Sunday 3 January 2010


One of the hurdles which publishers sometimes put in your way is the "No Unsolicited Manuscripts" one. Bit like arriving at a house for a party to find the lights off in the hall and the door shut. You can see the party going on upstairs but no one's answering the bell. Damned irritating.

As a party-goer, you have three choices.
1. Creep away and go back home, seriously pissed off that everyone's at the party except you. Fume unpleasantly and to no effect or find another party to go to.

2. Hammer on the door / throw stones at the windows till someone notices.

3. Phone and explain that you're on the doorstep and would they please come and let you in.

As an author, you have three choices.
1. Obey. Don't send them anything; save your stamps and paper. After all, they're obviously too busy to read it and you'll annoy them by disobeying, won't you?

2. Disobey. Just send it anyway. After all, they won't turn down the Next Big Thing, will they? Publishers and agents DO want your book if it IS perfect for them.

3. Send a query - a letter or email which makes your book sound so irrestistible and shows that your power of language is so astonishing that they will ask you to send your submission (partial or full). Then it won't be unsolicited, will it?

Each of these choices carries risks of a negative outcome.
1. Obeying carries a negative certainty: your book will absolutely not be taken by that publisher, because you haven't sent it. Therefore, obedience is not necessarily beneficial, though it is safe. If obedience is your forte, see option 3.

2. Disobeying obviously carries the risk of outright rejection simply for having disobeyed, and the risk of having wasted your stamps, paper and time. However, it carries the tiny possibility of success. So, it may be worth disobeying if you are as sure as possible that there is a very good specific reason why this publisher might really be looking for this book. Is your book a perfect match? [Don't say so: that's for them to decide for themselves.] Can you be sure that your pitch is so perfect and so compelling that it will get you past the No Unsolicited Submissions rule, which they have put there for a reason?

NB: the reason why they say No Unsolicited Submissions is, basically, that they are sick of being overwhelmed by the utter crapulosity of the guff that lands on their desks, often accompanied by toffees*, tea-bags**, stupid rhymes***, and glitter confetti****.

*    -  see this post.
**  -  an agent friend just received another one, accompanied by a covering letter suggesting that she might enjoy a cup of tea while reading the jolly MS. Consider the possibility that a) that is for the agent to decide and she is perfectly capable of knowing whether she wants a cup of tea b) this might not be the first time someone thought of this rubbish idea c) that she might think twice before drinking the tea from a grubby bag that has been fingered by a stupid author before being stuffed in a re-used envelope and d) it says absolutely nothing for the quality of the MS, which is the only thing the agent cares about.
*** -  see this shame-faced post here.
**** - a well-known way of pissing off agents and publishers.

3. The risk of the query letter approach is that if the answer is no, you have buggered your other option of disobeying. Remember when you were a kid and you did that oh-so-mature thing and asked permission to do something exciting / radical and the person said no? Well, then you couldn't do it, could you? Whereas, if you'd just gone ahead and risked it...

The query letter approach is also very difficult. To query someone who has already indicated busyness, exasperation, crabbitness, or general lack of desire to read an MS that hasn't come from an agent, means that your query must be spectacularly brilliant. Your book must be patently the right book, aimed at the right publisher at the right time. It must be clear from the covering letter that it is exactly what he or she wants, even though you don't know what it is that he or she wants. You have to express it so beautifully and compellingly that the publisher simply cannot pass on it.

Your query must, in short, be perfect, even though no one, not even I, can tell you what that perfect query is. Why can't we tell you? Because we don't know your book and we don't know the mind of the agent / publisher you are sending it to. Every book is different; every author is different; every agent or publisher is different. Therefore, each ideal query letter is different.

Having said that, you expect me to advise you and so I shall. Your query to publisher who has stated No Unsolicited Submissions must, in no particular order:
  1. Show [not tell] that you are a wonderful wordsmith, with a perfect command of our language and an ability to engage.
  2. Include nothing that reveals that you are not fully aware of how publishing works and knowledgeable about the market for your book. There are many, many common glaring errors in query and covering letters  - see some of my posts about covering letters. I know covering letters are not the same as queries, but they follow the same principles of needing grab your expert readers.
  3. Describe the book in a paragraph or two and in a way that really does make it sound like a book that lots of people would want to read and therefore a book which the publisher can sell in quantities - but Do Not Tell Them This. One good way to think about this is to think how you'd write the blurb on the back of your book, though it should be somewhat longer than most blurbs.
  4. Offer a book of the exact sort that publisher usually handles - that way, how could they turn you down?? [Easily, actually - it could be the right sort of book but not written in the right way.]
  5. Show [not tell] that you are professional, non-delusional, stable, hard-working, talented and very wonderful to work with.
Told you it wasn't easy...

You might want to know which of the three options I would choose if I didn't have an agent. Frankly, it would depend on the book and the publisher. If I genuinely thought I'd written a book which was a perfect match for publisher X, I'd use Option 2 or 3. Yes, but which one, you annoying woman?

Eeny, meeny...

Option 2. Ooh, scary.

Or Option 3.

No, seriously. It would depend. I'd do everything possible to find out about the person I was planning to approach, see if I could contact one of their existing authors for advice, case them out [in a non-stalkery kind of way...] on their blog or website or Twitter and then I'd make a judgement as to which to do. If they don't have any of those on-line presences and I couldn't find out anything about them, I'd have to have a stab in the dark.

Option 3 is the more professional and more difficult. Therefore, if you want me to give a definitive rule:


But you've got to do it brilliantly and have written a brilliant book. On the other hand, you're going to need to have done that anyway.


    Tamsyn Murray said...

    Great advice, as always. I tend to find your blog posts are like the fabled breadcrumb trail in the woods, but in reverse. I follow one link after another and pretty soon I'm a long way from where I started. But I'm so busy nodding in agreement that I don't really mind.

    To add in my ten pence worth, the query letter/email should never attempt to be the last word in wit, even if you are secretly Stephen Fry. Keep it succinct, keep it professional and do not be tempted to attach a Hobnob to go with that cup of tea. Trust me, it won't work.

    Thomas Taylor said...

    I'm glad to see a disobey option seriously discussed. There are bound to be times when breaking the rules is the best option, and what's the worst that could happen?

    emmadarwin said...

    Great post, Nicola. Would you recognise a difference between 'no unsolicited manuscripts' and 'no unsolicited submissions'?

    I've always taken 'no unsolicited ms' to mean that they won't give your whole thumping great novel the time of day, but there's no reason you shouldn't submit the standard chapters-and-synopsis.

    Whereas 'no unsolicited submissions' means 'we don't want to hear from you.' which you can they obey or disobey as discussed.

    Am I wrong?

    Maybe 'no unsolicited subs.' still doesn't exclude a (glitter-free) enquiry letter. (Though I hope it does - I hope a day never comes when fancy enquiries do better than the little detail of getting the book right.)

    Unknown said...

    How about the fourth option? I self-published my children's books, I am about to self-publish my third, and they are into several printings. Lots of hard work and courage needed, but very rewarding. Rather than join the lottery, it's well worth doing.

    Mary Hoffman said...

    I'm going to disagree. If I were an agent or publisher with a No Unsolicited manuscripts tag I would be serious;y pissed off with someone who sent me an MS or even a query.

    There are always others to try so why not make that your option? Agents are often closed to queries for a period while they catch up on a backlog as Colleen Lindsay (The Swivet) was for some months in 2009. But their websites or blogs will say when they are open again.

    The danger with disobeying is that the recipient will delete or bin without reading, which means even if your book's masterpiece they won't know (even if it means shooting themselves in the foot).

    And there is the faint possibility that they'll remember your name as an annoying disobeyer if they ever come across you again.

    I really hate it when people don't follow the contact advice on my website which says not to ask questions answered in the FAQs and would imagine under-pressure publishers and agents feel the same.

    I'd like to see what their feedback is to this post.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Mary - fair enough, but the point is that option 3 would not be NOT disobeying. A query letter is not the same as a submission. The UK is beginning to follow the US (as usual!) in this respect. A query asks whether the agent or publisher is interested in the sound of the book, and gives said agent or publisher the chance to judge. He or she is also entirely free to ignore it, as with any email or letter one doesn't want to reply to.

    In my listed reasons not to disobey, I gave exactly the samer reasons as you: that it might annoy the recipient and wastes stamps/time. However, it is also entirely possible that the writer hasn't seen the info that says that the agent/publisher is not now taking unsolicited subs - for example, the writer might have looked at the website eg before that notice went up, so even actually disobeying is not necessarily flagrantly disobeying, but could be unawareness, and therefore forgiveable. (Agent/publisher should then simply ignore if wished.)

    I entirely agree that it's very annoying and inadvisable when people disobey other aspects of submission guidelines, and those types of disobedience would be cause for rejection, but writing an email or letter to someone is only disobedience if the agent etc actually says they don't want to receive a letter or email. Anything else is legitimate, and also may legitimately be ignored by the recipient.

    I do agree you'd have the right to be pissed off if someone sent an actual submission - that's why it's a big risk if you do this knowing the agent etc doesn't want one. I still also believe that IF your covering letter is brilliant enough and ticks all the right boxes, it still might get through. I not only believe it - I have had two publishers and at least two agents say this to me. But they're not going to say that publicly, for obvious reasons!!!

    Emma - no, I'd say they were just the same for the purposes of this. A submission is the usual covering letter+synopsis+sample, and although not a full MS counts as the same, as you wouldn't ever send a full MS without its being requested.

    Carole Ann - well done, but it's not what I'm about. I want to spend the time writing, not selling and distributing, and I simply prefer to play within these boundaries, which I do not regard as a lottery but a pretty decent set of necessary hurdles to generate quality. Not fool-proof, of course, but the best we've got. I have self-published myself actually, so I know how it all works. I have no plans ever to go down that route again.

    Jemi Fraser said...

    I can't imagine just sending the ms. Kind of makes me break out in a cold sweat. Maybe I'm just a little too much of a rule follower?? :) Great post!

    Anonymous said...

    Option 4-- This may only be available in the US?

    Find an editor at the no-unsolicited-submissions house who is willing to read anyway. This is how I sold my first novel.

    Ways to find this lovely editor: she might be presenting at a conference, and offer to accept submissions from those who attended her talk. She might be listed as reading in a writers' newsletter (this is how I found mine).

    emmadarwin said...

    Thanks, Nicola, that's cleared that up.

    I do wonder, though, whether agents who say no unsolicited anythings, not even queries, are cutting off their nose to spite their face. I mean, I know dealing with the slush is a pain and in many ways a waste of good agenting time, and I don't think that an agent's duty is to literature, or to helping aspiring writers express themselves; their only duty is to stay solvent and businesslike for the sake of their existing authors. But those existing authors are going to die, or stop selling (the latter, of course, is a more serious failing in an author), so where DO those agents expect the new blood to come from?

    And I know several extremely distinguished agents who agree with me on this one. One way of dealing with the 'no unsolicited anythings' is to think smugly 'Well, more fool you,' (just don't say it aloud). And then trot off and submit to those agents who have some sense.

    Rosalind Adam said...

    Thank you for an extremely helpful blog. It is frustrating that some publishers never accept unsolicited mss and even more frustrating when agents have to issue the same instructions. I know and have been told many times how huge the slush piles can be and so can understand how difficult it is for them but from my point of view it makes getting a ms accepted seem like an impossibility.

    I do agree with Book Maven that to break their rules could create a black mark and could hinder future submissions. The publisher may have binned it without even glancing at the first page, the tile, your name, nothing, but you won't know and so won't be able to resubmit if submissions are reopened in the future.

    Sarah said...

    I'm with Anon for a 4th option.

    At least in the US, many editors and agents who speak at a conference will accept submissions from attendees for a few months after the conference.

    There's a house that I absolutely adore that didn't take unsolicited material. When I found out that SCBWI was going to host an event with an editor from that house, I cleared my schedule and attended.

    During the event, the editor announced that she would accept submissions and gave instructions to follow.

    I submitted a MS. She didn't accept it, but she gave very helpful feedback and asked that I send her other material I thought would fit with the house. Now I have an editor at that house that I can send (my best, most polished!) work to.

    Conferences and meeting are a great way to be able to submit to closed houses.

    Marshall Buckley said...

    There is so much useful advice out there on the sumbission process (this post included) and yet, it seems, sometimes you do have to break the rules...

    When I started submitting, I broke one of the (allegedly) cardinal rules - don't mass query.

    But, out of that mass query, came a couple of partial requests and a couple of full requests.

    One of those fulls (and I quote: "In spite of promising not to take on any more new work, your query intrigued me...") led to agent representation...

    Administrator said...

    I think no unsolicited manuscripts simply means don't send a sub without asking - ie they are happy to read solicited manuscripts as a result of you querying first. No unsolicited manuscripts doesn't equal no unsolicted queries.

    If agents don't even want queries, they tend to, instead, say 'presently not taking on new clients'.

    I've always followed this logic and never had a problem. Just email or write a letter first.

    Anonymous said...

    Contra Book Maven, I would add 6: Remember that caring about overwhelmed agents is not your job. That's _their_ job. You job is writing at the top of your game, then getting your shit out there. If it's good, and they're 'closed to submissions' or whatever, too bad for them. Drop something in the (e)mail to see if they're flexible; if not, there are plenty of excellent agents in New York. (And possibly even in such foreign countries as London and California.)

    There's all this mumbo-jumbo about agents and query letters. It's largely nonsense. This is a business relationship. Write a business letter telling what you're selling, and if they think they can wring a few bucks outta your soul, they'll rep you. And if you've done your homework, you'll want them to.

    Worrying about exactly how many pages to send is a waste of time. Worrying about pissing agents off is worse.

    They get 9,000 letters a year. Unless you send them one of your neighbor's kidneys, they'll forget you the minute they click 'delete'. They're agents. They're not thin-skinned. They're barely _human_.

    There's no secret to getting an agent, there's no complex method, and there aren't any crazy taboos or mystic instructions other than 'pretend you're normal.' (Which is hard for us writers, of course.)


    Lauri said...

    I agree you need to take chances, don't go insane and unprofessional, but risk it. The worst that can happen they reject it or never contact you- that's going to happen on average at least 16 times per manuscript anyway, so you might as well get a few under your belt.

    As for no simultaneous submissions- forget it- I'll be 46 in a few days I can't wait on these folks.

    Administrator said...

    Great comments , you two!

    I've taken more chances this time around and it's because i'm more confident of my writing. Eg, i follow the Nathan Bransford rule of nudging once a month. At the end of the day we have to have some self-respect for ourselves and our work. This doesn't mean pestering agents, it simply means entering into any communciation in a professional manner and expecting the same in return.

    Jean said...

    This isn't quite the same, but its similar. I once broke the rules by sending some sample chapters to a mainstream publisher who state that they don't consider unagented material. I also did what authors are advised never to do and made some silly jokey comment in my covering letter.

    It landed on the desk of an editor who apparently had the same whacky humour as me, and he asked to see my full manuscript. Although it wasn't accepted in the end, he sent me useful feedback on my manuscript, and bags of encouragement.

    catdownunder said...

    There is a public/civil service "rule" that covering letters should never run to more than a page. No packet of information should ever run to more than three pages - two pages are preferred. (They do not mean printed on both sides either.) This does not apply to them of course - just to us. I suspect agents and publishers apply the same "rule".

    Melinda Szymanik said...

    The aim is to turn your ms from an unsolicited into a 'solicited' one, and my MO has just been to e-mail (no special query, but I guess my sentences are suitably coherent) and ask. So this may be a different option to the three Nicola outlined? Its usually to publishers not agents, but on three attempts (a UK publisher and two australian ones) I've had three yeses. It ended in a rejection from the UK publisher but I'm still waiting on the australian ones - fingers crossed.

    Dan Holloway said...

    I always thought The Book Maven was right. I still do but I'm no longer seeking representation so it's not an issue.

    It used to annoy the hell out of me when published writers in tehir "how-to" contributions to columns/books would say how they disobeyed all the rules to get their agent. Well maybe you did, BUT.

    And - and this is the equal opps administrator in me who deals with job applications at work all the time - if an agent says no subs, then they should darn well mean it and stick to it. I don't think I'd want to work with an agent who'd be prepared to go against what they've said - so it would be number 3 for me through and through.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Dan - erghhhh - to repeat: option three, the one I recommend, is not disobeying! A letter is not a manuscript submission. A letter can also be ignored. No one should be annoyed. An agent who receives a polite and well-written letter which describes a brilliant book and does NOT demand a response should not be annoyed.

    Dan Holloway said...

    Sorry, I wasn't being clear - I know option 3 isn't disobeying. What I was talking about is the likes of Mark Billingham who happily explain how they just shoved out the first 100 pages of their script without any regard to what the agents asked for and struck lucky.

    I've seen pros who advocate this kind of approach as well. And it's part of what I REALLY wanted Carole Blake to answer - because she advocates sending out queriess in a form the agent has specifically not requested.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Ah, Dan, NOW you're talking. I completely agree and would like to point out and make clear that I have always advocated obedience to SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I would never suggest disobeying a particular agent or publisher/s sub guidelines, regardless, as you say, of the fact that some successful authors claim to have done so.

    No, this is not about disobeying submission guidelines because "No unsolicited submissions/MSS" is not a guideline for the method of submission presentation. This is about understanding that publishers DO want a great book to be offered to them, if it's the right book for them. They find ways, understandably, of putting people off, because they know that if they ask for lots of submissions they'll be flooded with dross. But it remains the fact that it IS possible (not certain or very likely but possible) that a publisher will still read the first lines of a letter and that if that letter is exceptionally promising, describing an exceptionally promising book, the publisher may go further. If the hook is good enough, this is actually quite likely. I know, because I know publishers who have done this.

    I HATE getting sales phonecalls, for example, and have subscribed to the various services which try to prevent them. HOWEVER, very very very occasionally a caller gets under my radar and speaks to me in such a way that I listen. What I'm saying is just like that.

    Anyway, you've inspired me to do my next blog post about the inadvisability of disobedience, so thank you! You make very good points and I've always admired your professionalism.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Melinda - yes, I'd include that in Option 3. If the hook is good enough and if the publisher is looking for any subs at all (ie including solicited ones and ones from agents) there is a decent chance of this working at least as far as turning your MS into a solicited one.

    Anonymous said...


    Last time I looked for an agent, I didn't even bother checking what they were asking for in terms of queries.

    The difference, I think, is partly confidence. My shit is good enough to sell. I'm not asking an agent for a favor, I'm trying to find a partner who's going to make money with me. I'm polite and businesslike, but I don't jump through hoops.

    If a professional letter and a few enclosed pages offend an agent, that is not someone with whom I want to work.


    Tuesday Kid said...

    Assuming it's a costume party. What if you wait until someone comes out of the party, beat them up, take their costume, go back into the party and claim they were you all along. Plenty tried it with Belle Du Jour.

    David John Griffin said...

    Looking ahead to the possibility of "exhausting" my personal list of agents, the plan was to put the novel back in the bottom drawer, for ever this time. But now I see there's another "angle of attack" I hadn't thought of, using option 3, to send queries to publishers.

    And I guess if I ever did get a bite, agents would be lining up outside my front door! (Well, I can dream, can't I!)

    Thank you, Nicola!


    Anonymous said...

    Most of us here in the US accept query letters only. We don't want pages. It's in our submission guidelines. Yet there are those who are too good to read those guidelines and send their full manuscripts or pages (as an attachment, no less) uninvited. These blokes are usually the first to get axed.

    Now let me explain. Yes, it's true that we want a brilliant story. But we also have to temper that against someone who doesn't know how to follow the simplest and basic of rules of read the flipping submission guidelines.

    If they can't manage that, what else are they going to decide not to follow? Don't forget that we get you for the lifetime of your book, and that requires a great deal of interaction and cooperation. Since we don't know anything about you, we have to make judgments based on how you present yourself. Jumping out of the starting gate by not following the guidelines is a terrible way to make a good impression.

    Too many of us have worked with authors we'd wished had taken up competitive fire walking than writing because they were so hard to deal with.

    So what may seem small and innocuous to you can actually be a big deal to us. We have little choice but to use our sixth sense, and it begins with, "dude, can you follow directions?"

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