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Secrets of the Slush

A book editor's advice for keeping yourself out of the slush pile.

By Jen Weiss - October 15, 2003

As you look in the mirror, twirling your silvery hair and remembering how shiny and blond it was when you sent your manuscript in to that publisher in New York, you hear the doorbell ring. At the door you meet your neighbor who often gets your mail—the curse of having the same last name. He hands you a small envelope, pointing out the publisher's address on the return.

He smiles. He knows—it's the envelope you've been waiting for. (He knows because you've been pestering about him having it every other day, for months.)

Swiftly you tear open the envelope and unfold the letter inside. Your heart flutters. You start sweating. This could be it.

Or not. It's a form letter—from "the editors." No penned signature, no "thanks and sorry for the delay," nothing. Just a short, Xeroxed rejection. "Thanks for your submission, but no thanks, and best of luck." Dejected, you thank your neighbor, walk inside, and make yourself a gin and tonic. Who cares if it's only noon?

Sound painfully familiar? If so, then you're probably also familiar with the word "slush"—in fact, perhaps a tad more familiar than you'd like to be. Slush is the term the publishing industry uses to refer to unsolicited submissions. It's the stuff we don't ask for but get in copious amounts. It clutters our offices. It piles up, leering at us, beckoning us to pick through it.

Editors have a love-hate relationship with slush. We love it because it offers us an opportunity to find the work of new talents, gems—which really do exist in the depths of the slush pile. It's material from authors (and sometimes new agents) who are unfamiliar with how to avoid being designated as slush, but this doesn't mean it doesn't show promise.

On the other hand, editors hate slush because it teases us. It reminds us of what little time we have in our day to go through submissions—even the solicited material—while it also taunts us with possibility: "Hey, Editor, I might have the next National Book Award winner in here!"

There are slush success stories. Not many, but some. A friend of mine, as an assistant editor, found a zippy, fresh new book series in slush. I've heard stories of editors finding submissions that go on to not only be acquired, but extremely well-reviewed—which means success for both the author and the editor. It really happens.

But, much more often, slush turns into nothing.

The reasons are simple. Perhaps most important, your submission, once it's deemed slush, might well never even get looked at. It's a very harsh reality, and it's one that we in publishing—who think of ourselves as supporting and inspiring creative types—aren't proud of. But realities just get in the way. Think of the volume of unsolicited submissions a major publisher in New York gets every day—perhaps an inbox full—and multiply that by five days a week, then by about four and a half weeks a month, and you've got a whole lot of unsolicited submissions. And when you then think about the solicited submissions that come in—perhaps half as many as arrive unsoliticted—and then acknowledge the load of other tasks each editor must handle in a day, tasks that take up about 90 percent of her time, the outlook is understandably bleak.

On top of that, the important editors—the ones who might have the power to get your book published—will almost never see the slush. The higher editors are on the totem pole, the more submissions they're getting from agents and authors whom they know, and trust—and the less likely they'll have time or inclination to rake through the slush. General slush is most often read by editorial assistants and assistant editors. These guys already have plenty on their plates—they're often assisting more seasoned editors and handling one or more of their own projects. By reading the slush, they might find something publishable, which will help their reputation in the publishing house and even in the industry, so they try to take a look. In fact, many departments aim for a monthly or quarterly "slush lunch." But unless the slush pile is threatening people's office space, it isn't a top priority—and therefore it can be bumped if need be.

Right. So you don't want to be in slush, or at least not the general departmental slush. You want to be on an editor's desk. But how do you get there if you don't have an agent and don't know anyone in the industry?

Well, first, there are different kinds of slush, and if you're going to be in slush, you want to be in the right pile. The first step is to find the name of an editor who works at a publishing house you think might be the right home for your submission. There are resources online that have lots of information about who's publishing what, but your best bet is often to visit their local bookstores and look in the "acknowledgements" section of some books that seem like the book you'd like to have published. It's no use sending your adult thriller to a children's-book editor who specializes in board books—what will she do with it? But if you get your submission to an editor who acquires the sort of material you're sending, the chances of getting your manuscript read increase. It may not get read by the editor, but her stellar assistant editor will take a look—and, if she feels the editor will like it, she'll put it in her manager's inbox with rave reviews. The subtext here is to avoid sending your submission to a whole department rather than to a specific person. You might as well write "THIS IS SLUSH" on your envelope in big block letters.

Second, always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope that will fit whatever you'd like returned. It's often not best to include all five hundred pages of your novel in your unsolicited submission—a query letter and the first two chapters is enough for an editor to tell if she wants to read more. But if you do choose to send the whole manuscript and want the whole thing returned, enclose a SASE that will fit the whole thing. Otherwise, if it's not right for the house, it's likely that it'll get tossed into the recycling bin. The SASE is of utmost importance. Given the volume of submissions and the little time editors have to go through them, an SASE can sometimes mean the difference between hearing back and not hearing anything at all. It's not that editors have no heart. It's that they have no time.

Third, somewhat repetitively: Don't send the whole thing. A query letter, a chapter or two, and an SASE will suffice. This will also increase your chance of getting a response sooner rather than later. Less to read means less reading time, and if an editor has five minutes to spare and your short submission is at the top of her slush pile, you're golden. Of course, if your manuscript is very short, send the whole thing in—you want to give the editor a chance to get a real feel for what she's considering, and she won't be able to tell much from only the first page of a picture-book manuscript. But a few chapters should be enough, ideally, to whet the editor's appetite—and if she likes what she's read, she'll send back your SASE with a request for more.

Of course, the best ways to avoid slush is to meet an editor in person and get an invitation to submit, or to get an agent with good contacts who'll get your manuscript right on the appropriate editor's desk, front and center. But that's a whole different article.

For now, though, don't be afraid of the slush. Slush can be your friend. Just remember to include an SASE, not to send too much material, to send it to the right person (or, at the very least, to the right imprint), and to hang in there. Because though slush always takes a while to handle, one never knows what they'll find under the mess—and the promise of finding something shiny and bright once in a while is what keeps editors looking.

Jen Weiss is a freelance writer and children's book editor in New York.

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