative ways to circumvent them. I have dubbed the previous obstacle course the Battle of the “UNs.” If you’re presently unagented/unsolicited, you’re one of the UNs. Welcome! You’re in good company.

Nobody is born published. There is no published author who wasn’t at one time an UN. Thousands of new books are published each year, and thousands of people are needed to write them. You can be one of them.

In this chapter I’ll show you how to win the Battle of the UNs. But first let me clarify an important distinction. When I use the word “win” here, I don’t mean to say that you’ll necessarily get your work published. What I mean is: You’ll gain reasonable access to the powers-that-be for your work, and you’ll learn how to increase the odds—dramatically—that your work will in fact be acquired.

Please be realistic. For every published writer, there are, at minimum, several thousand waiting in line to get published. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” It’s completely within your power to maximize your chances of getting published. It’s also within your power to minimize those chances. There are reasons why some highly talented people habitually underachieve, and those reasons can often be found within them. If you fail, fail, and fail, you should look within yourself for possible answers. What can you do to turn it around? If you find some answers, then you haven’t failed at all, and the lessons you allow yourself to learn will lay the groundwork for success in this and in other endeavors.

Having an agent greatly increases the likelihood that you will be published. For one thing, on the procedural level, established agents can usually obtain relatively rapid (and serious) consideration for their clients. One basic reason for this is that editors view agents as a valuable screening mechanism— that is, when a project crosses the editor’s desk under an agent’s letterhead, the editor knows it’s undergone vetting from someone in the industry who is familiar with the applicable standards of quality and market considerations

I usually recommend that unpublished writers first make every attempt to get an agent before they start going directly to the publishers. It’s significantly easier to get an agent than it is to get a publisher—not the other way around. Most agents I know are always on the lookout for fresh talent. Finding and nurturing tomorrow’s stars are two of our functions.

However, one of my reasons for writing and researching this book is to reveal to you that as a potential author, not having an agent does not necessarily disqualify you from the game automatically. Before I show you ways to win the Battle of the UNs, I’d like you to have a fuller understanding of the system.

You Are the Editor

Imagine that you’re an acquisitions editor at one of America’s largest publishing firms in New York City. You have a master’s degree from an Ivy League college and you, at least, think you’re smarter than most other people. Yet you’re earning a lot less money than most of the people who graduated with you. Your classmates have become lawyers, accountants, bankers, and so forth, and they all seem to own large, well-appointed apartments or homes—whereas you, if you fall out of bed, might land in the bathtub of your minuscule New York flat.

On the other hand, you love your job. For you, working in publishing is a dream come true. As in other industries and professions, much of your satisfaction comes from advancement— getting ahead.

To move up the career ladder, you’ll have to acquire at least a few successful titles each year. To find these few good titles, you’ll be competing with many editors from other publishers and perhaps even with fellow editors within your own firm. As in any other business, the people who make the most money for the company will get the choice promotions and the highest salaries. Those who perform less impressively will tend to be passed over. (Of course, being a good editor and playing politics well are also important.)

There are two tried-and-true sources for the titles that publishers acquire: literary agents and direct solicitations.

Literary Agents

As an editor on the move, you’ll cultivate relationships with many established literary agents. You’ll want them to know what you like and what you don’t like. And, by showing these agents you’re disposed to acquiring new titles to build your position in the company, you’ll encourage them to send you projects they think are right for you.

When you receive material from agents, you usually give it relatively fast consideration— especially if it’s been submitted simultaneously to editors at other houses, which is usually the case.

When something comes in from an agent, you know it’s been screened and maybe even perfected. Established agents rarely waste your time with shoddy or inappropriate material. They couldn’t make a living that way because they’d quickly lose credibility with editors.

Direct Solicitations

If you’re an ambitious editor, you won’t just sit back passively and wait to see what the agents might bless you with. When you’re resourceful, the opportunities are endless. Perhaps you’ll contact your old American history professor and ask her to do a book showcasing her unique perspectives on the Civil War.

Or maybe you’ll contact that young, fresh fiction writer whose short story you just read in a leading literary journal. You might even try reaching that veteran United States senator who just got censured for sleeping with his young aides. One place you’ll tend not to use is the “slush pile.” This is the room (more like a warehouse) where all the unagented/unsolicited submissions end up.

Looking through the slush pile isn’t a smart use of your limited time and energy. The chances that anything decent will be found there are much less than 1 percent. You have less-than-fond memories of your first year in the publishing business, when, as an editorial assistant (which was basically an underpaid secretarial job), one of your tasks was to shovel through the slush. Once in a great while, something promising could be found; but most of the stuff wasn’t even close. At first, you were surprised by how unprofessional many ofthe submissions were. Many weren’t addressed to anyone in particular; some looked as if they had been run over by Mack trucks; others were so poorly printed they were too painful for tired eyes to decipher—the list of failings is long. No, the slush pile is the last place— or perhaps no place— to find titles for your list. Now you can stop being an editor and go back to being whoever you really are. I wanted to show you why the system has evolved the way it has. Yes, though it’s rational, it’s cold and unfair, but these qualities aren’t unique to publishing. You’re probably still wondering when I’m going to get to that promised modus operandi for winning the Battle of the UNs. Okay, we’re there.

Out of the Slush

The following steps are intended to keep you out of the infamous slush pile. Falling into the slush is like ending up in jail for contempt of court; it’s like being an untouchable in India; it’s like being Frank Burns on MAS*H. My point is that nobody likes the Slushables. They’re everyone’s scapegoat and nobody’s ally.

Once your work is assigned to the slush pile, it’s highly unlikely that it will receive effective access. Without access, there can be no acquisition. Without acquisition, there’s no book.

Let’s pretend that getting published is a board game. However, in this game you can control the dice. Here are several ways to play.

Get the Names!

If you submit to nobody, it will go to nobody. Sending it to “The Editors,” “Gentlemen,” or the CEO of a $100-million publishing house equals sending it to no one.

Use the directory in this book to get the names of the suitable contacts. In addition to using this directory, there are two other proven ways to discover who the right editors may be:

  1. Visit bookstores and seek out recent books that are in your category. Check the acknowledgments section of each one. Many authors like to thank their editors here (and their agents). If the editor is acknowledged, you now have the name of someone who edits books like yours.(Remember to call to confirm that the editor still works at that publishing house.)
  2. Simply call the publisher and ask for the editorial department. More often than not, a young junior editor will answer the phone with something like, “Editorial.” Like people who answer phones everywhere, these people may sound as if they are asleep, or they may sound harried, or even as if they’re making the most important declaration of their lives.

Luckily for you, publishers plant few real secretaries or receptionists in their editorial departments, since it’s constantly reconfirmed that rookie editors will do all that stuff for everyone else—and for a lot less money! Hence, real editors (although low in rank) can immediately be accessed.

Returning to the true point of this—once someone answers the phone, simply ask, “Who edits your business books?”(Or whatever your category is.) You can also ask who edited a specific and recent book that’s similar to yours. Such easy but vital questions will bring forth quick and valuable answers. Ask enough times and you can build a list of contacts that competes with this book.

Don’t Send Manuscripts Unless Invited to Do So!

Now that you’re armed with these editors’ names, don’t abuse protocol (editors yell at me when you do—especially when they know where you’ve gotten their names). Initiate contact by sending a letter describing your work and encouraging the editor to request it.

This letter, commonly referred to as a query letter, is in reality a sales pitch or door- opener. (Please see the following chapter in this book about query letters for a full overview of this important procedure.) In brief, the letter should be short (less than 1 1⁄2 pages), easy to read and to the point, personalized, and well printed on good professional stationery. Say what you have, why it’s hot, why you’re a good prospect, and what’s available for review upon request.

In addition to the letter, it’s okay to include a resume/bio that highlights any writing credits or relevant professional credentials; a brief summary (2-3 pages) if the book is nonfiction, or a brief synopsis if it’s fiction; a photo, if you have a flattering one; and promotional materials. Be careful: At this stage your aim is merely to whet the editor’s appetite; you don’t want to cause information overload. Less is more.

Also include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). This is an important courtesy; without it, you increase your chances of getting no response. Editors receive dozens of these letters every week. Having to address envelopes for all of them would be very time-consuming. And at 39 cents a pop, it’s not worth doing. The SASE is generally intended to facilitate a response in the event of a negative decision. If the editor is intrigued by your letter, he may overlook the missing SASE and request to see your work—but don’t count on it.

You may be wondering: If I have the editor’s name, why not just send her my entire manuscript? Because you’re flirting with the slush pile if you do. Even though you have the editor’s previously secret name, you’re still an UN, and UNs aren’t treated kindly. An editor is inundated with reams of submissions, and her problem is finding good stuff to publish. If you send an unsolicited manuscript, you’ll just be perceived as part of that problem. She’ll assume you’re just another slushy UN who needs to be sorted out of the way so she can go on looking for good stuff.

A bad day for an editor is receiving a few trees’ worth of UN manuscripts; it deepens her occupational neurosis.

On the other hand, a professional letter is quite manageable. It is at least likely to be read. It may be screened initially by the editor’s assistant, but will probably be passed upstairs if it shows promise.

If the editor is at all intrigued by your letter, she will request to see more material, and you will have earned the rank of being solicited.

Even if your work is not ultimately acquired by this editor, you will have at least challenged and defeated the UNs’ obstacle course by achieving quality consideration. Remember: Many people get published each year without the benefits of being agented or initially solicited.

It’s okay, even smart, to query several editors simultaneously. This makes sense because some editors may take a very long time to respond or, indeed, may never respond. Querying editors one at a time might take years.

If more than one editor subsequently requests and begins considering your work, let each one know that it’s not an exclusive. If an editor requests an exclusive, that’s fine—but give him a time limit (4 weeks is fair).

Don’t sell your work to a publisher before consulting everyone who’s considering it and seeing if they’re interested. If you do sell it, be sure to give immediate written and oral notification to everyone who’s considering it that it’s no longer available. The query-letter stage isn’t considered a submission. You only need to have follow-up communications with editors who have gone beyond the query stage, meaning those who have requested and received your work for acquisition consideration. If you don’t hear back from an editor within 6 weeks of sending her your letter, it’s safe to assume she’s not interested in your work.

If you send multiple queries, don’t send them to more than one editor at the same house at the same time. If you don’t hear back from a particular editor within 6 weeks of your submission, it’s probably safe to query another editor at that house. One editor’s reject is another’s paradise; that’s how both good and bad books get published. We’ve just covered a lot of important procedural ground, so don’t be embarrassed if you think you’ve forgotten all of it. This book won’t self-destruct (and now, presumably, you won’t either).

Cold Calls Breed Cold Hearts

One more thing: It’s best not to cold-call these editors. Don’t call them to try to sell them your work. Don’t call them to follow up on query letters or submissions. Don’t call them to try to change their minds.

Why? Do you like it when someone calls you in the middle of your favorite video to sell you land in the Nevada desert, near a popular nuclear test site? Few people like uninvited and unscheduled sales calls. In some businesses, such as public relations, calling contacts is a necessary part of the process—but not in publishing. Furthermore, this business is based on hard copy. You may be the greatest oral storyteller since Uncle Remus, but if you can’t write it effectively and engagingly, nobody will care. You’ll end up soliciting their hostility. Of course, once they are interested in you on the basis of your hard copy, your oral and physical attributes may be of great importance to them.

On the other hand, some people are so skilled on the telephone that it’s a lost opportunity for them not to make maximum use of it as a selling method. If you’re one of these extremely rare and talented people, you should absolutely make use of whatever tools have proved to work best for you.

Everything I’ve said is my opinion. This is a subjective industry, so it’s likely—no, it’s for certain—that others will tell you differently. It’s to your advantage to educate yourself to the fullest extent possible (read books, attend workshops, and so forth)—and in the end, to use your own best instincts about how to proceed.

I’m confident that my suggestions are safe and sound, but I don’t consider them to be the beginning and the end. The more you know, the simpler things become; the less you know, the more complex and confusing they are.

Breaking the Rules

Taken as a whole, this book provides a structure that can be considered a set of guidelines, if not hard-and-fast rules. Some people owe their success to breaking the rules and swimming upstream—and I can certainly respect that. Often such people don’t even know they’re breaking the rules; they’re just naturally following their own unique orbits (and you’ll find a few illustrations of this very phenomenon elsewhere in these essays). Trying to regulate such people can often be their downfall.

On one hand, most of us tend to run afoul when we stray from established norms of doing business; on the other hand, a few of us can’t succeed any other way (Einstein could have written an essay about that.)