Seven Tips to Avoid the Slush Pile

L.J. Bothell | January 2004

Publishers get several hundred slush--meaning unsolicited and mostly inappropriate--manuscripts a week. Large book publishing companies find assistants, receptionists, mailroom personnel, and temps reading slush pile manuscripts at Saturday slush parties. At other publications, assorted staff read collected slush in one sitting once a quarter or twice a year. Because so many manuscripts come in, publishing staff finds itself in the unenviable position of having to eliminate as much as possible, especially if the writer's effort stands out as blatantly unprofessional, poorly executed, or slow to catch attention. Your goal is to try to avoid the slush pile altogether, and if for some reason your work gets in there, to make it move to the next level--an assistant editor--and then up the chain to more senior editors. Here are a few things to keep in mind while you prepare to submit your next manuscript.

1. Don't submit your work blindly. This is the usual form of submission, especially by new and developing writers who aren't familiar with the publishing world or the markets they'd like to break into. What usually happens is that you, the writer, finish your manuscript (article or book-length), then find somewhere you'd like to see it published. Then you submit it with a cover letter, hoping that it will spring out of the envelope with a splash. Usually, it doesn't, no matter how fine-tuned your writing is. Your best bet, for nonfiction publications and book publishers, is to query/propose your subject first. For book publishers, you submit a formal proposal with your query letter: a letter with your qualifications, synopsis/outline, table of contents, and three consecutive chapters. For nonfiction publications, you send a query letter pitching your article idea, plus two to three clips of published work of a similar style or topic. You don't really have query opportunities for short fiction markets, except maybe to pitch invitation-only anthologies, but the cover letter for your manuscript should sell your merits for inclusion in the publication. Otherwise, for short fiction, make sure you submit to open markets and that you follow what the detailed writer's guidelines ask for.

2. Get an agent. Many writers do well when they find an agent who will represent them and their work. However, there is a catch-22 for many writers: you may not be able to have a solicited manuscript without an agent, or a reputable agent without a solicited manuscript. Therefore, as part of your writing life, you should be in contact with people in the writing field who can give you an edge while you explore your agent options. For instance, get to know other writers through networking events, writer's conferences, workshops, and seminars. Ask them for their advice and know-how about the agent process. Or, pitch an agency with a tight book proposal. Learn about the agenting business and how your favorite authors acquired their agents. Take note: do not go with an agent who expects you to pay any fees up front. Reputable agencies will take a percentage of rights they sell on your behalf, but you should not have to pay advance or reading fees for an agent to represent you.

3. Get an invitation. A great way to avoid the slush pile is for an editor to personally invite you to send your work directly to her. You can accomplish this in one of two ways. First, attend writer's conferences or conventions and make use of available pitch sessions for work you are ready to sell. This is where you meet with editors to briefly discuss your book concept. If the editor shows interest, ask if you can submit directly to her. If she says yes, get her business card, and ask if she could make a note on the back of it with the date of her invitation. Then refer to this when you submit your manuscript to her attention (or include a copy with your cover letter.) The second way, usually more useful for shorter-length work, is to meet editors in relaxed conference settings, such as at dinner, in the lounge, during event parties, and after general discussions. Editors go to events expecting to be pitched, so if a casual opportunity to present your pitch comes up, use it. Don't, however, follow the editor around, talk till his eyes glaze over, or push a pitch in inappropriate circumstances, like in the restroom or at an awards ceremony. Never, ever take the manuscript itself.

4. Network. If you are serious about writing, your writing life should have more to it than just writing. Part of this should include some involvement with the writing community. This is important because you can build credibility among your peers, who in turn are often happy to share information with you. You can learn which agents are looking to add additional writers to their stable, which publishers are experiencing a lack of submissions in a key area, and which markets need something to fill a sudden niche. You can also keep your ear to the ground to hear about chances to pitch brand new publishers or invitation-only anthologies. You can find out if a market is folding before you waste time on it, or if a new market is opening so you can submit your query ahead of the competition. Be willing to share your information too--remember that one hand washes the other. You can do this by being a speaker, teaching about writing, and doing panels and workshops at conferences. This helps you build a reputation of expertise and your own confidence so you become better able to sense publishing opportunities and pitch them when possible.

5. Know your markets. Another critical part of your writing life must include market research. Many developing writers just write, then think about submitting their work later. Sometimes, that works. Most of the time, a lot of energy gets wasted when a writer submits to inappropriate markets, such as those which are closed, have changed editorial needs, or which do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Make some part of every week about doing market research. Learn how to match possible markets with the work you are creating. Learn how you can spin off nonfiction pieces into related markets, or how to create a fiction niche in several themed magazines. Know what the trends that your favorite science fiction publishers are aiming toward, or the real rules of the romance or mystery fiction publishers. After all, if you don't know where your work is supposed to go to get published, how can you best plan to get it there?

6. Be a problem solver. When you submit your manuscript, use your cover letter/proposal to identify an issue the editor has and how you are going to solve it. Editors usually get far too many manuscripts, but just as likely get far too few that are a solid match for their needs. Be that match. If you are pitching a nonfiction piece on fad diets to a nutrition magazine, tell the editor what problem the audience has and how you are going to solve it, then share your credentials/experience. If you are writing a short story that may reach the slush pile, make sure you understand the theme and tone of the publication, and offer the story that the editor would want to be the lead because it's so perfect. If you are selling a novel manuscript, make sure to know the publishing house's trends, author stable, and marketing strategy. This way you can inform the editor who your audience is going to be, why your book will jump off the shelves, and how you will grow the publisher's audience for that particular niche. If you are proposing a how-to book, let the editor know the facts and figures of the subject and why readers need the book, and include tips on how it can be effectively marketed. In all cases, be the solution for the editor's targeted manuscript need, not another problem she has to reject.

7. Avoid slush kills. These are little actions on your part that indicate you will be problematic, a rank amateur, pushy, ill-prepared, or likely to go off schedule. For instance, don't write "solicited" on a blind submission because that marks you as an amateur who thinks that will immediately get you booted upstairs. Instead, put the inviting editor's name on the envelope, and in your cover letter refer to your recent meeting (by date) and his invitation for you to submit. Also, if you really were impressive at a pitch session, savvy editors will tell their staff to look for your name so this helps you bypass the slush. Another slush kill would be a poorly prepared manuscript with offbeat paper or type, stains, misspellings, obvious lack of research into the publisher, poor writing, and so on. Finally, never try to threaten or bribe the editor in your cover letter.

Despite the myths, editors don't read all day. They have meetings and business commitments like the average employee. They often read on their own time- on the bus, in the evening, and on weekends, all the while actively looking for the gems that made it out of slush or which came from an agent. Editors really want to find that special novel, or catch that how-to book that will make a difference. However, like any businessperson, they have to weed through a great deal of inappropriate material to find it. This is why there is such a gap between your mailed-in manuscript and the final decision-maker- it's the same process at any corporation. Make sure you explore your options for bypassing the slush pile in the first place, and if you hit the pile, make sure your work is too hard to reject. Good stuff stands out, so make sure it's your stuff that does it. Good luck!


L.J. Bothell is a graphic designer/writer with marketing communications emphasis who lives and temps/freelances in Seattle , WA . Questions? Contact:

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