In speaking withThe Australianabout the Patrick White hoax,
Shona Martyn, Publishing Director at HarperCollins, noted that the
publisher has moved away from the tradition of the slush pile
(unsolicited manuscripts sent directly to a publisher) as a way to
discover unpublished authors.

She writes:


HarperCollins has found that we were picking up only about one or two
publishable books a year from the slush pile of hundreds and hundreds. Employing staff to read
substandard, unpublishable, badly presented and often just plain badly written
manuscripts is not the best way to find new talent, in my experience. Similarly, people
employed to read through the slush pile tend to become very
demoralised!

Rather, HarperCollins
has chosen to look for new talent in more proactive ways – most notably through
our Varuna Manuscript Development Awards where each year we send four of five
senior editors to work one-on-one over a ten-day period with a group of
unpublished authors.

In addition, we find
talent from a variety of other sources including personal recommendations (eg
from tutors at writing courses, other authors and even via booksellers who will
recommend the work of their customers). Our publishers also spend time talking
and lecturing would-be writers at workshops and festivals and many of these
personal contacts eventually yield manuscripts. They also approach potential
writers directly and keep an eye on publication of new work in literary
journals. Of course a large number of our books come via agents but a large
percentage do not. A good publisher is open to opportunity and should chase the
talent!

All in all, I think The Australian piece was very
flawed – especially given the choice of a Patrick White chapter given
that, despite his undeniable talent, his style of writing is difficult
and not instantly appealing to today’s literary readers who are buying
different styles of writing (rightly or wrongly). Literature and
reading, like anything else, are subject to fashions. Having said that,
I believe that if a writer of Patrick White’s talent was starting today
then his or her work would surface via some of the ways mentioned
above.

The article was also
predicated on the false assumption that if a manuscript showed great talent then
any intelligent publisher would purchase it. This shows a complete
misunderstanding of how publishers work. Publishers buy books that fit their
list – we do have specialities – and look for books that they can sell in
economic quantities. Publishers buy books that the public will buy; we work in businesses.

However, we do
buy a number of books – especially literary books – each year which are not
strictly economic but do show great promise and talent. We deviate from our
standard “profit and loss” objectives because of publisher passion in these
books. Our plan is that we will attract enough readers to start a buzz for them
and we hope they will win awards or develop a long-term career. But of course we
pick books that we think the literary readers will want to
read.

All in all, The
Australian
‘s sting showed much as I would expect: some publishers (like us)
don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts and send back a letter to that effect.
This information is clearly on our website along with information on writers’
courses and the like and staff also spend a lot of time helping would-be authors
who phone us. So I hardly feel “exposed” – rather pleased that our system works
in a random test!

It also showed that
publishers and agents who did read the material tended to write back polite and
helpful letters explaining the book was not for them or that they could not sell
it.

Peter Fray

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