Reports of the death of the slush pile greatly exaggerated

>> Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an obituary for the venerable slush pile, the method by which so many unagented, unheralded authors first break into professional publishing. From the article:
"In 1991, a book editor at Random House pulled from the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts a novel about a murder that roils a Baltimore suburb. Written by a first-time author and mother named Mary Cahill, 'Carpool' was published to fanfare. Ms. Cahill was interviewed on the 'Today' show. 'Carpool' was a best seller.

That was the last time Random House, the largest publisher in the U.S., remembers publishing anything found in a slush pile. Today, Random House and most of its major counterparts refuse to accept unsolicited material."
To which I call B.S.

Look, it's quite possible that 1991 was the last time Random House published something from the slush pile that became a bestseller. That wouldn't be a surprise, actually, as most books purchased from the slush pile, without benefit of an agent, are bought for a pittance--and books bought for a pittance are never promoted or pushed. The prevailing theory in publishing is that if you pay a big advance, you have to invest big money in promoting it to recoup that expense. Kinda smart and kinda dumb at the same time--but that's a debate for a different post.

It's also possible that the adult side of Random House's operations doesn't dip from the slush pile as much as the children's side, which I know far more about. But I absolutely refuse to believe they haven't published a single book from the slush pile since 1991--unless they are totally ignoring the kids' side, which wouldn't be too terribly surprising. (Although the article goes on to trot out Stephenie Meyer as an exception to the rule, getting plucked out of the slush pile at an agency. But Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling are often the only kids' book authors anyone outside of kids' publishing know.)

I know half a dozen people who were pulled from the slush pile at major publishing houses like Random House--myself included. In 2006, I got an offer from Dial Books, an imprint at Penguin Putnam, without an agent and without any connection to the acquiring editor other than finding her name in a Writers Market book. I just can't imagine that Random House and Penguin Putnam are so dissimilar that one would regularly buy books from the slush pile and the other wouldn't.

If Random House really hadn't found anything worthy of publication from the slush for almost twenty years, they would have just canceled the slush pile system by now. It's far too much work to slog through that stack of manuscripts in the corner and send out rejections. And yes, most publishers do not want you to send them, unsolicited, your 1,000 page novel. But they do accept unsolicited queries, most of them. If they like what they read, they'll ask for the full manuscript, et voila--your work has now become "solicited," even though you started out in the slush pile.

Is the slush pile system on the ropes? Yes. Certainly. Just this month, Macmillan Kids group announced they would no longer be accepting unsolicited submissions. Not even queries. They won't open your submission, and they won't even return it. Right into the recycling it goes. And Macmillan has some really good imprints: Henry Holt, FSG, Roaring Brook, First Second (a graphic novel imprint), and Feiwel and Friends.

Now that is news--not the fact one person at Random House (who cannot possibly know the origins of every book the conglomerate publishes) can't remember the last time they bought something from the slush. I'm sorry--I'm fired up about this, because I think the article is black and white and alarmist, when the reality is more gray and nuanced.

Again, the slush pile system is not what it once was. The economy is struggling, editors are being laid off, and publishers are being more cautious about publishing books that might not make back their investment. There is also, thanks to organizations with pre-professional services like the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, a much more coordinated army of aspiring writers who make the system swell to almost unmanageable levels. (Not a complaint: just a reality. I myself was one of those SCBWI-trained barbarians at the gate once.) I'm sure when publishers are looking at places to cut back, the teetering slush pile in the corner--which delivers far fewer publishable books than the ranks of agents knocking on the door--is being eyed by many as something that can be cut back on.

But at most publishers, the slush pile is still there--with limitations, certainly--and it's still a way for writers with skill, luck, and patience to break in to the professional ranks.

*FWIW, Hollywood Greg Bunch tells me the article is absolutely right about the impossibility of getting an unagented script read in the movie industry.


tanita davis January 19, 2010 at 3:31 PM  

"Anything" found in a slush pile? Oh, come ON.

I am sad about First:Second being closed to unsolicited manuscripts; graphic novels are so young it seems like they should leave at least that open for a little while longer...

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