Time to stop being so submissive

Needle in a haystack?

When JK Rowling revealed the rejection letters she received after submitting a book pitch as Robert Galbraith we learned that certain members of the publishing trade are not only unable to spot talent, they’re rude and condescending to boot. For anyone who has ever submitted to a publisher or a literary agent that may not exactly constitute ‘news’.

Thousands of book ideas are pitched each week to literary agents but virtually none of these submissions make it past the steely scrutiny of these ‘gatekeepers of literary excellence’. The agents, like border guards at Calais, will tell you there’s no entry today.

But JK’s disclosure of her rejection letters, highly amusing as it is, begs a bigger question: is there a bigger waste of time than the laborious, inexact and humiliating process of literary submissions? For publishers, agents and writers alike, is this really the best system we can come up with?

Clearly, a lot of the submissions made by hopeful authors are never going to satisfy the trade’s quality and commercial requirements to justify a deal. Probably 90% of submissions don’t stand a chance from the outset – they simply should not have been forwarded for consideration.

Factor in, too, that of these thousands of submissions per week, it’s likely that some carpet-bombing hopeful is sending the same pitch to an average of, say, twenty agents. Perhaps it’s down to weariness that agents miss the occasional gems submerged in their slush piles? If they had less submissions to consider it would certainly help.

And, while the current system continues, can you blame aspiring authors for their ‘in it to win it’ approach, each submission being a lottery ticket bought for the big draw? Certainly, more scrutiny and objectivity on when a work is ‘ready’ would help. But even then, as JK Rowling discovered, many so-called professionals wouldn’t be able to spot a winner if they had a free bet in a one-horse race.

From a business point of view, the traditional publishing industry is one of the most conservative professions known to man. Facing a revolution in distribution – Amazon/E-books in particular – and the attendant margin erosion this has wrought, they’re under more pressure than ever.

They are seeing a percentage of the available talent pool turning to self-publishing while they continue to lose money on many of the authors they do sign up, relying on foreign rights and the occasional screen deal to keep them afloat.

So how are they combating this deteriorating business model? By continuing to rely on a haphazard, time consuming and unproductive way of finding new authors is how, sifting for gold like a desperate Klondike miner, hoping (like the starry-eyes writers they’re courting) that ‘something will turn up’?

Here’s the thing: why don’t we just forget the whole submissions ritual, and start again? Why don’t agents stop soliciting submissions completely and, for example, only consider book pitches where a writing group or a reading group has decided what work to advance? Quality up; quantity down at a stroke.

Or, how about getting rid of literary agencies altogether in favour of a single literary agent network funded by the publishers association? That would at least see each submission being evaluated only once rather than ten, twenty, thirty plus times?

So come on, publishers and agents; come on writers – tell us your thinking; share with us how you’d like to improve this outdated and ridiculous beauty parade? That’s, assuming, of course that you want it to change?

And while we’re waiting for a new mousetrap, maybe hopeful writers should seize this Spartacus moment and simply sign future submissions ‘I am Robert Galbraith’.


Paul Carroll is the author of Written Off, a satire on the publishing industry (Matador, January 2016). Available on Amazon: