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What is the Future of the Slush Pile?

Will authors continue to have the patience to wait for an agent or publisher to discover them?

By Edward Nawotka

No one likes reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts), except for the all-too-eager intern who just doesn’t know better. Still, there are some who continue to search for the proverbial needle. In today’s feature story, Diana Hernández, editor at Barcelona indie publisher Blackie Books notes that her company does still read slush, albeit with certain caveats:

“We’ve asked writers to only send in hard copy, otherwise we would be swamped,” she said, noting while the quantity of manuscripts they receive is huge, the quality is “very low. It’s a question of identifying potential. One doesn’t expect to find a Nobel Prize winner in the slush pile, but there might be something with potential. The risk is not perceiving that potential.”

Agents, who receive the brunt of the slush pile tsunami, do as much as they can to manage the flow, often posting online that “they no longer read slush,” or are “no longer taking additional clients.” Of course, there are exceptions. And still, the slush continues to pile up on agents and publishers transoms.

It only makes sense. After all, for the past 100 years, the only option a writer had was to submit a blind manuscript to dozens of people in the hope that someone (that eager intern) would unearth their gem. Today, people have turned to self-publishing as a relief valve for their desire to see work published.

So what is the long term future of the slush pile? Will authors continue to have the patience — and desire — to wait on an agent to discover them? Or will they seek immediate gratification and hope that having a successful self-publishing career may give them the option to go with a traditional agent/publisher, if they desire it?

Agents and publishers: please share your experience with slush.

Authors: do you continue to send in blind submissions or do you feel the practice is on the wane?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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10 Comments

  1. C esteve
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    I am an experienced editor (freelance non-fiction) but a friend of mine asked me to edit his newly finished novel – a romance set in the background of a Golf Club. I found the writing mediocre if racy and the characterisation of the female characters banal. I took a deep breathe and told him so, but still suggested he put it out to get more feedback. He did so and two months later rang me to say that a publisher had taken it up. When I asked for the feedback he had been given he said they had retrieved it from the slush-pile because it had Golf in the title and with the Tiger Woods affair in the news wanted to take advantage of the interest. So let us not kid ourselves that publishers are on the lookout for the next literary genius. They are only interested in what will sell regardless of its merit.

  2. Posted February 2, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    The death of the publishing mid list means publishers are increasingly looking for a quick return to their investment. New authors are often advised they need a ‘platform’ demonstrating how they can connect with their potential readership, such as a blog or personal website. This leads to questions of whether the new author needs a ‘product’ around which an online presence can be built. Self publishing is thus the next logical step…

  3. Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    We accept unsolicited manuscripts. Granted, the vast majority is not of a good enough standard, but our biggest-selling title in 2011 came from such a submission.

    Self publishing is not the only step a rejected author can take; there are many independent publishers looking for manuscripts, and some of them still edit in the true sense of the word, seeking to polish a gem out of the original rock.

    We spend a great deal of time working with our authors in order to get the very best book we possibly can. It does take a lot of work, and we are a niche publisher, but if we did not offer our expertise and skill to unsolicited manuscripts we would likely miss out on publishing books that deserve to see the light of day.

  4. Posted February 3, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Surely it is better for all that we follow the query/request process, rather than the random mailing of full manuscripts?

    I have, of course, heard the objection that writing a good query is a very different skill than writing a good book. The implication seems to be that publishers shouldn’t rely on queries to start the matchmaking process.

    I disagree. If you cannot write a good query, you probably don’t know your ideal reader very well, and probably cannot give a clear and brief description of why your book will work well for that reader. If that is so, then how will the writer ever help the publisher market the book?

    For that matter, how will the writer who cannot query ever manage to market a self-published book?

    No, I don’t see a role for slush. The current process (query first, then gradually work up to full ms submission and an offer) is a much better way to find out which authors will work out the best for all concerned.

    Let us not forget: publishing and authoring are BUSINESSES. Selling is part of the process.

  5. Posted February 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    “If you cannot write a good query, you probably don’t know your ideal reader very well…”
    Not necessarily. Writing jacket copy, which is essentially what a query is, differs greatly from a book. It’s an art unto itself. Writers shouldn’t be faulted for finding query writing particularly challenging. We’re close to our book. Every word is important to us. That being said, I agree that it’s an important piece of the submission package. Mastering the query letter––or at least managing it––proves the writer is a professional, dedicated to his/her career.
    Hinging the worth of a book on a one page letter, however? Shortsighted, IMO. A query letter with the first chapter is a fair representation of story, skill and professionalism. Balance, in all things.

  6. Posted February 7, 2012 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    My first book ‘Kicked Out’ received plaudits in 2009 but the publishers Beautiful Books went bankrupt at the end of 2011.

    And so, having written my second book ‘Andalucia’ I was back in that situation of having to find an agent or publisher through sending out chapters and waiting and checking for replies every single day for months. Personally I found that a horrible experience the first time, even though I was successful in the end.

    Faced with the same prospect once more, I thought ‘sod it, I don’t have to follow this age-old debilitating and dimishing process anymore – times are changing.’

    I bought myself Adobe InDesign, set up my own publishing company Lapwing Books and did everything myself. Everything except the printing. I had books published traditionally to sell in person, books printed via a print- on-demand company so that customers can buy these via amazon etc – and the book is available on kindle, ebooks, ibooks etc.

    I sent a copy of ‘Andalucia’ to Booker Prize winner Pat Barker, who loved it and described it as “moving and inspiring.” I’m getting lots of press/publicity and great reviews on amazon, doing signings in Waterstones, had a wonderful book launch. A well known and highly respected publisher has since found the book and requested a copy – and they are currently reading it before deciding to make me an offer.

    I’m guessing if I decided to follow the traditional route, then my manuscript could be sitting on a pile somwhere because somebody has decided it’s not the right trend, or it simply wasn’t their thing. But instead, I did it all myself and I’ve found the quality of the book and the whole experience empowering. If a publisher makes me an offer on ‘Andalucia’ or a future book then I will consider it. But if they don’t then I’m just getting on with things my way…….

  7. Disillusioned
    Posted February 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Publishers are sliding down a very slippery slope. The have begun to rely on authors to write a great query letter, write the jacket copy, get their own photo taken, and be copywriters for the publicity. In addition, they insist that the authors have a digital platform to shill the books and understand what a marketing plan is. This is designed failure. That the author is an artist, is not ever considered. Novel writing and copywriting are tw different disciplines. Publishers are looking for yesterday’s bestseller in today’s submissions. Move on! How many vampire romances can the world tolerate? With their downward-spiralling sense of responsibility, they will see a downward spiral of sales. They will quietly blame the author for not marketing the book, when they should be nurturing and developing the marketing and sales expertise inside their own walls to drive interest and sales. Soft sales numbers means that publishers will be shy to take on new projects. This has led to a diminishing drop in the overall quality of new literature, general fiction, and non-fiction. Of course there will always be exceptional books that rise to the top, but there will be an increasing amount of drivel produced that will lower the bar, and it is, right now, a race to the bottom. Traditional publishers (and agents) are driving authors to self publishing, but self publishing is not the answer. The amount of bad writing and unedited material that is being sold digitally is appalling. Just read a few sample chapters from Amazon. The slush pile and rejections have not disappeared. They are now available on Kindle . . . and at bargain prices.

  8. Posted February 8, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    ‘Nailed’ my thirtieth rejection just yesterday and once again it is apparantly down to the ‘non-commercial’ subject matter. I get it.

    Publishing IS a business and just because the people who work there know how to look thoughtful and sensitive in a black and white photo and claim to be searching for ‘unique voices’ it doesn’t mean they aren’t all about the bottom line too.

    The trouble is digital self publishing gives a writer the ability to punch well above their weight, especially if they are comfortable using social media and unless traditional publishers embrace it, the unique voices they are looking for may soon be drowned in a clamour of orgasmic moans, blood chilling screams and automatic gunfire coming from the digital market.

    It may take years of experience to learn how to pick a Bestseller from the heap of manuscripts in the corner but it does not take that long for an unknown writer to learn how to climb the rankings using metadata, searchable content and SEO.

  9. V
    Posted February 9, 2012 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the biggest unintentional benefit of Amazon’s greedy Goliath approach is now everyone gets to see what the agents and publishers are contending with: the slush pile! Amazon basically publishes the slush pile and serious writers, if they had any sense, would keep their focus on the independent publishers and the traditional publishing houses, hone their craft, pay attention to the market; don’t just say “publishing is a business” make it their business to know what kind of business publishing is, what kind of pressures publishers are under (financial and otherwise) and how to ensure their books get the attention they want for them. Authors can do better than Amazon and there are increasing numbers of start-up independents manned by people with lots of industry know-how and experience who read all the manuscripts that come across their desks and believe in developing writers.

  10. Dan A.
    Posted March 8, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    It’s not so much that writers are rejected, it’s that they are never considered. Most writing is dreck and either unpublishable or unsalable. Much good writing simply is not unique enough or doesn’t have an accessible market for traditional publisher OR for someone considering self-publishing. The stigma is off self-publishing, fortunately, and the costs are now feasible for short-run hard copy and electronic distribution, if you can find a market. The profit margins in any case are small.

    The main issue is that traditional publishers control the two main market-movers for any book: distribution and (supposedly) unbiased reviews. Hence, they don’t want anything self-published or not blessed by their biased process — toward their own offerings and against anything else — getting any attention or taking market share. Chances are, the quality slush-pile offering is every bit as good as the quality publishing house offering. The buyers of such stories just never get a chance to find out about them.

    The only solution to this I can think of is a combination virtual and bricks-and-mortar alternative to traditional publishing for authors who wish to self-publish and reach a market. The return would be small and unlikely, but at least an author can put their books out on shelves where people could come and browse them. The authors would have to offer books on consignment AND pay a small fee to have their books in stock (and to fend off the truly awful stuff). The fact is, nobody is all that anxious to front a low-margin item that’s also expensive to market in a crowded marketplace.

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