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Thursday, July 28, 2005

That Notorious Slush Pile

Get an agent, get an agent, get an agent, the message goes. No one in publishing reads unrepresented manuscripts.

The Telegraph offers a different view of the notorious slush pile, saying there’s a new emphasis on finding gems in the rough – or poaching books that have been put out by small presses..

“Publishers are increasingly alert to sources of undiscovered gems that in the past might have slipped through the net. The slush pile is one, word of mouth another, as well as books being launched by risk-taking small or independent publishers. Some of these titles are successful in their own right, while others are taken up by mainstream publishers.

Mike Barnard at Macmillan is launching an initiative called New Writing, "an eclectic list of readable" novels of all genres, apart from children's fiction, by new authors. Its aim is to publish the pick of the slush pile, and to give "a voice to talented new authors who might otherwise fail to get into print". These authors will receive no advance, but nor will they pay anything out (unlike the situation with vanity publishers), and if their books sell they will be paid royalties.

"We invited submissions - first chapters with short synopses - and were overwhelmed by the response," says Maria Rejt, publishing director at Macmillan and Picado. "We got 46,000 in six weeks. I read about 4,000 and was really impressed with the standard which, in terms of straight literacy, was high. We were aiming to find one, and in fact found six novels that are absolutely fantastic. We are publishing five in the autumn.”

Maybe the water they drink in Britain is different than American water. Agents and publishers here regard the slush pile like rotting, radioactive debris.

The anonymous blogger, Agent 007, who used to work at a publishing house, told this tale of her days on the slush:

“Everyone in publishing hears about these miraculous finds that appear like a heavenly angel out of the slush pile to save the publishing house. I was certain that I would spot the gem. I waded through the slush day after day, month after month. Nothing. After looking at dreck for so long, the ones that weren’t absolutely horrible started to look pretty good. I even brought up a few of them. Don’t ask me how I managed to repair my reputation after those embarrassing editorial meetings.

Fortunately, I worked at a house that had a particular fear of getting sued by writers who thought their ideas were being stolen (or maybe they just wanted me to stop wasting time at editorial meeting), so it wasn’t long before we were instructed not to open anything that looked like it was an unagented package. As it turns out, this was a tremendous gift. Because the truth is, nothing comes out of a publisher’s slush pile these days.”

Still another sobering look from Salon:

“It's a worthy sentiment to give every aspiring writer a shot, no matter how long that shot may be. After all, every slush writer fervently believes that his manuscript is just as good as what's being sold at Barnes & Noble and that all he needs is a snappy cover letter and a foot in the door to get a publisher to realize it, too. Yet the sad truth is that the vast majority of slush is, to put it kindly, unpublishable. Not good or bad, just ... there, bland and forgettable, like an unadorned rice cake. If the odds of discovering something special in the mix are slim, it isn't because publishable manuscripts are sprinkled with pixie dust, but because so much of what's submitted seems like varying degrees of the exact same thing.”

And Miss Snark, another anonymous agent:

"It's not right for us"

Ah yes, the catch all phrase.Miss Snark uses a variation of this.If you apply gin to the paper, the invisible writing comes through. It says "this is the suckiest thing in my slush pile since Paris Hilton's novel"


“Let's look at some numbers: 85% of the material I get is unpublishable. That's a LOT of crap in the slush pile.

Of the remaining 15% a hefty dose are in areas I don't represent or feature themes I think are repulsive. So "not right for me" in this case means, I can't stand it but someone else might.And sometimes "not right for me" means I'm too lazy to say anything else. It's a form letter.”As a writer approaching agents you must walk with the grace of a ballerina and have the skin of a rhino.”

This is a business that sets the rules and expects aspiring authors to play by their rules.