Monday, January 25, 2010

The slush pile

by Jane

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled "The Death of the Slush Pile." How incredibly sad, I thought.

One of my very first jobs in publishing was managing the slush pile at Bantam Books. I didn’t do much; all I was told to do was to log the manuscripts in, put them on a shelf and then two weeks later, reject them after nobody had looked at them. I hated doing it--those writers had worked so hard and yet, even all those years ago, there was nobody to read their work.

From that time on, I have had both respect and curiosity for “slush.” Even today, in a very difficult publishing market, I firmly believe that the slush pile can hold “buried treasure.”

And aside from the very public examples cited in the WSJ piece, we at DGLM have proven that there are wonderful projects to be found if one is patient and persistent enough to look.

Jim McCarthy discovered Carrie Ryan in the slush pile. She wrote The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which Jim sent out on a Friday and sold the following Monday. He also found Victoria Laurie, one of his first clients in slush. Jim has sold 18 of her books in the last six years.

Mike Bourret found three of his biggest clients in slush: Lisa McMann, author of Fade and Wake, among others; Heather Brewer whose first book among many, was Eighth Grade Bites; and Sara Zarr whose Story of a Girl was a National Book Award finalist.

Our very own Mary Doria Russell lay in a colleague’s slush pile for almost a year and when he didn’t respond, her first novel, The Sparrow, was passed along to me--and the rest is history.

So, no matter how busy I am, I have not forsaken the slush pile--and, hopefully, even in difficult times, I never will.


  1. THE SPARROW is one of those books that most inspires me to keep writing. I'm so happy to learn it was discovered from the slush! If that doesn't give hope to writers everywhere, I don't know what will.

  2. Yes, that was very encouraging. It just goes to show writers that there are many factors behind the "no", time constraints and sheer volume play a big part. It's not necessarily that your story is bad.

  3. As an intern, I always read the slush, even if I was allowed to just send a form rejection. I had to believe that something good was in there! (Actually, something I discovered in slush was actually published.) Glad to see I'm not the only one with hope!

  4. "It's not necessarily that your story is bad."

    Hmmmmm ... that said, if your book is rejected, you have to accept that it is your fault. You wrote a submission designed to not get rejected and sent it to someone you thought wouldn't reject it.

    Would-be writers should go into the bargain section of a bookstore, look around at all the crap that's published. All those guys managed what you haven't.

    It's not about luck. It's about being able to identify a strong, marketable idea and then articulate it. Yeah, the people who read the slush pile are in a hurry. So you hit them hard with a pure dose of awesome. Yes, it's difficult ... now remember those crappy books piled up in the bookstores. Their authors managed it.

    If a writer wants to be published, they have to accept that if they are rejected, it almost certainly IS because their story is 'bad'.

    It might be psychologically soothing to blame someone else or the system, it won't get you published.

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  6. I've always liked the story about LOTR and Helen Hanff. As one of LOTR's first readers, she had to write a synopsis, and she loathed the book so much she asked for extra money when she'd finished.

    If LOTR, Harry Potter, and Anne Frank's diary struck some people as less than stellar, I can't help think that selling an ms has more to do with personal preferences than some measurable quality of awesomeness.

  7. Re: "So you hit them hard with a pure dose of awesome. Yes, it's difficult ... now remember those crappy books piled up in the bookstores. Their authors managed it."

    Seems like what you're saying is, those bargain-bin authors "hit them hard" with a pure dose of crappy...time-delayed crappy, that is - which didn't reveal itself until months later, at the tail end of the publishing process.

    I prefer what Patti Smith rocker/poet had to say - "there's a time when everything sparkles" - your work is aligned with the cosmic forces, cultural zeitgeist, what have you - and the crap factor is irrelevant...I've got sparkles on my mind, because I've been working with "dimensional glitter glue" for weeks - today I noticed my cat had some in his fur.

    Apparently, time to get back to novel revision. Why is a glitter glue bottle so much easier to wield, than a plain old blue ink pen? Drat...

  8. I've been reading this blog for quite a while, but somehow never knew your connection to Mary Doria Russell--I'm so glad you found The Sparrow in the pile! one of the most haunting(ly beautiful) books I've ever read.

  9. Reading the article (or at least the first few paragraphs), the key point was that publishing houses (and movie studios) have outsourced the slush pile to agents. The slush pile isn't dead, it's just moved. And it really isn't news. When I bought my first Writers Market back in 1988, it was clear that most (all?) of the major publishing houses, even then, didn't take unagented submissions.

  10. "Seems like what you're saying is, those bargain-bin authors "hit them hard" with a pure dose of crappy...time-delayed crappy, that is - which didn't reveal itself until months later, at the tail end of the publishing process."

    No. Publishing is risky, and a lot of books that are published don't find the audience the publisher expected. And, in any event, ending up in the bargain section is part of the natural life cycle of most books.

    People shouldn't delude themselves or take false comfort. There probably are some great books there that somehow every single agent and publisher didn't recognize the genius of. There are definitely thousands that are amateurish and incompetent.

    If you're rejected, it's far more likely that what you submitted wasn't good enough than that it's *AMAZING*.

    And what I'm saying is that the failed author needs to understand and recognize that if they want to be published. You need to research, you need to improve your work, you need to be able to see it hyper-objectively and hyper-critically.

    The real problem is that there's little in the way of middle ground - it's publishable or it's not. A good agent or editor might be able to coax a book from 'nearly there' to 'there', but it probably has to start at 90% there.

    I've read slush piles. The vast majority of submissions aren't just rubbish, they're incomprehensibly how-could-they-imagine rubbish. Really, I'd say it went something like 99% were like that, 1% had the potential. The 99% weren't 'near misses' - the 1% were the near misses. They still needed work, but with attention and focus and dedication, they'd get there.

    On the flipside of that, I passed some books further up the chain on the strength of the very first sentence. Because when you find that 1%, it's a cold glass of water on a hot day.

    Slush pile readers, in my experience anyway, are overly generous, not super-mean. And - again, in my experience - they read every word of every submission (even in the absolute worst cases, the ones with two spelling mistakes in the first word - yeah, that happens - we flipped ahead to see if it got better).

    However you gloss it, if you're rejected it's up to you to work out why. Even if 'the system' was to blame, it doesn't matter - learn what the system wants to see. And what the system wants to see is what you ought to be writing anyway - something that starts strikingly, sinks its hooks into the reader, establishes the main character and their world and then, on page two, moves on to where the story is going.

    'Mine starts much more slowly and it doesn't really get going until chapter two' ... yeah, great. Then cut the first chapter and start your book with the second. 'But I - ' ... sure you can. Deciding where to start your story is one of the absolute most crucial ones you can make. Any submission with the confidence to just get in there without waffling on and 'setting the scene' is going to stand out. Take five novels from the last two years you really enjoyed that were written by first-time authors, read their first pages. See?

    And if you can't think of five novels by first time authors you enjoyed that were published in 2008 or 2009 ... well, there's your problem. Know your market. Research. You research by reading. However much you read, read more.

  11. I have to go with the cosmic factor. If you (are) reading, and writing, and revising, and researching, and attending conferences, and you belong to an active crit group, then you should already be in the 1%. However, I think it's like choosing a book to read at the library, agents/editors are going to pass on "Harry Potter" if they don't like fantasy books and pick up up on say "Blue" if they really like historical fiction. Even if HP is great, their heart wouldn't be in it.
    I would love to spend a couple of days going through a slush pile just to see what does show up there.

  12. Re: "I would love to spend a couple of days going through a slush pile just to see what does show up there."

    Me too. I had an eye-opening experience once, regarding grant applications, when I went to a conference, and someone read an actual grant application that had been successful. It was super-humorous, almost verging on flattery. Of the "flattery will get you everywhere" variety. Flirtatious tone of voice in a grant application? I'm still mulling that one over. It was written by a tenured professor, so maybe if you have tenure you can get away with that - I don't know. I didn't have tenure and didn't get the grant that particular year.

    It would be great if an agency (hint, hint) would have a contest, and the winner gets to read 30 random slush pile submissions. Just for the sake of an "eye opening experience."

  13. Re: "People shouldn't delude themselves or take false comfort."

    But that's what people do - delude themselves and take false comfort. We can't help it. Sometimes the person who's all misty-eyed and soft-focus and sentimental has the stamina for the long haul, that the cold-eyed realist doesn't have. I write narrative poetry - trust me, from the poet's point of view, a novel, much less several novels, is the long haul. Cripes, does this thing ever end? Etc.

    Oh well, back to revision, "the long haul."

  14. Wanda wrote: It would be great if an agency (hint, hint) would have a contest, and the winner gets to read 30 random slush pile submissions. Just for the sake of an "eye opening experience."

    What a wonderful, novel idea. (Pun intended.) I wonder how many would take up the offer on it. I'd do it.

  15. What a wonderful post. Thank you. We are having a LIVE discussion via or weekly chat on twitter on March 3; inspired by this same arcitle. Care to join us for #YAlitchat that evening? We'd love to hear more from you. Thanks-Georgia McBride

  16. Thanks for the suggestion, Wanda. We're going to think about whether there's a way we could make that work! Keep an eye out!


  17. Hi Jane,

    That's great! Just have to find a way to maintain privacy (and dignity) of the "random slush pile querants," I think - no "personally identifiable information" posted by contest winners about them on blogs, etc...maybe as a workaround, DGLM would have to include an all-expenses paid trip to New York, to physically inspect the slush pile :) oh well, just an idea on a cold winter's day...

  18. I'd be worried about this from an ethical point of view. If someone's sending an agent a manuscript, it's not so that a member of the public can read it. What happens if the competition winner likes what they see and submits it to other agents? What if someone in the pile has other representation by now? What if the competition winner says 'yeah, there was this absolutely terrible one about magic fish living in Nazi Germany, god that was a load of rubbish written by a moron' and you've just signed that author?

    I've read slush piles. I know how terrible the general standard is. I also know that it's a bit like smokers and lung cancer - would-be writers never see themselves as the norm, they always see themselves as the exception.

    Here's a web cartoon on a similar theme - about a competition Sony have to win the chance to be a video game tester:

    If you give away the first prize of being able to read ten items from the slush pile, the second prize should be the opportunity to read twenty.

  19. One of the reasons we need to think about how we’d do something like this is just what you’re saying here, Anonymous. No one has to worry that we’ll send a query they submitted to us to our blog readers, unless they actively choose to participate in such an opportunity. We’ll think about this--so if you’re interested, watch our blog for more information in the coming weeks!


  20. Georgia: I would love to join you on Twitter on March 3rd. Please tell me more.

  21. That's awesome and nice to know. You're keeping the dream alive...

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