The Slush Pile

Let us consider the slush pile.

David Patterson, a senior editor at Henry Holt, whose taste in books I admire greatly, sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal online entitled: “The Death of the Slushpile.”

Way back when, the slush pile was an uncomplimentary term used by publishers for the  unsolicited manuscripts they received by the bucket load from aspiring writers. As the above article will tell you, “slush is dead.” At least it is with commercial publishers. Apparently they  were finding that it exposed them to copyright infringement lawsuits. Every time a book was published with even the most remote parallels to an unsolicited submission, the publisher was accused of using the slush pile as a flower garden of ideas to pluck. Copyright infringement suits are to publishers what medical malpractice suits are to doctors. Publishers have attempted to reduce their exposure by inserting an “indemnity clause” in the book contract. This provision, hateful to all writers and their agents, puts the onus of defending against copyright infringement claims, no matter how frivolous, on the shoulders of the author.

 But I digress. Publishers were also finding that the payoff  from  sorting through slush didn’t justify the time and expense of a 22 year old entry level editorial assistant plowing through unpublishable manuscripts. And, in truth, finding  something good out of the slush pile was a little like winning the lottery.

So now if you push the “acquisitions” button on a publisher’s website, you will see that they will  accept only agented submissions. The slush pile is no more. On  one level, I find this puzzling. The legendary publisher, Alfred Knopf, once said, “Agents are to publishers as a knife is to a throat.” Now they have bestowed upon us at no cost the exclusive license to act as the toll gates of the literary superhighway.  

Well, ok. There is a cost. And that cost is – slush. Agents have replaced the editorial assistants in sorting through the unsolicited manuscripts. I don’t call it slush. It’s a demeaning term. I have spoken in a previous blog posting (Ann Lamott and Albert Camus on Writing ) that writing is a courageous act. And the activity deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I  prefer to use the term: “queries received over the transom.”

A lot of the big-time agencies don’t have much truck with slush either. And I am told that finding an agent for a number of genres is about as hard as finding a publisher. But, look. I hear about agents who get 100 queries a day. What are they to do? I’m a smaller and newer agency. I get about 40 queries a week. It seems to be growing though.  Most of the queries I get are for fiction or personal memoir. My website and my listings on agent directories clearly state that I don’t accept fiction and personal memoir. But I try to respond in a timely manner. Mostly I politely copy and paste a “thank you, but it is not for me.”

I have taken on a few projects from the slush pile. Excuse me. From over the transom. And I got one published by an author who was living in his brother’s under heated attic in Maine. On the day of publication, he wrote the op-ed piece in The New York Times.  I’m pretty proud of that. And other agents whom I respect all have stories of great projects that they fished out of the slush. So I urge aspiring writers to send their projects out. Hope for the best…. But expect the worst.

People in publishing always like to talk about the great projects by unknown authors that rose above the slush. The Diary of Anne Frank was originally rejected by the Paris office of Doubleday.  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was discovered by a young assistant agent. Philip Roth got his first story picked up by The Paris Review.  And J. K. Rowling had her Harry Potter rejected by 20 publishers before it was sold to  Bloomsbury UK.. John Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by just about everyone in publishing until it found a home after the author’s death. It went on to sell several million copies and win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

When I first became an agent, I went around New York for a few days talking to editors. I asked all of them what was their biggest mistake in book acquisition. (This would be a good blog posting. We’ll do it another time.) My favorite response was from a very prominent editor who rejected The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. But she said it wasn’t really a mistake. She thought it was lousy and boring. Because of her judgment on the book, it would never have succeeded with her as editor.

 And so, gentle reader,  if you will excuse me, I need to go back to reading my slush. I  will set aside my world-weary cynicism and approach the task with eagerness and hope. Because I know that, amidst the dross and the folly, lies the novel of the next Jane Austin – waiting to be born.

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9 Responses to “The Slush Pile”

  1. Lynn Henriksen Says:

    From over the transom bets the heck out of slush pile. Thanks, Andy.

  2. ideas expressed Says:

    LOL. Great post. But slush isn’t dead. Wrong metaphor, WSJ. The folks who coined the word, coined it for a reason. Clearly, they’re comparing unsolicited submissions to half-formed stuff. Matter caught between a solid and liquid state. Insufficiently frozen glop that won’t even make a decent snowball. In nature, it falls and melts away. But “literary” slush defies the laws of nature. It just keeps coming. There is no thaw. Instead, it gets shoveled. To a different part of the sidewalk. There’s your metaphor. It turns out, the Publishers in Brownstone A have moved the entire mess in front of Brownstone B, a small, shaky co-op owned by Agents who can’t or won’t complain because the Publishers in Brownstone A are their landlords. Also, they’ve been told (perhaps by those same Publishers?) an apocryphal tale about someone who once found a priceless piece of jewelry (hidden? thrown-away? placed there for them to find?) in a similar mound of pseudo-snow. So where does that leave the poor Agents? 1) Noting that the piles are getting so high they can no longer see the street on which they live; 2) Shoveling, when they get two seconds, hoping to encourage at least some of it to melt away; 3) Paying a teenager to do the same when cash-flow permits; 4) All the while, keeping a sharp eye out (and instructing those teenagers to do the same) for that storied hint of gold somewhere in the detritus; 5) Consulting the skies (in vain!) for some break in the weather; 6) Considering the use of massive blow-torches; 7) Considering tenting their property so that all the glop falls elsewhere; 8) Sneaking around the neighborhood at midnight looking for some other stretch of sidewalk to which the whole mess could be transferred without, somehow, losing first dibs on any discovered gems… It’s a problem, no question. On the other hand, I’m a believer in the buried treasure myth. I should know. I set a beautiful heirloom brooch out on top of one of the piles (well, it was on top for a nano-second, then it sank…) hoping it would be found by a persistent shoveler. I know: that’s one heck of a weird way to transfer valuables to the remote folks in Brownstone A, but apparently, they’ve been living totally off the grid for some time now. Or at least, off the grid I live on: phone, mail, email. Stuff like that. Nobody sees them anymore. Just their shadows behind the drapes. So I depend on the shovelers. Tired Agents. Teenagers hoping to amass enough cash to buy their own brownstones someday. Needles are to haystacks as masterpieces are to slush. God bless the folks who make it their business to do all that digging.

  3. Former 22-year-old assistant Says:

    Hooray for slush! I’m envying you the task. How well I recall the constant piles of boxed manuscripts at AAK. I hope in this electronic age you are not surrounded by boxes you must mail back.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      I suppose the slush at AAK was more quality slush. But as I hope I indicated, as politely as possible, the unsolicited ms. file ain’t all a bed of roses. But I usually find something once or twice a week that piques my interest, at least to respond and ask for more.

  4. Shared Reading « Red Sofa Literary Says:

    [...] The Slush Pile – by Andy Ross, at the Andy Ross Agency [...]

  5. Virginia Says:

    But if you don’t accept fiction proposals, how will you ever find the novel of the next Jane Austin?

  6. Tamara Sellman Says:

    Hi Andy,

    I also find it more fair to use the term “over the transom,” but I’m an editor as well as a writer and I find the authors of unsolicited work to be a courageous lot. They deserve at least a first glance.

    Thanks for doing the hard work of reading and processing their submissions; as a writer I’d rather wait for a fair read then no read at all!

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