The slush pile is dead. Long live the reformed slush pile.
Or some mangled old saying like that.
Lots and lots of things have changed in publishing over the last five to ten years, and the slush pile for publishers certainly hasn’t missed that change. In fact, I would wager there are young editors in traditional publishing houses that have no idea what the term “slush pile” even means. And if ever explained to them, they would shriek in horror at the very idea.
Slush piles were where writer’s manuscripts went to sit and wait for a baby editor to take a look at them, and maybe buy them for their publishing line. Some small slush piles still exist, but not in the old traditional sense by a long ways.
So I figured it was time to give the term “slush pile” a quick update and let you know where the manuscripts are piled these days.
The term “slush pile” came about way back, after the Civil War, when editors got all their stories directly and personally from writers. You had to live close to the magazine or book line you were writing for, or visit it frequently. During the pulp era of 1920-1950, editors would be in these old office buildings in New York without air-conditioning. Over the top of the door was a transom and a window that could be opened to help cool the room. So when writers went to see the editor and the editor wasn’t in, they would toss their manuscript “over the transom” through the window.
If the editor was gone for any length of time, he would come back and push his door open to find a pile of white paper with black typing on his floor. It looked like dirty New York slush, thus the term “slush pile” came about.
When I came into publishing in the early 1970s, New York publishers had vast rooms for manuscripts arriving from all over the county. They would hire young editors to cull through the massive piles hoping to find something of value. If the young editor found something in the slush pile, it often meant a promotion out of the slush pile reading and to a real editing job.
But going into the 1990s, the expense of having rooms and young editors living in New York and only culling through slush became too much for many traditional publishers. But they had a problem: Their guidelines of “No Unsolicited Manuscripts” just didn’t hold back the flood.
So near the end of the 1990s, the traditional publishers switched to “No Unagented Manuscripts” and shut down the few slush rooms that were left. In other words, they outsourced the slush to the writer’s own employees. A really, really bad idea since it had the appearance of putting an employee in charge of the employer.
This outsourcing also dried up a lot of the publisher’s new, creative work. At the same time the distribution system that had been in existence since the late 1950s was collapsing and thus publishers didn’t notice the lack of new creative work since they were also cutting back book lines and only looking for bestsellers. (Realize this was still ten years ahead of the ebook revolution.)
Young editors laid off in the cutbacks flocked to become agents. Most of those editor/agents have failed since, buried under the piles of slush and the desire to be an editor and rewrite everything they saw. No income that way. The older, established agencies just ignored it all and only took on new clients in the old traditional way of referral from an established client.
And the same writers who had figured out a way to ignore the previous road block suddenly (for unknown reasons) bought into the myth of needing an agent to sell books and things turned even uglier for an entire generation of new writers. The new writers were blocked completely (or so they thought. Reality has nothing to do with anything in publishing, remember? I’ve done entire articles on how the “agent-only guideline” is just false.)
Then in 2009, as midlist writers and new writers were fleeing the ugliness that was traditional publishing for real world jobs, here comes the ebook revolution. Suddenly, with very little learning and almost no money, writers could get their work directly to the readers.
Traditional publishers, too locked down in their huge corporate problems at the time, ignored the fact that they had lost their monopoly on the distribution system thanks to the KDP program, the Pubit program, and places like Smashwords.
The indie publishing revolution had started.
Writers were not only able to sell e-books, but because of the advent of POD publishing, indie publishers could do paper books as well very cheaply and with little or no upfront costs. And just this spring, with the start of Ella Distribution (and possible other indie paper books distributing companies coming), indie writers can offer their books directly to indie bookstores.
The reasons to go to traditional publishing have vanished. And with the reputations of traditional publishing being tarnished by traditional publishers like Simon and Schuster and Random House going into vanity press scams, even going to traditional publishing for a rubber-stamp of quality has vanished.
Add all that to the fact that many, many writers have made a lot of money and are hitting the major bestseller lists with their indie published books means there is no clear choice for a writer anymore. Go traditional or go indie?
At least writers have a choice now.
But because of the slush pile aspect of things, that choice for many writers now seems to be what many call a “hybrid” model for writers. In other words, do both indie and traditional publishing.
So Where is the Slush Pile Now?
The slush pile is broken up into parts, actually. But mostly it has evolved into a brand new form.
Tiny parts of the old-style slush pile are sitting in editor’s actual offices in traditional publishing. Those manuscripts are the ones by writers who ignored guidelines or met editors at a conference. In most editor’s offices, it’s not much of a pile. Usually less than twenty or so, since they cull out the ones that don’t fit on the day they arrive in most cases.
Tiny parts of the old-style slush pile are sitting in a few genre-publishing electronic-submission programs. These submission programs are as bad as the old slush rooms. It usually take a year or more to get a manuscript through, and are not, in my opinion, worth a writer’s time or energy.
Tiny parts of the old-style slush pile are sitting on agent’s desks that allow such things. These agents are not really an agent you would want if they did like your book because editors know them as slush readers. Usually these types of agents have no clout and wouldn’t know a good contract if it nipped at their high heals. Of all the methods to try to break into traditional publishing, sending a manuscript unsolicited to a slush pile in an agency is the silliest. Agents can’t write checks. And any agent who would take an unsolicited manuscript to look at isn’t an agent you want if you get an offer from a publisher.
So Where Did Most of the Slush Go?
The slush pile morphed into a brand new form, a brand new way for traditional publishers to see work and have it be tested before they even made an offer.
The slush piles of old are all now indie published. And the readers decide what is good or bad.
Instead of costing a writer money to mail it to a huge room in New York as we did in my early years, or send it to an agent, writers now can indie publish their work both electronic and in paper and make some money in the process. It might not be a lot, but it is some money. And if the book starts to sell, it will draw the attention of traditional publishers and they will come calling with an offer.
In other words, if you wrote a good book, readers will find it and then traditional publishers will come calling.
It puts the responsibility squarely on the writer to tell a great story in a great fashion.
And if traditional publishers come calling, the writer has a good bargaining position and can get decent contract terms. And the writer knows the money they are making with their indie book, and how much of an offer would make the writer switch over to traditional publishing.
In other words, there is hard sales data for both sides. Win. Win.
And a win for the readers, because unlike the decade from 1999 to 2009, great books are not getting lost to the stupidity of an old and antiquated system.
I’m going to be blunt now, so hold on.
If you follow an old model, you send your manuscript to either an editor or an agent:
In essence, this is what you are doing: Imagine yourself standing at the door of a restaurant in ragged clothes, hat-in-hand, begging for some food. You have no bargaining power, no position to try to get a decent contract (meal). And if you are with a slush-reading agent, imagine that you now only get a part of what little bit of food they are willing to toss you.
If you follow the new, indie-publishing model:
In essence, this is what you are doing: Imagine you own your own business. You have money coming in the door, have customers, and a growing list of products. A representative of a major corporation shows up in your store and asks to buy some of your product for their company. You know what the product is worth and you know you can get decent contract terms. They have come to you, into your business, and it is an even bargaining position for both of you, business to business. They want what you are selling. You can decide if the money and terms are worth you selling it.
I have no idea in this new world, with constant reports of indie writers being approached and getting great money and contracts from traditional publishers, why anyone would even think of sticking with the old model of begging at a publisher’s door with a manuscript in a slush pile.
I have no idea why any writer would spend so much time writing a book and then not allow that book to earn for them while it was being looked at by traditional publishers.
I have no idea why any writer would (in 2013) send any manuscript into a traditional, old-style slush pile.
Just as we had to learn how to do cover letters and synopsis of novels that would help our books sell, the writers of today need to learn how to do covers and cover blurbs and tag lines that will help their books sell.
The slush pile is dead.
Long live the new system of getting books to traditional publishers. And making some money in the process.
As a person who has lived with both the old and the new systems, trust me, the new is a ton more fun.
Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith
Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime
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