Today’s Slush Pile

The slush pile of old, where my first book was discovered, was an actual tall stack of unsolicited manuscripts. They were read by lower level publishing staff called “first readers.” We thought at the time that the slush pile was huge–hundreds of manuscripts piled up.

Today slush piles have gone electronic–and backed-up inboxes may hold many, many more manuscripts than that. Why the big change?

What Happened?

Several things led to the demise of the traditional slush pile, says children’s author Chris Eboch in “The Modern Slush Pile” (Writer’s Guide to 2011). [With permission, much of this post is adapted from her article.]

Before computers, printers and copy machines, you typed every copy individually. It took forever–and writers then were much more careful about targeting appropriate markets. But now, with the push of a button, technology allows massive multiple submissions, and authors often target publishers using a scatter gun approach. Result? Overload at publishing houses.

“First readers” are gone too. Staff cutbacks took care of them. There’s no one there anymore to open the slush, enter the title and author and date into a book, and later read the manuscript and return it (with the appropriate letter) or pass it along to an editor.wg

Where’s the Slush Now?

Slush–those manuscripts waiting hopefully for someone to read them–have shifted locations.

  • Agents have much of the slush in their inboxes now. Many of the new agents are displaced editors who were victims of cutbacks, and new writers are sending much of the unsolicited material to these new agents.
  • Editorial consulting companies receive some of the slush too, but they charge for their services (while reputable agents don’t.) Just be sure to check the credentials of those who are offering their “expert” advice. One company (Stephen Roxburgh’s namelos) is highly respected. Other companies, however, promise way more than they can deliver, and their “expert” advice may be from someone who has never published or has little editorial experience.
  • HarperCollins has a “virtual slush pile” at Authonomy.com where authors upload manuscripts, readers read them (for free) and vote on them, and then editors read the top rated manuscripts. A few do get published.

Getting Out

Thirty years ago, you had to wait your turn for a first reader to get to your manuscript. It would happen eventually–in about three months. Now, because of the higher volume of submissions everywhere, it helps if you get noticed in order to get your manuscript read.

How do you do that? Chris Eboch had these suggestions:

  • Submit queries with a personal note of some kind (like maybe you read an article by the agent or read some books they represented).
  • Attend conferences and workshops to meet editors and agents, and get permission that way to submit to otherwise “closed” houses.
  • Membership in professional organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators (SCBWI)
  • Volunteer at conferences–you may drive the agent or editor around or get to eat lunch with them, giving you a chance to get to know them. Your query will mention that connection and get a closer look.
  • Network with other writers (or, in other words, make friends with writers.) After you make some sales, such friends often recommend each other for projects. I’ve done it for books I didn’t have time to write, and I’ve received work several times because a writer friend recommended me for a series project.
  • Social networking helps, as long as you have time to actually participate in groups, list servs, discussion boards, and forms.
  • Some contests have a prize which includes a contract and publication.
  • A master’s program in fine arts can open publishing doors. Editors and agents have come to realize that authors with an MFA graduate with books that are high quality and may even be ready to publish. 

Some Things Never Change

The nature of the slush pile has changed. Ways to get noticed in the slush pile are now numerous. One thing, however, hasn’t changed at all.

And that’s how you get from the slush pile to an editor’s desk to a bookstore. Quality is the key. In the end, that’s the only thing that will sell your book. Quality of idea–and quality of writing. “Write a good book,” says Cheryl Klein, Senior Editor at a Scholastic imprint and author of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults.

You don’t have control over electronic slush piles or the economy or the changes in the publishing industry. But you do have control over the most important aspect of your career–the quality of writing.

So focus on that. Write a good book.

(* “The Modern Slush Pile” by Chris Eboch is only one article of thirty-three articles in Writer’s Guide to 2011. The book covers these topics: Markets, Style, Business & Career, Research, Ideas, and Contests & Conferences.)

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