It Came In Over the Transom

The following is another re-run. Enjoy!

When publishers or agents receive unsolicited manuscripts, we say it “came in over the transom.” Ever given much thought to what that actually means? There’s a varied folklore surrounding the phrase, but here’s what I’ve pieced together.

A “transom” is a crosspiece, usually made of wood. The word has been used to describe the horizontal portion of a cross; a flat piece across the stern of a boat above the waterline; or a crosspiece separating a door or window from a smaller window above it. In architecture, the term came to mean a small window above the door; or a small window just above the ground (typically in offices that are slightly below street level.)

In New York city, where U.S. publishing originated, many publishers and agents used to slave away in below-street-level offices that had small windows high on the walls. If you were walking on the sidewalk, you’d see the windows at the level of your feet. If the window was open, you could peer down inside and see those hapless editors and agents hunched over their manuscripts—pencil in one hand, coffee in the other, and a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray.

In those days (as now) people who wanted to be published often resorted to desperate creative means to get their manuscript seen. If you were brave, you could sneak up to one of those little windows and drop your manuscript through it—over the transom.

So “over the transom” means: Nobody asked for the manuscript, it just somehow got into the editor or agent’s hands. This also means the editor or agent is under no obligation to read it, and they may or may not, depending on a variety of factors including their mood, how many other manuscripts are in the pile, how desperate they are to find a viable project, the tilt of the moon, or whether their half-caff venti peppermint mocha was hot enough that morning.

When a project comes in “over the transom” it ends up “in the slush pile”… and I’ll be writing on THAT next week.

Photo from

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] (an old term denot­ing sub­mit­ting an unso­licited book or arti­cle by lit­er­ally throw­ing it through a doorway’s tran­som), but until you get a han­dle on the chances of its accep­tance I wouldn’t scan the entire […]

  2. […] never gotten a job through a recruiter or a website.   As someone who’s always had to go over the transom, the Black Box Era has been a gargantuan waste of time.  Lots of other smart people say the same […]

  3. Julie Weathers on January 5, 2009 at 1:15 AM

    >I did know where the phrase came from and thought about that when I was remodeling my house. I built three transoms above the doors leading out of the kitchen. I intended to fill them with either carved glass or stained glass instead of windows though.

    I thought about doing a stained glass insert to represent whatever I was working on to remind myself to quit messing around and get it over the transom.

  4. Avily Jerome on January 2, 2009 at 9:40 PM

    >Thanks for the history lesson! That was fun!

    As for the origin of random phrases- I actually do know where “The whole nine yards” came from!

    Maybe I’ll do a blog post on it some time…

    In the mean time, I’ll try not to throw too many manuscripts over your transom! 🙂

  5. Eric Dabbs on January 2, 2009 at 5:19 PM

    >Shoot, it costs me about $20 for an ink cartridge, $5 for a pack of paper and a couple of hours printing out the manuscript. For a charge of $25, time spent in preparation and delivery to have someone chunk it in the garbage. I’m not sure if I like the end of the stick I come out with.
    Probably best to follow submission guidelines as bad I hate to admit it.

  6. Rachel on January 2, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    >And now we know.

  7. Dara on January 2, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    >That was quite an interesting bit of history–and I always love learning historical tidbits!

    I like the new blog layout too! The background is very calming 🙂

  8. Cheryl Barker on January 2, 2009 at 12:06 PM

    >Rachelle, I enjoyed the history lesson on “over the transom”. Had never heard that before. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Anne L.B. on January 2, 2009 at 10:49 AM

    >Fascinating explanation, Rachelle! This must be a rerun of one of your earliest posts, because I thought I'd caught all the episodes and am delighted to discover a golden oldie.

    Lynn & Gwen, I've occasionally had paper slipped to me in a stall under the door. In fact it's happened only when I was actually looking for fresh paper. Of course I never leave the stall with that paper, so I’ve never thought of a name for it either.

  10. Gwen Stewart on January 2, 2009 at 10:32 AM


    Your strikeouts never fail to crack me up. 🙂

    Lynn, this is a great question. No one has yet named those manuscripts? I’m surprised…

    Hope everyone is having an excellent start to 2009!

  11. Chatty Kelly on January 2, 2009 at 9:07 AM

    >Learning, learning. Thank you for insights as always.

    I read a quote today attributed to Dr Suess, I don’t know if he really wrote it, but I liked it and thought you would too:

    “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
    — Dr. Seuss

  12. lynnrush on January 2, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    >Happy New Year!!!!
    I like the new blog.

    So, what do they call the manuscripts that slide under the bathroom stall door after someone’s followed you into the restroom?

  13. Yvonne on January 2, 2009 at 8:27 AM

    >I like the new look of your blog, Rachelle! It has a calm, yet refreshing, feel to it.

    Do you mean that you don’t snatch at papers fluttering down from the sky, in hopes to find a best-selling masterpiece? *smile*

    Have a great break! I’m looking forward to your fun and informative posts when you return.

  14. Lisa Jordan on January 2, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    >Interesting explanation. Thanks for sharing. Imagine how limited those office workers’ views are.

    I wrote a short story about a character who had a basement office and all he saw were peoples’ feet. The story needs to be polished, and then submitted. I based it off an online friend’s chat avatar of a pair of red boots.