It’s a common fairy tale in publishing: a completely unknown author—perhaps someone who’s never published anything in their lives—sends an unsolicited manuscript to a famous agent, editor, or publishing house, where it’s discovered by someone who can see its rough brilliance shining through even from the depths of the mountainous slush pile. The manuscript is accepted, their book is published to an amazed public, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But in reality, the tale of the brilliant unsolicited manuscript is more often fiction than nonfiction. Accepting unsolicited manuscripts means opening the floodgates to anyone who can use a computer and press send. It also means taking the time and resources to wade through the slush pile, looking for something that simply might not be there.
It has many in the publishing world wondering:
Should I accept unsolicited manuscripts and pitches?
Or should I focus on known entities?
There are obviously big pros and cons to both approaches. And agents and editors across the world have made both decisions and found success. But in this post, we’re going to focus on the reasons that you should accept unsolicited manuscripts, even considering the added effort of accepting, collecting, and reviewing works from dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of parties.
Let’s take a closer look.
Take more shots and get more bullseyes
How do you go about discovering the next must-read book?
Well, it’s simple math that if you are reading more manuscripts from more sources, you’ll have more chances to strike gold. If you’re taking all comers and moving through large volumes of work, you might stumble upon the next big thing simply by chance.
Considering that the poor unsolicited manuscripts will be bad enough to recognize quickly—within a few pages or even within a few paragraphs—you could sift through a huge numbers of manuscripts in a relatively short period of time. And if you give the job to an assistant or intern who can take out the obviously bad fits, you might have a system that produces hidden gems a few times a year.
In some cases, volume can obscure—having piles of badly written book proposals cluttering your office may make it harder to concentrate on the good stuff. But if you have a efficient process for your slush pile, it will simply give you more chances to succeed.
Get a competitive edge
As an agent or publisher, you want to stay one step ahead of your competition at all times.
There is an enormous pool of talent that goes untapped when publishers repeatedly solicit manuscripts from the same group of authors. Pitches for unsolicited manuscripts can reveal new writers with genuine and fresh ideas—people who don’t already live in the publishing world and know all the same people that you do.
A competitive edge is all about innovating and continuing to develop the way stories are told. To do this, it’s beneficial to have a supply of new and diverse talent that you can consistently review and pull from as you are selecting pieces for the market. Again, as long as you’re able to sort through your pile quickly and deliberately, you’ll have an advantage over everyone else if you’re looking through unsolicited material.
Imagine a gold mine with a bunch of gold diggers busy inside. Wouldn’t it be smart to— in addition to the main mine—also look for gold in another nearby mine? Even if it doesn’t produce a huge amount of gold, it’s gold that you don’t have to fight over with others.
Increase diversity and encourage inclusion
When you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, you’re limited to the people and world around you. In many cases, this means that you are soliciting people who look and think like you, and who came from a similar background. If you rely on word of mouth and your professional circle, you may be creating an echo chamber when you publish—not to mention walling yourself off from amplifying historically marginalized voices.
You may also be reading the work of more privileged people if you aren’t opening your doors to unsolicited work. These are likely people who had the advantage of a good education, a helpful social network, and confidence to put their work out there. You won’t likely be reading the work of a single mom with two jobs who writes amazing science fiction at night, or a janitor who writes groundbreaking poetry because he hasn’t been exposed to the same old mainstream canon as everyone else.
And diversity isn’t just limited to gender, race, and sexuality (although it’s an awesome start). Diversity also means diversity of ideas, styles, viewpoints, experiences, and backgrounds.
Accepting unsolicited manuscripts means removing barriers from people who face an uphill battle to get published. It helps them find success, it helps you run a better organization, and it makes your list and the world a better, more diverse and fair place.
Learn about new trends
Recognize that accepting unsolicited manuscripts isn’t just about finding the next big author or book. It’s about keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s going on out in the publishing and writing world. It can even tell you what your audience is thinking about.
Looking for patterns in your slush pile.
Is everyone writing gothic tales about vampire this year?
Is there a new sparse style emerging that you would have never noticed otherwise?
In some cases, you’ll want to lean into these trends, looking for subject matter and styles that will give readers what they’re looking for. In other cases, you may recognize that there’s too much of a trend, or that it’s already crested—and you should avoid buying books that are unoriginal or that will get lost in a din of similar material.
Organize your slush pile and pitches with an efficient submission management system
For the reasons above, slush piles and unsolicited manuscripts can be a lucrative, smart, and thoughtful way to improve your business, whether you’re an agent, editor, or publisher. But if you don’t have an efficient system to handle the incoming mail, it could just be a drag on your operations that isn’t worth the effort.
Scanning hundreds or thousands of unsolicited submissions is daunting and can take time, thought, and resources. Doing it right is vital to benefiting from the act at all.
Submission management solutions for publishers and agents keep all of your unsolicited pitches organized and in one place. They also allow you and your team to easily review submissions and communicate with authors about their work. It’s like digging for gold with a front loader instead of a shovel.
Locating that perfect unsolicited manuscript should not be an impossible task. When you have the right team, the right tools, and the experience in screening pieces of writing, pitches for unsolicited manuscripts aren’t as daunting as they may seem. With an effective system for screening a broader pool of creative work, you may find the authors and written works to take your publishing firm or agency to the next level.