Open Submissions Month #1: The Short List
5 years ago
So as you’ve probably heard, the results from the Abaddon Books Open Submissions Month are in, and will be announced soon. (Soon, soon... be still.)
To make a bit of an occasion of it, and to give you an insight into how we roll here at Abaddon Towers, I’ve decided to break the announcement down into three parts. Today I’ll be giving you a bit of a run-down on how the process of whittling a big ol’ submissions pile to a workable short list went down; tomorrow I’ll break down the stats on who submitted and what I think we can take away from them; and Thursday you’ll hear the exciting results.
On Making A Short List
The blunt problem with an open submissions policy, whether you keep an open door all the time or just throw them open for a month at a time like we do, is volume. There are countless aspirants out there hoping to break into a future of slight fame and modest fortune as a professional writer; and that’s amazing, and a huge testament to the relevance of the medium in this day and age, but no editor of my acquaintance has ever said, “Dammit, my unsolicited submissions pile is too damn small.” And like any editor, much of my time is taken up with taking existing manuscripts and turning them into magical versions of themselves, encrusted with glitter and dreams, to send out into the world; and much of the rest of my time is taken with email correspondence with authors, agents, proofreaders, designers, artists and printers, or with administrative work, or making ebooks. I don’t got a lot of spare bandwidth.
So I gotta cut the list down hard and quickly, but I also want to give writers a fair chance. So step one is to read through every submission in the list with my skimmin’ pants on, with a view to passing a basic standard of quality, suitability and interest. The bar was set pretty low, as this wasn’t a close reading and I didn't want to drop something I’d regret losing, but it gave me a line.
Quality’s pretty straightforward; if your brief submission, carefully honed and polished job-application-stylee, contains more than a handful of basic errors, I have to assume I’d have a hard time working with your final manuscript. In 2012, this was an easyish stage, as a high proportion of submissions – probably at least a third – were clearly from people with little writing experience: clunky writing; frequent, basic errors; dull, derivative or inappropriate outlines. I offered feedback to help them on their way and sent them back to keep working on their craft. This time, fortunately (or unfortunately, for muggins trying to pull a short list out of the works), the overall quality of the list was outstanding, and I was only able to drop a handful of submissions on these criteria.
Suitability’s mostly about whether you paid attention to submission guidelines. If your new world pitch too closely resembles one of our existing worlds (a lot of the early cuts had this issue), or you submitted a full-length novel (two of those) or weren’t interested in the work for hire model (bizarrely, one of those!), or otherwise demonstrated that you hadn’t done your homework, then I cut it (one guy addressed his submission to “Aberdeen Books,” but since he got the name right in the body of the email, I generously decided that was an autocorrect error and overlooked it, and he made the shortlist). This helped cut the list a bit, but again, most of you were very professional and had put your best foot forward; I was able to drop at most a quarter of the pitches based on suitability.
Finally, Interest was a gut-feeling, “Do I want to publish this story?” question; are the characters engaging? Is the outline interesting? Is this fun, or cool? The standard here was (again) incredible, and there were very few pitches I could drop because I wasn’t interested in the characters, or because the story didn’t have merit. In the end I basically applied the “tickle” rule; did the submission tickle me? Did I think, “Awesome! What a cool idea!”? And the tragedy is, this is a completely arbitrary guideline! I dropped pitches other editors would have kept, and in some cases that I might have kept, on another day. Hell, I dropped one excellent pitch on WWII just because I’d decided I was tired of Nazis (I explained and apologised, and actually proposed a way to revisit the pitch later).
At last, after the first pass, I had whittled down the list to about a third of its original size.
On Making A Short-Short List
So, down to the serious reading. Make a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and curl up on the sofa.
At this stage I’m going through the pitches again in detail, looking for what grabbed my attention in the first place, turning each pitch over in my head and balancing pitches against each other: I like this idea, but do I like this one more than this one?
A lot of the time it came down to like-for-like; I got around four angels-vs-demons type plots, three of which got to the short list, and dropped two of them at the second pass, not because they weren’t great, but because the other one was the best of the three, and if I did commission it (I didn’t, in the end), I definitely wasn’t going to commission either of them as well. Some were too weird (I mean, I like weird, but it’s not entirely my call, in the end). Some were brilliant, but weren’t Abaddon material; they were thoughtful and slow, psychological or philosophical, and while I want interesting and intelligent books, I’m ultimately expected to publish books about explosions and fighting (that is, I want interesting, intelligent books about explosions and fighting). I sent them over the wall to Solaris to look at.
I eventually got the short list down to a short-short list of nine pitches.
On Making Up My Damn Mind
The final stage, then, was the pitch meeting, early last week. I had a meeting with my Editor-in-Chief Jon and our manager Ben, and our PR Coordinator Lydia (who doubles as our marketing department), and we got round a table and argued our way through the list. Obviously having got this far, none of the pitches were anything less that great, so the decisions at this point were largely (and heartbreakingly) commercial. Fantasy? Generally a sure money-spinner, but Abaddon’s not got the happiest track record with it, so that was a no. Superheroes? Everyone’s looking to cash in on the current cinematic trend, but commercially it doesn’t really translate to paper, so I got shot down there too. The final three novellas we decided to go ahead with met a happy combination of criteria; well written, engaging, suited to the Abaddon brand, two of them in existing successful Abaddon worlds and one of them in a new world that grabbed us and seemed like a fun area to develop.
We had a follow-up meeting with the CEO to sign off, and then I got in touch with the happy three to start the contractual ball rolling...
On Crushing The Souls Of Hopefuls
And then comes the very final stage, and the worst one.
I know I maintain a hearty, rough-and-ready image as the hard man of publishing – like I carry a shank in the same pocket as my red pen and carve a notch on my desk for every book I reject – but the truth is, for me as with any of my peers in this industry, that I love writers, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to say, “You’re in!” and send out a contract. It’s what the first word in the title “Commissioning Editor” means, and it’s the dream, and the heart and soul, of publishing.
So writing “I’m very sorry to say” is actually a heartbreaking thing. Writing it seventy times is worse. You try and do what you can, tell people what you liked, give them feedback for the future, but in the end you’re still crushing a little dream every time. In a way, the shortlisters have it worse; “I actually really liked it and have no suggestions for improving it, but” isn’t helpful to anyone. All I can do is offer my apologies and commiserations and hope my name isn’t appearing on too many voodoo dolls...
And Then Forward!
And at the end of it, I have three new contracts signed, and three new gigs to go forward with, and another successful Open Submissions Month is over. And we’re talking about taking it annual...
Sign in tomorrow to hear about the statistical breakdown of the applications.