Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Rant– No Unsolicited Manuscripts, No Exceptions

I am now qualified to glorify the old days and cast aspersions on the new ones. My first statement is both. At the drugstore soda fountain at 21st and Drexel on Indianapolis’ East side, they served an ice cream flavor called raspberry salad. Raspberry ice cream and nuts. No doubt, the nuts made it a salad. It was delicious. It doesn’t exist today and Wikipedia has no listing for it as an ice cream flavor like chocolate or orange sherbet. A few silly salads with raspberries in it is all.

Now I was victim of old folks like me when I was a kid.  You could go to a movie for a nickel, they said a penny would actually buy something.  And I have my own memories from my childhood.  You could buy a pack of cigarettes, or a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas and have change back from a quarter. None of that really means anything, except for the raspberry salad, of course. 

But what I’m really angry about is that someone could write a book and send it to a publisher.  If you were unknown, your manuscript would be tossed in a slush pile and might not be read right away if you were an unknown.  But there was a good chance your book would get a look at some point; and if they didn't want it, you’d get a letter of rejection.  I have many such letters.  I even have one from The New Yorker rejecting a poem I submitted.  I am grateful they sent a letter, but perhaps more appreciative that they decided not to embarrass me by printing the poem.

The writing community had a name for sending an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher. It was an “over-the-transom” submission.   And it was usually done without an agent. None of that happens anymore now that publishing is in the hands of half a dozen big corporations.

I’ve been dealing with that for the last couple of years. On the other hand, let me start my rant with what really upset me. I’ll get back to the big five publishers and their mimics among the so-called independents.

A few months back, I had a germ of an idea for a story. It seemed to write itself. Oddly though, it came out as a stage play. That’s not entirely silly because that’s how I started writing (and acting)— skits in grade school and plays in high school and college as well as community theatre.  All that happened before I started writing mysteries or helped start an alternative newspaper.

So when I finished my play I decided to send it to a major non-profit theatre company in San Francisco where I had lived for 25 years.  I knew no one at the theatre company, only that it was highly regarded. So I sent a note to the artistic director asking for the appropriate contact.

“We are not allowed to accept unsolicited material,” the director replied, suggesting that they only accept material from those professionally represented (an agent). The phrase “we are not allowed” is bogus from the start. At best, “unwilling” is the word. It also bothered me that a non-profit organization would shut down a member of the community, forcing a writer to go through a for-profit entity to even have a chance for consideration. As many in the book world know, finding an agent is more difficult than finding a publisher.

I replied:

I'm sure this is policy and not necessarily of your making, but the agent requirement is counter-creative and counter community interest.  I'm 71…and have represented myself with Penguin, St. Martin's Press as well as Canadian and London publishers.  It's a bit late for me to find an agent who will take on someone who hasn't a promising future because there's not much of a future left. I think that forced representation (or anyone) is deeply unfair. Again, I'm sure this isn't your doing, so I'm harboring no ill feelings toward you; but policy makers should be reminded how soulfully barren that policy is. It really has no place in the arts.

The theatre company is not alone. I have two novels I’d like to send out, but after the big five closed submissions to non-agented writers, the emerging independents, some of them showing a tremendous spirit and supporting new and old voices embodied a bit of hope that the publishing world was more than James Patterson and the William Morris Agency. However, even many of enterprising newcomers seem to be closing the gates.

“No unsolicited manuscripts.  No exceptions.”

Don’t get me wrong. Over the last 30 or so years, in addition to seeing 18 of my novels published, I’ve accumulated a number of rejection slips. Some, though certainly not all, are variations of form letters.  But the likelihood is that my query, synopsis or a paragraph or two of the submitted manuscript were read or skimmed before the decision was made to reject it. And even if the rejection contained an observation I disagreed with, I did not resent the publisher’s decision, or comments for that matter. That truly is the publisher’s business. What happened was that someone gave it a few minutes and then responded. That’s all any of us are entitled to.

 In the case of the theater company mentioned above it’s a little worse. We have a community–based, nonprofit (tax and grant supported) organization acting like a Monsanto or G.E.   Regarding the book publishers, sadly, the highly spirited folks who set up new, vibrant publishing companies aren’t any different from the big five conglomerate publishers. They are, in too many cases, following in the big guys’ icy footsteps.

“No unsolicited manuscripts.  No exceptions.”

Now it’s true:  I am getting old and grumpy.  It might also be true that my skills, such as they were, are slipping. My days may be numbered, or over.  Then again the play, which prompted this rant, is about getting old and grumpy and irrelevant. And one’s advanced age and history should suggest some level of competence, at least enough for the work to warrant a quick glance.


MereOnceMoore said...

It's not's a crock. I'm amazed by the drivel that is published and all because someone knew a gatekeeper (she must've because she clearly didn't know an editor). "Phooey!", Says I. Keep up the old and do it with style and I like it. Bring it on!!!

Ronald Tierney said...

Many thanks. I had hoped to age like a fine wine. Seems as if it might be more like vinegar. Then again, that can come in handy in small quantities.