Somewhere over the transom

Not shown: garbage pail at foot of the door

Not shown: garbage pail at foot of the door

One week, six days, 22 hours and 32 minutes ago, I sent an email query to a publisher. A “query” is an unsolicited submission of a written work with the hope of future publication. It comes from the Latin meaning “shameless begging.” It’s rarely successful; you’re better off submitting your query through an agent, some people say, mostly agents.

An unsolicited query is sometimes referred to as “over the transom,” a transom being one of those windows you used to be able to open above an office door. You don’t see transoms too often anymore, but “over the transom” continues to exist in publishing and in the electronic age has come to mean “destined for self-publication.”

But here’s the thing about my over-the-transom query. While the publisher’s website stated that they welcomed submissions, it went on to say that they regret they can only respond to submissions that are of interest.

This is a cruel, cruel policy.

More helpful would be: “We regret that we cannot accept semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novels,” because that would cull a good third of the submissions right there. If they could say, “We regret that we can only accept fiction about sexy presidential candidates who are also wizards or wizards-slash-vampires,” that would at least give you an idea where you stand. If they said, “We regret submitting to other people’s wishes out of respect or courtesy all these years, for that has made all the deference,” you would know that this is the type of publisher you should avoid at all costs.

But this “you’ll hear from us only if we like you” nonsense is torture.

I’ve noticed this line in employment ads as well: “We regret that only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.” But they never say when that will be. We’ll contact you in a day or two, a couple of weeks, a month maybe. Just sit tight and try not to fret about your worth as a human being. Have a nice day!

The way the rationalist brain works with this “don’t call us, we might call you” policy is to always hold out faint hope. Just because it’s been one week, six days, 22 hours and 34 minutes since I submitted my query, that doesn’t mean I won’t hear.

Maybe the publisher has been really, really busy. You know how it goes; you start out your morning reading a story outline about a dysfunctional backwoods Canadian family of stone polishers – title: “Buffing it in the Bush” — and next thing you know you’re looking at your shirt and realizing you’re at the Button Tipping Point. You know the Button Tipping Point – when you can no longer ignore all the missing buttons on your pants and shirts and so you finally get out the needle and thread to embark on a sewing marathon? No? Not much of a procrastinator, are you? That’s why you’ll never make it as a writer!

Or could it be that blissful ignorance has replaced the traditional rejection letter? Blissful for the rejecter, that is. You used to be able to count on a simple “no thanks” or “this is good, but not for us” or “you stink worse than Micky Rourke after a 5K run.” Now, except through anonymous online attacks, we live in an everyone-gets-a-trophy age where we want to avoid hurt feelings at all cost, not because we’re sensitive but because we don’t want to get sued. Next thing, publishers and employers will be blocking emails so we can’t write back demanding to know “Why don’t you love me!” It’ll be just like my high school years all over again.

But I would far rather be told by a publisher that they’re not in the market for writers who make stale Mickey Rourke jokes than be left wondering indefinitely whether my emailed query might have ended up in the publisher’s spam folder and she simply hasn’t discovered my submission entitled “Girlie Be Passion Pills All-Night Love Long!!!”

Because, if I did hear back from the publisher that my submission left her wanting only to go home and hold her children close for a while, I would send my query elsewhere. Which I really should do anyway. But soon. After all, it’s only been one week, six days, 22 hours and 35 and a half minutes.


A version of this post originally aired on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway” on October 14, 2014. You can hear the original here.


About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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36 Responses to Somewhere over the transom

  1. …but who’s counting?!

    To distract you from your waiting…how was your play?!!

    • rossmurray1 says:

      It runs over two weekends, with one down. It’s gone well. The return of low-level anxiety attack Friday during the day but then pretty cool pre-show. It’s been a hoot. Being the bad guy is truly cathartic. Recommended. Saturday night curtain call, I got booed. Nice!

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    That’s not too long–there’s still a possibility you might hear back. I’ve received some responses in a few days, others in a couple months. Sometimes I never hear back which seems to be more common with email queries. I guess without that SASE they don’t fire back a response as easily. Querying is a waiting game, no doubt. I feel your pain.

  3. Bruce Goodman says:

    I sent an unsolicited novel to a NY publisher who phoned me 6 times about it over a 6 week period. “I keep it on my desk and keep re-reading bits,” he said. In the end, he decided not to publish. I have been so excited about that for the past 11 years that I haven’t submitted it to anyone else. Silence may have been more productive in the long run!

  4. goldfish says:

    I totally knew what a transom was because that’s just the exact type of useless information my brain stores. Though, I had never heard the term over the transom before.

    I have a sewing pile. Right now, it contains two skirts and a pair of pants. There are several other items in need of buttons, but they’re mostly on the flaps of cargo-type pockets, so I continue to wear them with the missing fasteners, flaps all a-flappin’, devil may care like. That’s how I roll.

    I hope they tell you that you’re worthwhile soon.

  5. Very entertaining, as always. When you send your query over the transom, it falls into the slushpile on the editor’s side of the door. (Ankle-deep in the days of paper submissions.) Don’t give up hope yet – it takes a long time to sift through a slushpile (even a virtual one). Good luck.

  6. List of X says:

    I’m not familiar with transoms or the query process (although I am very familiar with the sewing marathons). So what happens if you assume the worst and query another publisher?

    • rossmurray1 says:

      You mean if I query another and the first one comes back with a yes and then so does the second one? That’s why you’re supposed to wait for a response. But wait how long? Dunno…

  7. Ned's Blog says:

    It’s hard to know if waiting too long before making a series of follow-up phone calls and sending certified letters that read “SO? WHAT GIVES?” could be mistaken for being aloof and disinterested in being published. But I’m sure you’re fine deciding to wait patiently. I hope this helps…

  8. candidkay says:

    Ah yes. The “in-between” time in which I organize closets, ferry children, entertain self doubts. Do you really want to deprive yourself of this desert of the soul? It’s character building:).

  9. Paul says:

    I know how you feel Ross. I’ve sent out 500 resumes looking for a job and got maybe 10 replies, 10 phone interviews, 2 personal inteviews and no job. And some of those interviews were with agencies, not even employers. When I started out, I’d send out one resume and then wait. That got old very fast. So i went to the shot gun approach, basically saturating the available options. I developed boiler plate cover letters and resumes and tweeked each for each job. then sent and filed it and moved on. Sometimes I’d send 5 a day, some days no jobs fitted. The job agencies say you are not supposed to do that, you are supposed to “sell” your self to each employer but when you can’t get a human to talk to that’s pretty hard. It’s hard on the self-esteem. After 2 years i gave up. Sorry, didn’t mean to bum you out.

    Oh, hey I clicked to the CBC breakaway site to listen to the story and it sounds very professional and funny when you read it. My question is who is that blonde lady just above the recording who smiles all through? If that is you Ross, you look a lot cuter since the last picture I saw of you on your book.

    Cool Post Ross. Thanks.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Ha. That’s the lovely Jacqui Czernin, the show’s host. She’s been a great supporter of mine going back years. To tie in with your first comment, when I get down about rejection, I remember there are people like her… and you!

      Thanks, Paul.

  10. Susan says:

    Dear Ross, I feel your pain. I sent queries and the first 3 chapters of my novel to publishers and agents for a sold year and a half. Most rejections were quite fast – 3 to 4 months. The longest I ever waited for a response was 7 months, and it was positive. Yay! They asked for the full MS, which I IMMEDIATELY sent them, and then I waited another 4 months. The rejection letter, when it eventually came, was very encouraging. So encouraging that I put my novel up on Amazon a few days later and I’ve never wasted my time with mainstream publishers again. Your blog is great and your writing is funny so I’m sure you’ll have better luck than I did. I hope so! And good luck with the final weekend of the play…

  11. byebyebeer says:

    Haha, great submission title! Rejection sucks, but for some reason I find the passive kind less hurtful. Maybe because I get to turn it into scorn and indignation at whoever’s not really giving it. Good luck, and I hope you hear back soon.

  12. The caption didn’t make me laugh until the second paragraph. Nice tie-in. Have publishers given up on the age-old tradition of rejection slips? How are writers supposed to paper their walls if they discontinue rejection slips? What are they to use when the toilet tissue unexpectedly runs out? How lazy.

    Two weeks doesn’t seem like a long time to me. Granted, in this instance, it’s torture for you but it doesn’t seem long. You need an agent!

  13. It sounds almost as painful as waiting in the doctor’s office….

  14. Elyse says:

    Wait a minuted! You can sew buttons back on?!? Whodda thunk it.

    I’m sure they just haven’t gotten to it yet. How can it be anything but brilliant? And even if not, doing this story on the radio will shame them into at least reading it.

  15. Not sure why you’ve decided to submit directly to a publisher instead of an agent, unless this is some kind of specialty publishers that specifically asks for submissions. Either way, though, counting the days, hours, and minutes will get mighty tiresome ’round about six months from now…

    Good luck!

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I have no idea how to even find an agent around here.

      • They’re like squirrels: just look around and you’re bound to see one.

        There are lots of directories of agents online, and you don’t need one nearby. Even NYC agents welcome Canadian authors!

        Start researching while the publisher is considering your book. And if that wasn’t an exclusive submission, go ahead and query a few!

        Time’s a wastin’, man!

  16. breezyk says:

    This analogy is a lot like dating… over the transom is a very vulnerable place to be. Good luck- hope you hear back soon!

  17. markbialczak says:

    A rejection email for your over-the-transom novel query is bound to state that your characters do not possess the skill sets the publisher is seeking at this time. I hope you get a positive reply in the next several months instead, Ross.

  18. My theory is that if you put your MS in a drawer somewhere, someone will find it after you’re dead, at which point you will be immediately published and posthumously (post-humorously?) hailed as the literary genius of your generation. Can you tell that I’m just a wee bit bitter?

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