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Quality of slush pile items

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MadScientistMatt

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I've sometimes heard various comments about what sort of manuscripts are submitted to publishers and how a lot of them are somewhere between unreadable and unprintable. I thought I would ask here for firsthand descriptions of how common some of the mistakes are. About what fraction of the slush pile tends to be written with poor grammar? Contain little if any story? Be about something your employer is not in the business of publishing? Any other very common problems with manuscripts?
 

Jaws

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It's been a looooooong time since I've been in charge of the slush pile—over a decade now. The following story is true. Only some of the names have been changed to cover my a**, and a few of the numbers have been rounded off.

At [academic publication for lawyers], I was in charge of the slush pile. Keep in mind that every person submitting a piece for publication held, or was in the last year of study for, a doctoral degree. There were 16 slots available for publication that year. We received almost 950 submissions. Nearly 100 violated substantive guidelines printed in the front of each edition; for example, we stated explicitly that we didn't publish unsolicited book reviews, or case comments. Over 300 were not in editable English (remember, this is doctoral candidates and above). Thirty or so were too short for an academic journal of this nature, which would have been readily apparent by reading a single issue.

Thus, slightly less than half of the submissions didn't even get read, because they essentially rejected themselves. My experience in commercial publishing indicates that this was an unusually small proportion; I don't know that anyone would be willing to divulge numbers, or even keeps them, but at colleagues' imprints (my imprint was about 80% solicited works) they talked about the rule of threes:
  • Divide the slush pile into three. Two thirds are so objectively and obviously unsuitable for publication by this publisher that they don't even get read.
  • Divide the remainder of the slush pile into three. Two thirds will take themselves out of the running within ten pages for mechanically poor writing combined with poor reasoning.
  • Divide the tiny remainder of the slush pile into three. Two thirds will take themselves out of the running quickly because they're warmed-over rehashes of already-published material well known to any competent editor or professional in the field.
That leaves a little under 4% to get serious consideration.
 

Birol

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That's a good question right now.
MSM,

A friend and fellow writer recently pointed me in the direction of an anthology that she thought would work for a short story I'm currently shopping around. I read the guidelines, read what they were looking for, and decided it was worth a shot because this friend was right; it did sound like a good fit. The guidelines clearly stated that if your manuscript was between x-and-y length, to send the entire manuscript on, but if it exceeded y, query by e-mail first.

My manuscript exceeded y, so I sent a polite query. In just a few hours time, I had a response rejecting my manuscript based on the length. The rejection included the following comment: "I do appreciate your querying first, as stipulated in my Guidelines. You'd be amazed how many others don't think the rules apply to them."

To me, the fact that the editor felt the need to thank me for actually reading and following the guidelines said a lot about what she was receiving. Poor woman.
 

mistri

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When I used to read a slush pile, I'd be delivered a pile of 10 - 30 partial (and a few full) manuscripts once a week or so.

I'd go through them and do a few things:

1) Was there anything I'd specifically requested, or any authors I'd read before, or that I wanted to read again, or were there any agented MSs? These would get put to the top of the want-to-find-time-to-read pile.

2) I'd take a quick flick through the cover letter/first page of each one, and pull out and reject the obvious ones that wouldn't be suitable - whether it was because the covering letter was written in crayon, because the work was a genre we didn't cover, or because the writing was that bad on the first page.

3) Then I'd be left with the rest (half maybe?), which I'd go through one by one, looking for something to spark my interest. Competent writing was not enough - most competent MSs were rejected for being dull and lifeless - I was looking for something that would make me really turn the pages. At this point I'd read as long as the book carried my interest for - whether that was the entirety of the partial (unlikely) or just a few pages in. I wanted to give the book the same chance a reader would. I rejected plots where coincidences, misunderstandings and cliches abounded, and authors who were incapable of constructing a sentence.

When I first started at the company I requested to see the full MS something like 1 in 10 times. Later on, I think it got to about one in thirty. In two years I managed to buy four authors out of the slush pile, but this was for Harlequin, who are always actively looking for new authors, so I suspect this is higher than normal.
 

MadScientistMatt

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I would like to thank everyone who has responded so far.

Jaws, that's quite startling to hear of so many bad submissions at a magazine where articles are normally submitted by lawyers who are well educated and make their living with writing and interpreting rules. Quite an eye-opener.

Birol, that is quite an interesting insight. A personal thanks for paying attention to the guidelines...

Mistri, thank you for you inside account. Quite useful. Even though the book I am working on is nonfiction, I will be sure to try and keep it from becoming dull and lifeless.

These comments have been quite encouraging, actually. The statistics about how many manuscripts are recieved versus how many a publisher actually prints sound a lot less like difficult odds with some information about why so few are accepted.
 

Medievalist

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You've got to read Slushkiller, from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, an editor at Tor. Read all the comments too.
 

Lauri B

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We have published 2 manuscripts in the past five years that have come out of the slush pile, and done quite well with them. By and large, though, what we get in the slush pile is pretty bad and often really weird.

What I find maddening is that few people spend the 30 seconds it takes to read what we publish, what we'll accept, and how we want it. I feel a kinship with the editor Birol mentions--it's great to receive something from an author who follows our (pretty mellow) rules.

We've had a lot of phone calls lately from people who want to chat with me about publishing their great book idea. Our receptionist is ready to kill, kill, kill. . .
 

MadScientistMatt

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Lisa - thanks, that's quite an interesting read.

Nomad - Thank you. I have a few more questions. You mentioned publishing 2 manuscripts from the slush pile - sorry if this is a stupid question, but does the slush pile include all unsolicited manuscripts and querry letters, or just the manuscripts sent without a querry letter? Also, would you have any examples of how really weird some of the slush is that you would like to share?
 

Lauri B

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MadScientistMatt said:
Lisa - thanks, that's quite an interesting read.

Nomad - Thank you. I have a few more questions. You mentioned publishing 2 manuscripts from the slush pile - sorry if this is a stupid question, but does the slush pile include all unsolicited manuscripts and querry letters, or just the manuscripts sent without a querry letter? Also, would you have any examples of how really weird some of the slush is that you would like to share?

Our slush pile consists of unsolicited manuscripts, since the queries are short and easy to read (and make decisions about) quickly. The 2 manuscripts were unsolicited, complete manuscripts that came through the mail--oh, I just remembered a third one, actually. We have a few very specific categories that we publish, and each one of these books helped establish the category. They were just too good to turn down.

For about a month this winter for some reason we had a run of unsolicited submissions from people who were counseled by their therapists to write memoirs of their terrible childhoods. I'm sure it's very therapeutic for the author, but I don't know why they were sending them in to us. I also recently received a manuscript for a picture book about the love story between a garbage can lid and (I think) an empty box, and I often get submissions from people who have written poetry about their dying pets. We don't publish picture books or memoir, or poetry for that matter. We're really a very practical publishing house.
 

maestrowork

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Nomad, I have a proposal for you: "How to sell your Picture Book about garbage can love affairs, or poetry about pets in 20 days."

Instant best-seller, I think, with built-in readership.
 

Lauri B

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maestrowork said:
Nomad, I have a proposal for you: "How to sell your Picture Book about garbage can love affairs, or poetry about pets in 20 days."

Instant best-seller, I think, with built-in readership.
Great idea! Now to make that pitch complete, you'll call me out of the blue and ask me over the phone if I'll publish it.
 

MadScientistMatt

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Thank you for clarifying that, Nomad. Would you say a querry letter is normally the best way to pitch a nonfiction work, then?

And that definitely gives me a much better picture of some of the weird things that can land in a slush pile. I have to wonder how some of the patients expected a cover letter to go over if it mentioned something like "My therapist suggested I submit this book to you." Unless of course it went on to say, "Because he enjoyed reading it," although that still doesn't sound like a very professional thing to say.
 

mommie4a

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Re: Birol's experience. I had almost the exact same experience and the editor read my shorter than the guidelines suggested work. She said thanks, but no thanks, but please submit if other work of yours meets our criteria. I find those responses to be above the call of duty and appreciate them very much.

Re: query letters about nonfiction books. I shopped a query around to one agent and one editor a couple of years ago and each one responded personally. The agent had just gone out on her own and wrote glowing comments about my query but felt that shopping the book wouldn't be worth it for her. She told me that because of the idea (advice on how to give gifts to kids) and my development of the idea, she thought I should go directly to some small to mid-size publishers (Nomad being one of them I must confess). We exchanged a couple of more emails and I thanked her profusely (not obnoxiously though, I think) for her input. How kind of her to give me that time and feedback.

The editor was less enthusiastic. I followed up her response because I thought that while she raised a good point (she thought everything I wanted to write about could be found on the web - and I thought, what can't be found on the web?), I thought maybe the problem was that I had not delineated or distinguished my idea well enough. So I emailed her back and asked her if she wouldn't mind being more specific re: what sites she finds to be as complete as what I was proposing. She bristled a bit, said that there wasn't anything really, but that when she needs advice about buying for kids, she goes to Amazon, puts in some ideas and that generates enough gift ideas for her to choose from.

Well, after that, I realized I would be seen by her as a pest, I was very lucky that she stuck with me for two or three rounds of email (I had a personal reference to her) and I thanked her profusely for her time. If I had to do it again, I don't know if I would have followed up, but again, because of the personal connection, I kind of thought at least one followup question was ok.

Due to other events in my personal and professional life, that nonfiction book's proposal is behind me on some shelves, about 80% ready to go to an agent in NYC who will read it whenever I'm ready (we've been communicated for over two years and she's been a big cheerleader of my work).

The lesson to me is that when an agent or publisher indicates that they take email queries for nonfiction book proposals, send the best query you can produce. If they take snailmail queries, do the same. But never lose sight of how big the field is and how busy they are. Be polite, be specific, be professional. And pray.

Hope this helps. Thanks for letting me share.
 

DaveKuzminski

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MadScientistMatt said:
Even though the book I am working on is nonfiction, I will be sure to try and keep it from becoming dull and lifeless.

Hmmm, you could put a car chase in it. ;)

Otherwise, I've heard that around 95% of slush disqualifies itself. It's the remaining 5% that's well written, but then has to be winnowed down to what the publisher believes is marketable at that point. Having briefly managed a publication some years back, I can attest that the slush is just as bad in the short fiction market as anywhere else. The publishable material will literally jump out at you from everything else before the end of the first page.
 

Lauri B

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I think a query is the best way to go, but if you don't have any other writing credits (and even if you do), you need to have at least half of the book written. There's no way I'd offer an untested writer a contract without the finished product in my hands--which is why submitting is such a Catch 22: you want to write a book about a particular subject but you don't want to spend the time and energy writing it if you can't sell it. So you write a query about it and get a good response, write the requisite several chapters and submit, and often you'll learn that there's not a big-enough market, or the idea isn't really worth an entire book, or whatever the reason. So the work hasn't resulted in a sale. However (and as a writer, this is what I would tell myself), you learn a lot about a particular subject so even if there's no book in the material, you can sell it a whole lot of other ways.

Anyway, the bottom line is that yes, it's hard getting picked out of the slush pile, but one of those three books that we pulled out of the slush pile to publish is one of the best-selling books we've done. All three have led to other projects with the same authors, and great, long-lasting relationships have been developed. So keep submitting.
 

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This has been a very beneficial thread. Thanks for the original question, and also to the individuals that contributed comments and information.
Great job, everyone! I feel like I learned a lot.
 

MadScientistMatt

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Thank you, Nomad. I was planning to finish the manuscript completely before sending out any querry letters. At the very least I know a few friends who will be interested in reading the complete work. I have already done some degree of research to make sure there is a market and actually have a competing book sitting at my desk right now which I have examined to see if I can write a book that can improve on it.
 

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Never mind.
 
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pepperlandgirl

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When I interned at Red Hen Press (a small, non-profit publisher) last year, I found the slush pile to be the most disheartening thing ever. For starters, we shouldn't have even had a slush pile, because they did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. They never have and they never will. But we all know there are some people who can't be bothered with guidelines, so they sent them in anyway.

I think I died a little after going through the slush pile. The letters were the worst. Most of them were completely inappropriate. And sad. They made me sad for the people writing them. Spent 10-20 years on their novel (and judging from the first page of the MS, they could have used another 10-20 years). Those were the ones I remember the most. Other people sent poetry printed on papers with crazy floral designs. Really, really bad poetry. Other people sent recipes. Some people sent checks (never understood that). Of all the queries and envelopes I found exactly one that I would even, for a momen, consider passing on to the editors--if they were accepting unsolicted manuscripts.
 

Ralyks

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MadScientistMatt said:
I've sometimes heard various comments about what sort of manuscripts are submitted to publishers and how a lot of them are somewhere between unreadable and unprintable. I thought I would ask here for firsthand descriptions of how common some of the mistakes are. About what fraction of the slush pile tends to be written with poor grammar? Contain little if any story? Be about something your employer is not in the business of publishing? Any other very common problems with manuscripts?

For my publication, I would estimate:

Poor Grammar -- 30-40%
Little if any story -- 10% (lack of character development is a more common problem than lack of plot)
Not in the business of publishing (or exceeds length restrictions) -- 25-30%

(Yes, my numbers don't add up to 100. There's overlap!)

The most common problem I encounter, which is not listed in your question, is that the work is overly didactic / obvious with regard to the moral it is communicating.
 

Torgo

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Bad grammar (by in-house standards): 80%
Bad grammar (by everyday standards): 30%
Little or no stories: 20%
Unoriginal stories: 60%
Original but bad stories: 10%
Good, original stories, but badly written: 9%
Inappropriate submissions: 5%
Insane people: 5%
Depressing submissions: 75%
Amusing submissions: 10%
Submissions we might like to take further: 1%
Of that 1%, submissions that are published: 3%
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away