Monday, May 6, 2013

3 Myths Writers Believe About the Slush Pile (And Why They're Wrong) [Opinion]

There was a discussion on the self-publishing forum of KBoards about an article criticising the slush pile process. (In case you don't know, the "slush pile" is where magazines and book publishers put unsolicited manuscripts they receive.) The article "The New Yorker Rejects Itself: A Quasi-Scientific Analysis of Slush Piles" is about an author who took a story previously published in The New Yorker, changed the title and author's name, and submitted it to several magazines. All the magazines rejected the story, including The New Yorker itself.

Some of the authors on KBoards tried to give the magazines excuses, but I argued the simple fact that the slush pile system is not one that favors writers. Here are three myths brought up in that discussion and reasons why they're wrong.

1. Great Work Gets Recognized in the Slush Pile - People who defend the slush pile argue that great novels or short stories will be spotted in the slush pile. This is false. The idea that good stories will always be recognized and published is a myth. Writing skill is one component, luck is another. I can guarantee you many great short stories and novels are currently languishing in slush piles, because almost all great novels and short stories have languished in slush piles. The number of stories accepted immediately and enthusiastically by the first editor who came across them is very small. Off the top of my head, Frank Herbert's Dune and Stephen King's Carrie were rejected multiple times by multiple publishers. At some point, they were lying in slush piles, an editor glanced at them, said, "Crap," and tossed them aside without a second thought.

2. Publishers Want to Publish Good Work - Another argument in favor of the slush pile is that all publishers are in the business of making money, and finding great books makes them money. But finding great books is not the pathway to making as much money as possible for publishers. The path to making money is to sell a lot of copies of the publisher's books and magazines, which isn't the same thing. That's why Paris Hilton gets a book deal; not because she's a great writer, but because her book will sell a lot of copies, regardless of content. By the same token, magazines are interested in selling a lot of copies, and putting a famous name on the cover is the best way to do that. It also means that what editors are really looking for are authors who are already popular and have an established fan base. For example, The New Yorker can get all the stories it needs from the already famous and established authors who don't use the slush pile. They (or their agents) send work directly to an editor they worked with before. The occasional story that publishers buy from the slush pile is the exception that proves the rule.

3. Editors Go Through the Slush Pile Looking For Great Manuscripts - Probably the biggest misconception writers have is that most editors are going through the slush piles looking for great manuscripts. When they go through the slush pile (which most editors hate doing), they're looking for great work, but are primarily focused on getting rid of the slush pile. As the article stated, they call it the "slush pile" not the "hidden gem" pile. Editors (or more likely assistants) will seize on any excuse to toss the manuscript aside and reach for the next one. Manuscripts get rejected all the time, not because of the quality of the work, but because of arbitrary considerations like length, style, theme, how many other stories are slated for publication, what the editor had for lunch, etc. If an editor finds a manuscript that doesn't immediately grab them from page one, out it goes. They don't worry about whether or not pages two through two hundred might be the greatest piece of work ever written. Right now, there's a great novel that's lying in a slush pile that needs a little work, but will be rejected by the editor who glances over it on her way to his/her lunch break.

In case you think this is just my opinion, I'll give you a quote from an actual slush pile reader at a large publisher.

"So overwhelming is the volume of mail to be read (and, given the current perilous state of book publishing, so arduous the acquisitions process even for a worthy project) that often a weary editor’s guilty wish isn’t to fall in love with a manuscript, but to be able to reject it quickly before moving on to the next. As Walker Percy wrote of his reluctance to consider the manuscript for 'A Confederacy of Dunces,” 'My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.'"

To top it all off, lots of magazines and publishers have gotten rid of the slush pile altogether, so they're not giving us a shot at all. That's why I think self-publishing has become an important part of the publishing process. Since publishers are looking for authors with a track record, any author who achieves success in publishing their own work is in a better position to approach publishers. That is, if you want to go that route.

What do you think? Can slush piles succeed? What success have you had from being in the slush pile? What would be a better system?


  1. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. Mine was an unsolicited manuscript, and yet my publisher requested a full and then offered a contract.

    1. You are the lucky one. It's far from the normal experience

  2. I always think it's funny in movies and TV (sometimes even in books) how the would-be writer just puts his manuscript in a box, mails it to a publisher and BOOM! he gets published. It's sad in a way because it's being written by someone who should know better than that and yet for whatever reason we want to keep that myth alive. I remember a while back someone posted an article about how some big publisher was having a day where people could walk in and pitch stories. The article was entirely focused on how great it was for the publisher to give people a chance. It never said if they actually accepted any manuscripts. (My guess is they didn't.) Which to me says it all. As you said they really want proven commodities, so unless you're a celebrity or have won a major award or have sold a bunch of copies through self-publishing, they aren't really going to care.

    With non-big 4 (or 3 or 5 or however many it is now) publishers you can still get accepted with an unsolicited manuscript but then the problem is they don't have any influence to get your book on shelves in major markets so it's pretty much like self-publishing only they take 60% or more of the money.


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