Behind the Curtain, Part 2.5: Slush

Before we move on to the next full installment of Behind the Curtain, I thought I’d do a little prep work. You see, the next section is about acceptance and rejection, and how manuscripts get read, sorted, and categorized for acquisition.

In order to understand that, though, you need to understand a little bit about slush.

We talked a bit about slush and slush reading in Behind the Curtain, Part 2: Prepping Your Pitch. Let’s define some terms and get a little more in-depth with it, though.

The slush pile is the stack of manuscripts that has been submitted to a publisher or agent – an unedited, unreviewed free-for-all of literary fooferaw. It is in raw form, and it is a wild, untamed, jungle-like place. Anything can happen here. It often does. And usually in badly edited, grammatically painful ways.

The slush reader is the person whose job it is to read through said slush pile. This may be an intern, an editorial assistant, a junior or associate editor, an agent, or an editor. Usually, at the big houses, it’s an incredibly underpaid or unpaid intern or editorial assistant; you have to take your knocks and survive the slush pile before you get to move on up. This peon reads through, and if something catches their attention, they pass it on to a higher-ranking editor or an acquisitions editor to make a determination on. At small publishing houses, the slush reader might be that acquiring editor, or someone else with a more impressive title and more decision-making power. That’s the case at Candlemark & Gleam – the acquisitions editor is the slush reader. No middleman.

Reading through the slush pile is a thankless, soul-rending task. Laura Miller has a great article on Salon.com about the democratization of the slush process thanks to self-publishing, and how this might actually be a problem for readers – and authors. Y’see, while it’s wonderful that new technology is lowering the barrier to entry for the publishing world, there’s still the problem of quality control, and finding the gems scattered in the muckheap of the writing world.

In the current publishing system, agents and publishers act as gatekeepers via the slush pile. We read the crap so that you don’t have to. In the Brave New World of exclusive self-publishing that some people are trumpeting, where everyone is their very own publisher, readers don’t have that winnowing system. You have to sort through for yourself, or rely on blogs and reviews to find the cream. Now, we’re all for peer reviews and blogs and (obviously) for alternative publishing systems, but we’re also big believers in quality control.

Believe me, once you’ve witnessed the hell that is the slush pile, you, too, will be desperately grateful for slush readers and publishing’s gatekeepers. It’s horrifying in there. I sometimes suspect that H.P. Lovecraft came up with some of his more eldritch, squamous terrors after being exposed to a particularly bilious slush pile and realising what it could do to the brain of someone unprepared.

So what does all this mean for the aspiring author? How do you deal with the slush pile, and get through that layer of jaded, gibbering quality control that is the poor, beleaguered slush reader?

It means that you need to produce a top-quality submission. It means that you have to have a great query. It means that you have to get right down to business, and not waste the slush reader’s time with inane babble and inconsequential trivialities. It means you have to understand that, if you’re rejected, it’s not personal – it’s just that the slush reader wasn’t hooked. Keep trying. Keep revising. Keep at it.

I swear, if your book really is good, someone will eventually pick it up. The slush pile will eventually release its sticky hold on your manuscript, and you’ll get through to the next phase of the publishing process.

But yeah, you have to survive the slush pile first. When you’re waiting, and worrying, and pacing the floor convinced that your manuscript is festering in some unknown to-be-read hell, though, keep in mind the plight of the poor slush reader – it’s worse for them. They’re the ones who have to read that 50-page sample from the book about the Balzac-quoting superbaboon who’s romancing Angelina Jolie while saving Nepalese kittens from the nuclear machinations of Emperor Quimby III on a distant space station. In all caps.

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