The dirt on the publishing slush pile

Any writer aspiring to publication should read this sobering but, in my view, accurate analysis in The Guardian of ‘The Death of the Slush Pile’. The slush pile – that generic term for the stream of unsolicited submissions that arrive at publishing houses daily – has taken on something of a nostalgic glow in recent years, with stories of slush-pile discoveries of luminaries such as Phillip Roth. But as a refugee from book publishing, I can attest that the slush pile was the bane of editors’ lives before the internet changed … well, very little, when it comes to getting published. But that’s for another post.

I worked at a major Australian trade publisher for three years in the mid-1990s. Hardly the dark ages, I know, but still, it was a previous century. By that time, literary agents had already become influential, but their power and the publishers’ reliance on their gatekeeping role had not assumed the default status it enjoys today. Even then, we all assumed that the vast majority of unsolicited submissions – meaning those manuscripts which had not already been vetted by an agent and deemed worthy of representing before a publisher – were likely to contain few hidden gems. So the revolving door of receptionists were trained to respond to telephone inquiries from aspiring authors who wanted to submit manuscripts, by first suggesting they find an agent; and if they still wanted to submit their manuscript, to send it in marked to the attention of Margaret Rogers. Anything that arrived for Margaret Rogers was destined straight for the slush pile – because Margaret did not exist. Her initials were simply code for Manuscript Rejection. Editors took a rushed look through the slush pile when they had a spare couple of hours – maybe once every three months, in other words.

The slush pile has never been the best way to getting published. My advice to anyone working on a manuscript is to get out from behind your desk once in a while and attend events, courses, workshops and other networking activities where you will eventually bump into someone who either works in the publishing industry, has been published already, or who used to work for such-and-such a publisher but now does something else. In all of those cases, these people will have friends or acquaintances at other publishing houses, and they will be willing to give you some advice or, if you’re really lucky, to suggest the name of someone you should contact. Your job is to listen to the advice they give you. Listen to it very carefully. These people will be speaking the truth but they will also speak a little bit in code, because they don’t want to crush your hopes with the brutal statistics of the slush pile and agents and publishing meetings that focus on everything but narrative style and structure.

The fact I used to work in publishing certainly helped me to get published – but only because I had an insider’s knowledge of how the process of publication works. As a former editor, I knew my manuscript was in sufficiently polished shape to submit it for consideration because I had read so many unsolicited and agent-submitted manuscripts, and I had helped authors to develop their own manuscripts – those that had been accepted by a publisher – through to publication. I therefore also acknowledged that there would probably be further work required on my manuscript, because publishers do have valuable knowledge and insight into making a book the best version of itself it can be.

Editors and publishers are always horrified by the arms-length pile of unread manuscripts from friends of friends, from former colleagues and so on. It’s impossible for them to avoid manuscripts from people they know, however distantly. And whether they know or know of a manuscript’s author, reading manuscripts is a time-consuming and fraught endeavour. Invariably the reading experience is split into parallel thought lines: Does this speak to me, do I want to keep reading it? and Could I sell this? The straight-out no’s are easy to call after years of assessing manuscripts. A yes/no split is not uncommon, and will result in an eventual rejection of the manuscript, causing distress to editor and author alike. Occasionally, very occasionally it’s a yes. Which is what we’re all aiming for. I like this quote from Samuel Beckett:

Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Very interesting stuff Virginia – bracing advice for aspiring writers. And no doubt depressing as hell, too.

    The bit that got me was aspirants being told to send ms to Margaret Rodgers, nonexistent, simply code for Manuscript Rejection. Is it perhaps a TAD cruel to make jokes at the unwitting writers’ expense before ignoring them?

    I think I’m right in believing this place to be my own former publisher… nice.

  2. I agree that there is a degree of cruelty, however indirectly expressed, in the ‘Margaret Rodgers’ system. However, it underlines my point about writers needing to better understand the ways and culture of the publishing industry in order to strengthen their likelihood of eventual publication.
    Unless you have slaved over a manuscript yourself, it is too easy to consider manuscripts en masse as a ‘pile’, irrespective of the quality of manuscripts constituting the pile. The vast majority of people who work in publishing have never published a single word. It’s much easier to be offhand and dismissive about aspiring authors when you’ve never tried to write anything yourself.
    Moreover, editorial staff in publishing houses are usually at the bottom of the pecking order (sales and marketing do battle for the top position), feeling overworked and underpaid for a job that, when done properly, is completely invisible. So they are not, generally speaking, well disposed to the anonymous contents of the slush pile. My point is that aspiring authors need to understand these dynamics in order to manage their expectations and give themselves a better chance of success.

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