Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Slush Pile

by
mistri

2003, mistri

 

he slush pile is very important. Most writers are aware of what "slush" is unsolicited manuscripts submitted to a publisher. They often believe that editors hate slush but that's just not true.

Slush is a publisher's lifeline- they all need new writers. True, many new authors who are picked up are agented, but if an editor reads a really good book they won't care who's representing it. At the publishing house I work for we are positively encouraged to read slush and to recruit new writers. Editors are given incentives for picking up new authors.

So what happens to manuscripts once they're sent to a publisher? I can't speak for all publishers, but I will try to explain to some extent, what happens in one.

Every day all unsolicited (and solicited) manuscripts, partials, query letters and synopsis letters are logged into a huge database. Authors are then informed that their manuscript has been received, and will now be looked at. All the editorial staff are on a rota, so that once every couple of weeks, they are allocated a whole day's slush and query letters to work through. The database allows us to keep track of what the writer has sent in and when, and which editor has been given their material. Once the slush is given to a particular editor it is generally up to them to find the time to look at it.

However, sometimes groups get together to work through any backlog that might have built up. The editors can then bounce questions off on one another, or ask for second opinions on some material. If one editor has a lot more slush than another, or is getting behind, it's shared out so that the author will get a reply in a decent period of time.

Even if a manuscript is good, it frequently needs revision and than has to be accepted by both the senior editor of that imprint and the editorial director before a contract can be set up. If a manuscript is rejected, authors are sent a form rejection letter unless the editor has the inclination to write a personal letter for example, if they have time and want to encourage a particular writer.

On the presentation side there are several things which effect an editor's judgement of a submission, as I'm sure many writers will have read in various self-help writing books. Hand-written submissions are a big no-no, but they still happen. Editors won't reject a hand-written letter (or even, gasp, manuscript) on sight, but it won't predispose them to thinking good things about your novel, and it also suggests that the writer isn't particularly professional.

Other presentation issues include spacing. Double line spacing is the norm, but I do understand why some writers choose to submit work in single line spacing. After all, the resulting work will use up less paper and be cheaper to post. But it's really hard to read page after page of single line spaced work, especially if you spend a large part of the working day reading. It's the lack of white space on the page that makes text look unappealing as well as difficult to read. Forgetting to either indent paragraphs or use paragraph breaks can also cause the same problem.

Some writers go over the top in an effort to impress with presentation. They invest in beautiful binding and illustrated covers. There wouldn't necessarily be anything wrong with this, but really, as long as the manuscript is clean and readable, an editor is unlikely to be impressed by anything else. They may however, think "who are they trying to impress?" or worse "If they've spent so much time on this, it might be because the writing's awful." Unfair maybe but remember you want prospective editors looking at your words not your cover!

Cover letters come in many forms. It's easier to say what makes a cover letter bad, rather than what makes one good. Arrogance is perhaps the biggest offence (although confidence can be used successfully). Countless letters arrive claiming that the author is presenting "the most readable book ever," that the publisher "can't afford to turn this one down" etc, etc. This is not going to impress anyone. After all, even if this were true, the most readable book ever may not fit into a publisher's imprint. The one the publisher can't afford to miss? Maybe a similar plot is already scheduled, and so actually they can't afford to publish a similar one.

Synopses should be short. Editors I've spoken to prefer 1- 3 pages maximum. Once they get longer than this the temptation, for the editor, is to jump straight into the manuscript, without any idea of what it's aiming for. It's also best to include the entire plot in the synopsis rather than start where the story has left off at the end of your submitted partial. However, editors are aware that good writers do not necessarily make good synopsis writers and should always look at the material you've submitted before making their assessment.

What else should you watch out for? I would recommend always sending enough postage for the publisher to return your manuscript (or else state that you don't want it back). It is an expensive process for the slush author, but for publishers who are deluged by unsolicited manuscripts it can be even worse, and they want to save their money for writers they actually publish. Also, once your manuscript has been submitted, don't expect an immediate reply. Although slush is vital to publishers who need good, new authors, it is still usually looked at once everything with a deadline has been dealt with editors are busy people. After four months or so it is worth querying the office, but before then you may just cause annoyance. And if your manuscript has been gone a long time, don't worry too much. Good submissions usually take longer to read than bad ones, simply because bad ones can often be assessed and then rejected within a few chapters. The editor who takes the time to read a whole manuscript is likely to have seen some promise in it, even if they eventually reject it.

I can't give advice on how to write a novel that depends on far too many things, for example the publisher or the genre but I hope that this editorial view of the slush process will give writers an insight into how unsolicited manuscripts are really viewed and what the common pitfalls are when submitting them.