Making your way to the top of the slush pile
When I was a wee chickadee back in my sophomore year at the University of Arizona, I interviewed the then-editor of the UA Press for an assignment that was, essentially, about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ve long since forgotten his name, but let’s just call him Mr. Editor. Having always loved words and books and the English language, I assumed I would somehow work in publishing. Until Mr. Editor crushed my dreams by telling me that there would soon be no jobs left in publishing because the corporate behemoths and giant bookstore chains were going to gobble up all the good aspects of book publishing and bookselling. I felt as if he were suggesting I’d be better off flipping burgers.
Well, Mr. Editor was certainly prescient all those years ago in the late 1980s. But what his crystal ball didn’t tell him to tell me was that self-publishing was also in the not-so-distant future and that I would have a career in publishing, albeit in a different area than I might have supposed at the time. Good thing I didn’t let him talk me into the burger gig.
Leap forward about 10 years to the summer I spent sifting through the slush pile for my friend, Lynn Franklin, owner of the highly respected Lynn C. Franklin Associates literary agency. I loved working with Lynn that summer because I was inside a real New York City literary agency. Though I realized Lynn’s importance in the industry, I don’t think I understood how important she was until a few years down the road. Lynn was Deepak Chopra’s first agent. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is still her client and personal friend. My present career as an author and a self-publishing consultant was still another 15 years away, and yet I was thrilled to be inside the publishing world.
When you read or hear that the slush piles at literary agencies are floor to ceiling, it’s not an exaggeration. Lynn had stack upon stack upon stack of unsolicited manuscripts sitting around her office. My job was to reduce the stacks as quickly as I could get through them.
You may recall that I’ve said again and again and again that the best marketing tool an author has in his or her tool chest is a well-written, professionally edited manuscript. And, if you’re going the self-publishing route, a high-quality book. The best book you can make. No cutting corners, doing it all yourself, settling for good enough, grabbing the first stock image that kinda-maybe suits your needs, using templates, etc.
That summer at Lynn C. Franklin Associates, I read the first 10 pages or so of a lot of really bad manuscripts. Stuff you’d think people should know better than to do – let alone submit to a literary agent. Subject-verb agreement issues. Stupid misspellings. Misspelling Lynn’s name. No indents – just one loooooooooooooooooooooooooonnnng paragraph. No page numbers. No title. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP – nor is anyone else who tells you that the majority of slush piles are probably best used as fire kindling. Here’s the thing, though. Occasionally, there was a good manuscript in the middle of the dreck. And the good ones made it to Lynn’s desk.
That’s also been the experience of Susan Golomb, another New York literary agent. It was in Golomb’s slush pile that “she discovered Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, the Twenty-Seventh City … and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics … and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists… . In addition to referrals, she still takes on new clients from among the twenty to thirty unsolicited submissions she receives daily,” according to an article by Michael Szczerban in the May/June 2014 issue of Poets & Writers magazine.
Szczerban also writes:
The slush pile affords unknown authors the opportunity to grab the attention of publishing professionals with their writing alone. While most authors I know think of slush as something to be avoided at all costs – a nightmarish wasteland policed by twenty-year-old interns – it’s also where some of today’s most interesting and successful writers got their start.
So I’ll say it again. Traditional publishing may be more of a crapshoot, but it’s still a viable option for some. To succeed, though, you must write a really good book. Spend the most you can afford on editing. And be fearless and relentless in your submissions. If you’re doing it yourself, make the best book you can. Professional cover. Professional book design. Professional typesetting. And then market your butt off!
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