Monday, January 18, 2010

Death of the Slush Pile

I just saw an article on The Wall Street Journal warning of the death of the slush pile. For those of you outside the world of publishing, the slush pile is the hundreds and thousands of unsolicited, unagented manuscripts that are sent in to publishers in the hope that they will be discovered by an editor or editor's assistant.

I have seen slush piles. When I visited Dorchester's offices on Madison Avenue last October, my editor Leah Hultenschmidt showed me hers---a neat pile that only stood a few inches tall on one shelf. But not all editors work through their submissions and make decisions so quickly. Some of the other editors' piles were waist-high and ringed their entire office.

Forget about getting a response in a timely manner.

The main thrust of the WSJ article was that publishing houses are not spending any time on slush piles and many are refusing to accept non-agented material because of concerns over plagiarism lawsuits. For example, if someone submitted a story about vegetarian vampires before Stephanie Meyers' Twilight books came out, they might have a case to make for a cash settlement.

It underscores the importance of having an agent. I know there are still some publishing houses that allow unagented submissions, but take a good look at that slush pile. Imagine you are an over-worked acquiring editor and have limited time to spend looking for new talent. Ask yourself if you'll wade into the slush pile or leaf through the manuscript that's been vetted by an agent with whom you've worked successfully in the past?

Finding an agent is arguably as difficult as finding an editor, and finding the one who's right for you is almost as challenging as finding the right spouse. But if you've completed a manuscript (and polished it to within an inch of its life) this is your next task if you want a writing career. It's an important milestone and worthy of its own blog post.

Tomorrow, I'm hosting Helen Scott Taylor here on my blog. She has a new title out ~ THE PHOENIX CHARM! And she'll give away a copy to one lucky commenter on Tuesday. But on Wednesday, I'll post my 10 Commandments for finding the right literary agent. Hope to see you both days!

What do you think about WSJ's prediction about the slush pile? Have you submitted an unsolicited manuscript? (I did very early in my writing career. I sent off my sad little western and it came back rejected with astonishing speed! Good thing. It deserves its obscurity.) Have you been plucked from the slush pile and found success?


Mia Marlow said...

I think it depends on what your goals are. If you want to be acquired by a major publisher, yes, you need an agent. If you are looking to break into ebooks, perhaps not.

However, a good agent provides more than salesmanship. They serve as mentor, career advisor and first reader. I don't know a writer who doesn't need that.

Gossip Cowgirl said...

Great post, Emily. I've been hearing similar things on the radio and via blogs, as well. I finally read Noah Lukeman's book on getting a literary agent, and he convinced me never to send an unagented submission to an editor ever again. He also convinced me of how much I need an agent. Of course, he's an agent. But he had a good point.

Anyway, thanks for the post.

EmilyBryan said...

Mia--Agreed. There is no "one size fits all" solution.

But I'd be rudderless without my agent.

EmilyBryan said...

Rebecca--I've always said the wrong agent is worse than no agent, but the right one is worth every penny.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Emily,
Great article,thank you so much, but finding an Agent that is the hard part. It is a vicious circle really. You can't get a publisher because you haven't got an Agent, and you can't get an Agent, well, for whatever reason.
No wonder so many writers have turned to e-publishing.

Sandy said...

Hi Emily,

Fortunately, I joined RWA and a RWA chapter before I decided to send anything off. I only sent manuscripts that were requested by editors or agents. I was still rejected. lol Only they were nicer, they sent me a personal note or letter.

librarypat said...

The world has gotten too large to be able to pitch your work personally to a publisher. There are too many writers for publishers to deal with. Unfortunately, it has become a time when specialists are necessary for both the publisher and author. Agents fill that role for both parties. As you said, the right one is worth every penny.
It is really too bad we have become such a large society that things have gotten less personal.
Good blog, as usual, Emily.

EmilyBryan said...

Margaret--Please pop back by on Wednesday. I'm going to share some suggestions for finding an agent. Hope they'll help you.

EmilyBryan said...

Sandy--Excellent point. Requested material goes to the top of the pile. I'll talk about how to make sure your work floats to that lofty position on Wednesday.

EmilyBryan said...

Actually, Pat, there are ways for an author to pitch directly to an acquiring editor or agent--face to face. I will share that on Wednesday.

Sunnymay said...

I've been published once with an acroustic poem in a chapbook. The slush pile has me MIA because so far, I've not polished my ramblings enough to send in a query or a manuscript. Belonging to a writers group and 2 poetry groups helps get my stuff more readable. The key point in writing is to have your message heard in whatever voice you choose.

Colleen Thompson said...

I'd bet serious money I know exactly whose slush pile that is pictured from Dorchester! LOL.

Getting a reputable, experienced agent is definitely the express route to avoiding a potentially interminable wait. It's not impossible to sell a novel out of the slush pile, but it's pretty tough in most markets.

Not that it's especially easy even WITH a good agent.