The Way It Was and the Way It Is Now

(Our thoughts about our new submissions policy and the fact that we will no longer respond to every unsolicited manuscript):

Twenty-five years ago, Albert Whitman received hundreds of manuscripts a year and we read every single one. People typed their stories on typewriters, or “word processors,” or else they composed them on beige home computers and then printed them up at “best quality” on their dot-matrix printers. We often received flyspecked photocopies, carboncopies, and pages of parchment typing paper where the typewriter left deep marks that you could feel with your fingers. The cover letters were usually brief, and they included SASEs. Sometimes the shorter manuscripts were folded into thirds, and from the deep creases you could tell that they’d been sent elsewhere and returned. Then you were compelled to keep the pages neat, so that you could fold them up again and send them back with our form rejection letters.

In our office twenty-five years ago, there was no email and people still had typewriters at their desks. There was time to open all the postal mail as soon as it was received.  When a writer didn’t include a SASE, we sent it back to him or her in a hand-addressed envelope with a reminder to please include one next time.

Ten years ago, Albert Whitman received thousands of manuscripts a year. We’d read every single one. They came on ink-jet and laser printers, and occasionally a few Xeroxed typewriter manuscripts. The cover letters were longer. Some people included email addresses as a sort of hopeful gesture. Some of the letters made claims like, “I am the next JK Rawlings,” (sic) and their writers didn’t even know to include SASEs, but we no longer had time to return their stories.  Now so many people owned PCs and thought they had written the next Harry Potter on them that we were sometimes overwhelmed and would fall behind on returning manuscripts.

In our office ten years ago, we had computers, too, and were determined to use them, so we logged in each submission in FileMaker Pro, so that when someone called or wrote us to find out what had happened to their story, there was a pretty good chance we could give them an answer. Sometimes people would phone us with questions—I sent my story on Monday did you get a chance to read it yet? or, How do I get published? or, I got a rejection letter, what am I doing wrong? We wanted to keep track of the manuscripts just so there’d be one question we could answer, and answer simply.

Five years ago, thousands of manuscripts continued to pour in. We would read every single one. But we no longer had time to log in the manuscripts. We were publishing more books now, though our staff hadn’t grown, and it was all we could do to keep up.  The postage increases were more frequent now, and often we had to stick one- or two-cent stamps on all the SASEs. We saw more email addresses on the first pages of manuscripts, more cover letters that said, Just recycle the manuscript if you’re not interested or I’ll assume that if I hear nothing after X number of months that the answer is no. We had to admit that made things easier.

Today, it’s more of the same: the manuscripts come in and we read every single one. We moved to a nicer office last November and moved boxes of manuscripts with us.  We read them in between the emails from agents and longtime authors, between the many more planning meetings that we have now, between all the other things that come with working at a company under new ownership and filled with new energy.

We are publishing still more books now, and our staff is still small (even a bit smaller).  And last month, with heavy hearts, we realized we can no longer respond to every submission without keeping writers waiting long past our posted response time. So we have decided to go the route many other houses have taken, and respond only when there is interest.  The SASEs, the form letters, the extra stamps—somehow it all adds up to a great deal of time we can’t afford, and we know writers can’t afford the extra wait time, either

All the same we hate losing the sense of connection that comes with that little transactions—sometimes we’d scrawl on the bottom of a form letter, Not right for us this time, but hope you’ll send again, or Do you have a good Thanksgiving story? But we’ve also been reaching out to promising writers through email for a while now, and we realize that the lines of communication are just different these days. We haven’t ruled out having an online submissions system, either, but we still like getting carefully printed pages in the mail.

People still call with questions sometimes—questions about their manuscripts, about getting published, about rejection. We don’t have all the answers, but there’s one thing we always tell them: We read all the stories. We read every single one.

Thanks for understanding.

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The Way It Was and the Way It Is Now

3 thoughts on “The Way It Was and the Way It Is Now

  1. It’s exactly because of one of those little comments nudging me with a new idea that I kept submitting to Whitman after my first rejection. It took me three tries. You’re so right about “…the Way it is Now” and I myself find it difficult to keep up with the mass of daily correspondence—email and otherwise. By placing a four-month window on reading submissions, at least a writer will have a sense of closure if they haven’t heard from you. And still they have the choice, like I did, to try again with a new story.

  2. Wendy in Editorial says:

    Yes, nudging will still happen via email, and I suspect that we’ll be doing more of it once we’re free from having to respond to everything, like the submissions that are sent out en masse from people who don’t even know our company. We appreciate when writers are focused with their submissions, and in turn we’d like to focus more on them.

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