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The end of the slush-pile

15 February 2010

It's always been a tough call to find a publisher though submitting to the slush-pile, but in the current crisis in publishing it just got even harder.

Judith Guest's Ordinary People was plucked from obscurity in 1975 and went on to become a bestseller and a successful film, but it's hard to remember other authors who have benefited in this way. More recently, Stephenie Meyer sent out 15 query letters about her teenage vampire saga. She wrote to Writers House agency asking if someone might be interested in reading a 130,000-word manuscript about teenage vampires. The letter should have been thrown out: an assistant whose job was to weed through the more than 100 such letters each month, didn't realise that young adult fiction should be no more than 40,000 to 60,000 words. She contacted Ms. Meyer and ultimately asked that she send her manuscript.

The rest is history. Writers House agent Jodi Reamer liked what she read, a novel called Twilight. She signed Meyer, and sold the book to Little, Brown. The most recent sequel in the series, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million copies the day it went on sale in August 2008. The latest film grossed more than $288 million in the US.

Most publishers have closed their slush-piles and no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. This is particularly the case for large publishers, who have done their sums and reckon that it's too expensive to read their slush-pile, because so very few new authors are taken on this way.

Veteran American agent Richard Curtis has done the figures in his excellent book How to Be Your Own Literary Agent:

'Although statistics are not available, I would guess that most trade publishers today do not read slush. They return it with printed rejection slips, frequently with a statement that they read material only if submitted by literary agents. As I say, the reasoning is cold-bloodedly economic. Assuming a publisher gets 5000 unagented manuscripts in a year (a figure I'm told is on the modest side), and a skillful editor can read and judge four every working day, and figure 225 working days a year, that's less than 1000 manuscripts evaluated per editor per year. So you need four or five editors to plough through those 5000 manuscripts...

And so, if it is true that only one manuscript in thousands is worthy of acceptance by a publisher, you're talking about a cost of well over $100,000 to discover it, not including the cost of publishing it. With a bottom line like that, it had better be one helluva book! But because most publishers don't believe they will find such a consummate masterpiece under those bushels of over-the-transom submissions, they consider it more cost-effective to leave the sorting-out to the agents and spend the $100,000 where it can do more good... or at least where they think it can do more good. For this reason, it can be stated with some accuracy that an editor will read the most dismal piece of junk submitted by a literary agent faster and maybe even more attentively than he will a good book that comes in on the slush pile.'

Things are even worse if you've written a screenplay or are trying to get your work into magazines. Film and television producers won't read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

HarperCollins' web slush-pile site offers rather better odds, but they have still only accepted four manuscripts out of 10,000 submitted to the site.

This is dismal stuff, but better that authors should be aware of the obstacles than that they should send their manuscript off in blind faith to publishers who are either not accepting unsolicited submissions or are not going to read them.

So, it pays to think through your options and do your research. Make sure you're sending work to somewhere where it will be properly assessed, even if this is a slow process. And do your research first, whether you're submitting to a publisher or an agent, and follow their guidelines exactly.

Finally, give some serious thought to self-publishing, once regarded with disdain, but now a real option for unpublished writers who want to see their work in print.