As I understand it, Macmillan New Writing has received about 7,000 submissions so far, and has published or plans to publish in the neighborhood of 30 of these—about one-half of one percent. (The numbers are easy to quibble about: at least two of the MNW books were preselected from the “long list” of the Richard and Judy competition; and at least a few books scheduled are second novels from authors already published by MNW, so they represent new books but not new, over-the-transom manuscripts.) Depending on how you fiddle them, the numbers suggest about three to five out of every thousand manuscripts over the transom are accepted.
MNW is in a unique position. There are, of course, other imprints that still accept over-the-transom submissions, but MNW is the only imprint that relies exclusively on the slush pile of unpublished novelists for its initial supply of material. It can’t really be viewed as the slush pile in this case, since it is the only pile.
In my previous post, I described how MacAdam/Cage could toss half the novels they received over the transom simply because they were in the wrong category. Obviously MNW can’t do this, since they accept submissions in all genres. This means the pile stays higher longer—but, looked at the other way round, it means that there are also more possibilities in the pile. Few imprints can state their requirements as simply as, “We’re looking for good novels.”
The fact that MNW asks for full, finished novels also adds another hurdle. At least in the US, there are a distressing number of nutjobs who believe that their idea for the story is so irresistable that they need not complete their novel before shopping it around--hell, they don't even need to be able to write with any competency! So they send in a hastily prepared fifty pages--the first fifty pages they ever wrote--and a cover letter (usually announcing that their book is the next Da Vinci Code), assuming that the publishers will be so excited they will buy the unfinished manuscript and even hire a ghostwriter to do 'the technical stuff.' For these folks, needing a full manuscript to submit is more like a mountain range than a 'hurdle'.
Not only are the pickings richer for MNW, but the imprint also has a rare freedom in that it was never expected to be a money-spinner. I’m sure money is always welcome, but the fact that MNW started as a break-even proposition means that the imprint can afford to take risks with novels that don’t fit neatly into marketing categories, or books that hybridize or straddle genres.
With this richer field to draw upon, how many books does MNW find that are publishable? Mike Barnard, in Transparent Imprint, says
I have often been asked how many I think could have been published if we had a free rein…I can probably best answer it by admitting that there were at least a dozen novels I would have published if I had not already had enough material in hand for the period we were working through.
In other words, the number of additional titles he would have liked to have published (about twelve) was only slightly less than the number they did publish (fourteen). Had they published all twenty-six, the acceptance rate would still have been well below one percent. Barnard goes on to add
Like all editors, I am asked whether I think we might have missed any gems that could have become bestsellers. That is an easy question to answer: yes, of course…[W]e all have good days and bad days. We all suffer from colds, headaches, hangovers, distractions of one sort or another. It is probable that something really good has slipped through the net.
Even if we allow for those possible omissions, however, it seems unlikely that adding them to the totals would mean that more than one percent of the manuscripts received were 'desirable' by MNW criteria.
Macmillan’s experiment has demonstrated that there are good novels out there going unpublished. But the numbers also suggest there isn’t a tidal wave of good novels out there waiting to inundate the market. Even with Macmillan’s open system and ability to take risks, only a few of each thousand are considered publishable.
These may seem like dismal numbers, and I suppose they are. Facing the market today, the unpublished novelist is told to find a good ‘hook,’ to stay ahead of market trends, to be prepared to rewrite from an adult novel to YA as needed, to practice laying out a logline, to have an elevator pitch ready at all times, to pay for workshops on writing a killer query letter, to attend conferences and hunt agents somehow without appearing to be a stalker, that physical appearance matters, that you’re better off with a platform even for fiction…It's all politics, we're told, and there are a million things you need to do to give yourself that extra 'edge'.
There's no obvious extra 'edge' to be brought to the slush pile as managed by MNW, and some may find this frightening. Yet it's also liberating, as it puts the whole problem solidly back in your lap. It isn't how you cut your hair, or how well-rehearsed your pitch is, or how you look in a sundress, or whether you can schmooze with Binky Urban. It all comes down to that one hard thing, but the only thing over which you have real control: Write the best book you can.
I presume (or hope) that's why we wanted to write in the first place, so I guess that can be counted as good news.