Publishing people get asked this all the time. It’s a toughie: your acquaintance might have written a masterpiece but the odds are the manuscript is not that good, or at least unsuited for any publisher you know. But without looking at it how can you know? We’ve all evolved temporizing answers, most of which, like the Penguin Random House example shown below, tend to take cover behind a literary agent. I’ve never come across a piece of paper like this before, but it makes perfect sense that PRH would feel the need for something they can thrust into the hands of anyone who asks them the dreaded question. The document obviously originates in the UK, but PRH had a stack of them at the recent BookExpo America exhibition in the Javits Center.

“Our company policy is to not accept [boldly split infinitive] unsolicited manuscripts or synopses and we cannot enter into correspondence about unpublished work.” A bit harsh? Not really — it costs a lot to deal with such correspondence and a target as big as Penguin Random House must get boatloads of it. More efficient to focus on your regular source of supply, the literary agency world, rather than rush off down dark alleyways. Sure you may miss the odd wonder, but as a percentage play it’s hard to argue against. Of course as a public relations move it might be seen as a bit less successful.

This sort of document is exactly the sort of thing the commentariat loves to latch onto. Didn’t we tell you those fat cats in their New York ivory towers don’t care about innovative new work or the people who produce it? Just see how they treat aspiring authors — and it’s their job to publish books. Amazing!

Stop and think you windbags. If you were to run a publishing company would one of your priorities be to employ a couple of people, skilled people, who had no tasks other than to write letters to hopeful authors who have invested a postage stamp in sending you their latest stories? Well, you might, but if you’d ever worked in any publishing house where despite such disclaimers unsolicited manuscripts do inevitably creep across the transom, you’d know from bitter experience that the likelihood of an unsolicited manuscript actually being publishable are vanishingly small. Sure it happens, but on no cost-benefit analysis is it worthwhile setting up your acquisition department to focus on the slush pile. Everyone in a publishing house is already doing huge amounts of work with the books they’ve actually solicited. It would be idiocy to wander the streets scouring through local trash bins in the hope of finding another brilliant manuscript. Even in our ivory towers the day has only got 24 hours in it. And while we love to publish books, there can never be (pace the commentariat) a duty to publish every book ever written. So, you have to deflect.

Now, if your name is Ian McEwan you know they’d enter into correspondence with you about anything, unpublished or published: but of course the bit of paper isn’t meant for the likes of him — and PRH already employs someone whose job it is to keep after their authors about unpublished work.