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 http://www.newyorkdailyphoto.blogspot.com/
Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.