“Over the transom” is a reference that used to be applied to writers who tossed their unsolicited manuscripts over the top transom part of a publisher's office door. Uninvited. And it usually applied to the very large (Bix Six-type) publishers, who were not the Big Six back then, but consisted of dozens of smaller independents that were just as sought-after. Although the preferred wisdom prevailing today stipulates following the publishers submission guidelines to the letter, sometimes un-agented authors cannot resist sending in (cold) email or hard-copy book proposals to publishers who frown on this practice, and warn that such tactics will result in immediate rejection. And yet it still happens.
This subject is a hot potato. There are proponents for and against this practice—mostly against. I know of several un-agented writers who have thrown caution to the wind and defied these rules of etiquette—they use, and have used this system, repeatedly, unashamedly. There have also been claims that contracts were offered, in spite of the transgression. How can this happen if it's so wrong? How could contracts be offered, or manuscripts even read by editors when, plainly, these writers have broken the rules? It's because editors, generally and by their nature, are courteous and sympathetic to the plight of writers. Most are willing to overlook such a practice, if it appears to have been committed in ignorance or by accident. They also realize it's part of the duties of wading through mountains of slush, which comes with the job. They know there's bound to be some submission errors.
Problems arise when editors are subjected to repeat offenders, those writers who blatantly disregard the rules and continue submitting manuscripts without representation—to all in sundry. Even after warnings. The worst that can happen is ending up on an editor's blacklist, or a type of BOLO (be on the lookout for...” which is a negative brand that ends up being broadcast to the other imprints and editors of the publishing house. And in that case, the writer's material is destined for the trash can or cyber space. It's also a bad idea because it's an inconvenience to agented writers who have sent in their hard work, according to house guidelines. The slush inventory is high enough, without interlopers trying to shoe-horn their material over yours. Not mention, it takes up valuable editorial time, when it can be better spent on trusted and legitimate submissions.
I've gone over the transom about three times in a span of 20 years. Once by accident, and twice deliberately. I never received a hot-headed reprisal, or even a suggestion that I re-read the publishers submission guidelines. I was confident that my proposal was read, even considered. But I never made sale.
I don't condone this practice because it reeks of desperation and unprofessional behavior. There was a time when I would agree that a little experimentation couldn't hurt your chances, and that you might possibly pick up a deal as a result. There's just to much to lose, and your integrity (face) is just one of them. Publishing is a fairly small community, where editors, and even agents, communicate and meet with each other on a daily basis. Name-dropping is a huge part of the business, and it doesn't take long for a writer who breaks the rules to be found out and tagged as an undesirable candidate for a book deal.
The only time an un-agented writer is justified in sending in a manuscript to an “agent-only” publisher is when they have received a legitimate referral from an agent or another reputable publishing house. And in that case, the writer should include the name and date of the referring person. Or by direct personal contact via a meeting at a seminar or writing conference. So try to avoid this glaring practice at all costs. Strive to get that agent, and let them worry about approaching the big guns. Really, what kind of a client could an editor expect from a writer who has broken the rules upon their very first contact? It's a trust issue, folks.
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