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Is the Slush Pile Really Dead?

The Wall Street Journal recently had an article entitled, “The Death of the Slush Pile.” (Jan. 15, 2010) As I read the article, I couldn’t keep from asking, is the slush pile really dead?

The “slush pile” is basically another name for the enormous stacks that used to accumulate on editor desks or floors consisting of unsolicited manuscripts authors would send with the hopes of getting "discovered."

Many years ago, when I first started writing, I remember trudging to the post office with my books and paying to mail them along with a SASE for the dreaded return. I knew my rubber-banded sheets would eventually make their way to a publishing house to a sky-scraper high stack, where they would sit until a harried editor gave them a quick glance.

The Wall Street Journal article said, “Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction.” Most major publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, not even emails. If writers call a publishing house like Simon & Schuster, they’d get an automated message that says something like, “Submissions must come to us via a literary agent due to the large volume of submissions we receive each day.”

The article went on to say the slush pile “has been transferred from the floor of the editor’s office to the attache cases of representatives who can broker introductions to publishing.”

In other words, the slush pile isn’t dead. It’s just moved location—it’s moved to the agent’s office. And not only has the slush pile moved location, it’s also no longer a “pile.” It’s a file, on a hard drive.

So, yes, in the traditional sense, the slush pile is indeed dead. But I want to propose that it’s still very much alive. Those of us querying agents can testify to the reality of the new slush file.

Stephanie Meyer author of Twilight, sent 15 query letters and got 10 rejections. One of those rejections came after she’d already signed with an agent and received a three book deal from Little Brown.

My book, The Preacher’s Bride (releasing in the fall), sat in Rachelle Gardner’s slush file for nearly 9 months. She had requested the full but didn’t pull it from her hard drive until I finaled in the Genesis Contest. Then she read it and subsequently offered me representation.

I’m sure we can all point to countless other examples of manuscripts languishing in slush piles. It still happens all the time. Agents are not only overwhelmed by the numbers of queries they receive, but then struggle to wade through the requested manuscripts that perked their attention.

What does all of this mean for us as writers?

1. Waiting in a slush pile is part of the process. It’s easy to get discouraged when we end up waiting for weeks, even months to hear back from agents. But remember, most of us have done our time in the slush (or are in the process of doing it). Look at it as part of the initiation into a writing career.

2. We can’t let slush piles determine our worth. Just because a manuscript isn’t picked up right away doesn’t mean it won’t go on to be published and have great sales. In other words, the slush pile time has nothing to do with the future success of a book. When our manuscripts sit, we get discouraged and begin to question our writing ability and our books, but we need to remember time in a slush pile is not indicative of our quality.

3. If our stories are good enough, they’ll rise to the top of the pile. . .eventually. Fortunately agents and editors are still looking for talented and well-crafted books. They want to find those gems within the pile. That should encourage us--if we continue to grow in our writing and ability to tell great stories, we’ll get noticed.

What do you think? Is the slush pile really dead? Have you done your time in a slush pile yet? What was your experience?

41 comments:

  1. I'm doing my time in two different slush piles at the moment and, even though I haven't been waiting anywhere close to nine months, it *feels* like it. I wish submissions came with automatic indicators (like when your computer is downloading a new program) to let you know how much longer you have to wait. One thing I learned when working customer service was that if you were going to keep your customer waiting, you'd better give them periodic progress updates. I realize agents and editors can't do that. But it would be nice!

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  2. There are small F/H/Sci-Fi presses that still slog through slush, no agent needed. Of course the advances (if any) , print numbers and promotion budgets are considerably smaller.

    Sometimes, I guess, an author just does it for the love, not the money or fame.

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  3. I have done my time, Jody. With my precious picture books. I submitted them to a few houses before deciding to write my novel, get an agent and then submit my picture books. I had some great feedback, but the slush pile isn't a place I want to be again. =) Though like you say, I probably will be in some agent's slush pile. UGH. Is there ever an end? A story book end?

    I think the problem lies in the fact, that writers query too early. Then that makes it hard on all of us. The agent must wade through all of that before he finds the gem that he is looking for. And it does encourage me. But it also worries me. Will the agent get so tired of wading through his slush that he trashes it before finding my story? That's a chance I'll have to take. It's worth it, isn't it Jody? And I have entered some contests too. So who knows. It may be closer than I think. =) Thanks Jody. *grin* It's good to be back with you.

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  4. I slushed for years with editors, receiving 210 rejections in the process.

    Slushed with agents and got 75 rejections...and one yes!

    There is no glamor in the journey, but I'm so glad I stuck with it.

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  5. Once again you encouraged me Jody. Thank you! I have three fulls now sitting in those slush piles but it's ok--cause I know my current WIP is better!

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  6. My full is in 2 slush piles right now, one literally because they did require a hard-copy of my manuscript:-)

    I view being IN the slush pile as a virtual "maybe" so it makes me feel better. The agent could just glance at it and say no immediately, so a long maybe is much better than that!

    Your 9 month wait gives me a TON of encouragement, Jody!

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  7. I'm ok with sitting in the slush. Its better than just sitting in my own computer!

    Everyone's journey is different. With a little patience we will all get there soon enough.

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  8. Three things maybe four. First of all, I agree the slush is still there, it's just changed consistency. Second, I am so excited. I can't wait for The Preacher's Bride. Are you taking orders? Third- I like what you said about not letting slush piles determine your worth.

    Ok it was three not four things.

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  9. I think as long as their are aspiring writers, the slush pile will exist in some format. Isn't the current slush pile basically an InBox # (543 Unread Messages)? So, perhaps there is no longer a literal pile of paper, but there is a pile, so to speak.

    My main thoughts about rejection: that agent just wasn't right for me. Okay, maybe my query letter sucked big time. Still, for the most part, rejection is a part of life, and I have faith that I will find the right agent for me. I just haven't looked under every single rock . . . yet.

    Great post! Thanks.

    S

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  10. Been there. Done that. ;)

    I'm learning to wait well. I want to make my WIP the best it can be before I query and in order to do so it is taking some time.

    Time is okay. Just ask someone with cancer...they love time.
    ~ Wendy

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  11. I've yet to experience the "slush pile wait," since no publisher has requested a full--YET.

    One is interested in my second book, and I've been waiting since December to hear back from my agent.

    In the meantime, I keep writing, revising, and submitting articles. One of my stories will be published in a Guideposts anthology this Spring.

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  12. I've waited in slush piles several times. Although the waiting is excruciating, it still means I haven't gotten a "NO"!

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  13. I'm working on a project that's more up in the air than in a slush pile. My agent shopped it to 14 publishers. 9 said no. 5 haven't replied. Now we're reworking it for an editor who wants something a little different. If that doesn't pan out, we're going to try a different batch of publishers. Lots of waiting, lots of uncertainty, lots of growth.

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  14. Hi Jody,
    Thank you so much for your lovely comment on my blog this morning. It truly lifted my spirits.
    Karen

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  15. It's true that the slush pile has just moved. There is one difference between the agent slush pile and the publisher slush pile, however. I have no agent, but from what I have read, it seems to me that agents are interested in writers who not only have created one good book, but are going to continue to create good books.

    This opposed to a publisher who might go for a book from an author, even though he or she may never write a book again. Since the agent is a representative, the writer must continue to produce, or the agent will have used a lot of time and energy on one relationship that will only have a one time payoff, so to speak.

    Thoughts on this?

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  16. I agree with you. Thanks for the encouragement!
    Blessings,
    Karen

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  17. I sat in slush piles. One ms sat in a slush-pile for two years before I got a request for a full. Which was turned down with a form letter a few months later. Sigh.

    Some editors do still accept unsolicited manuscripts, but I can't imagine how they keep up.

    Awhile back one of the editors of Harlequin was on a blog and posted a picture of her office. The stacks of paper were staggering.

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  18. Ack, 9 months? You must have been stir crazy waiting for a response. I'd love to know how you handled the stress of that long wait. You could have had a baby in the interim. ;)

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  19. Yes, I've been in the slush pile, several acutally. It's not the easiest place to hang out but at least you are in good company. I think it's the exception when you don't have to wait.

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  20. Hi Beth,
    I can only speak from my experience. My agent is interested in my writing career, not just in a one book-fling. She wants me to succeed with current and future projects (and I'll be addressing this in a later post this week).

    My publishing house, likewise, is interested in investing in my writing career. Currently they've contracted me to write three books and the hope is that with each one, I can continue to build a readership. It's to both of our advantages to have a long term focus in mind, rather than just one book. Perhaps not all publishing houses care about future books, but mine does.

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  21. I haven't been in the slush yet...but I'm kind of looking forward to it, actually. Because that will mean that the book I'm currently revising is "out there", and I can move on to the next one waiting to be revised, and the new draft I'm currently working on.

    Entering the slush for me will mean that I have actually *completed* the writing, revising and editing of an entire novel, and sent it out into the world. I dare say that will be some very good motivation to get the next books revised and written - you know, just in case someone wants to offer me a contract for more than one book. ;-)

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  22. The one thing I've learned over the past couple of years is that nothing happens fast in this industry.

    Patience is definitely the number one virtue all writers must have or fake that they have it.

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  23. If my MS sits in a slush file/pile, I will be more than happy. It will mean I have finished writing my first novel.
    Interesting post as usual.

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  24. Jody, thanks for this encouraging post! I'm in at least one slush pile but not giving up! ;) ~Jenn

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  25. mistymorningmountainFebruary 22, 2010 1:03 PM

    In this business, as in pretty much all business, there are ways around just about every rule. That's why building relationships is essential. I've gotten an MS to 2 major publishers before the author was agented. Why? Because I called in favors. Unfair? Perhaps. But ask ten authors if knowing someone in the business helped them get their foot in the door, and I'm willing to bet that at least eight of them will answer in the affirmative.

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  26. Oh yeah! I've done time in the slush pile, and I'm sure there's more. That's okay. I feel the same as you--it's just part of the process.

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  27. The slush pile is not dead, it's just very misunderstood.

    ;-)

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  28. I haven't jumped into the slush pile yet, but I saw that WSJ article when it came out. I'm glad you pointed out that the slush pile's not dead but that it's moved. I felt like the article made it sound like there's no hope for writers anymore, but I think a good story will eventually be noticed, no matter how long it sits on an agent's desk.

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  29. Hi Jody -

    I've talked to a few agents and editors at writers conferences, but haven't sent the manuscript via mail or email to anyone.

    One of the things that jumped out of your post was the contest final. It's one way to attract the attention of an agent or editor.

    I'm entering the Genesis this year. Whatever happens, it's a new avenue for critique and a possible boost.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  30. Totally agree with you. Not dead, just moved to the agents and the puters. At least, for the most part, people aren't having to walk into a room filled to the top with paper anymore. Ugh. That would be discouraging in itself. hehehe

    Lynnette Labelle
    http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

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  31. When it comes to slush pile versus slush file I think there will always be a place for both. I can't believe agents and editors will ever chance missing something good just because a writer prefers to put hard copy into their hands. Obviously technology provides faster, easier options for communication, but much like the eReaders controversy, IMHO, there will always be preferences to accommodate on both sides of the fence.

    So far my limited experiences have combined both -- querying and submitting partials by e-mail, followed by requested fulls via snail mail (followed by rejections by e-mail).

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  32. It's very much alive and well, thank you very much. ;-) And I've never been happier to leave it behind. Only to go on submission and realize that you're once again, in the slush pile. Virtual or otherwise, it's not my favorite place to be.

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  33. The whole process requires so much patience and faith and confidence. It's a good way to lead a life, even if you aren't trying to get a book published, don't you think?

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  34. Good post. I've been there. For a year and a half. The wait wasn't too hard though because I was busying myself with other manuscripts, other submissions, etc.
    Also, everytime I checked in the agent responded promptly. I was in slush at a publisher too and thought they did well getting back to me in their stated timeframe.
    :-) To me, the slush is just a part of this whole writing thing and doesn't bother me too much. And it's definitely not dead. :-)

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  35. I think your idea is right, that the slush pile is ever evolving in different ways. But I also believe it'll always exist, particularly for newer agents building their client list, searching out lucky authors from the slush!

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  36. I submitted a few times two years ago, waited several months while working on the next project, and received well deserved passes. After that, I took a submission vacation and spent two years working to improve my skills as a writer. I entered a number of contests this last fall and received requests for fulls. One of those led to my offer of representation--after four years, six novels, four rewrites, and 1,000,000 words.

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  37. What a FUNNN and interesting post!
    Oh, yes, my children have spent time in the slush piles...

    A great story is the slush pile experience of Joe Bernstein, NINETY YEARS YOUNG!! http://www.pattilacy.com/reviews.php?action=view&id=4. Joe, who began his writing career AFTER his wife died, penned "The Invisible Wall," which sat in a slush pile for TWO years. Look at it now.

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  38. Thanks for reminding me to be calm, cool and collected, Jody. It's so easy to slip into that "why hasn't he called?" dating mentality with agents.

    - Liz

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  39. I've done my time in an agent's slush pile, but I've since learned, I had no business being there yet. I wasn't ready in any way, shape, or form. I agree. If our story and our writing is strong enough, it will eventually make it to the top of that pile.

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  40. Great post, Jody! Thanks for infusing some encouragment into the slush pile/file scenerio!! Looking forward to your book this coming fall! God bless you!

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  41. Great post, Jody and thanks for the reminder! Sitting in slush for a year and 1/2, now and I'm more exhausted by the lack of any response than by the rejections. Those are actually uplifting in that at least the agent responded.
    I just need to kick in and start the next story if the other one's not going anywhere.

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