The slush pile, the bottom of any publishing house’s boot (or that of any literary agency, come to think of it) is just what you might think it is: a huge pile of slush – submissions from authors who can’t write well enough to get published but whose mothers were cruel enough to praise them. Very rarely, you can find some actual good writing in the slush pile by authors who are unaware that you really do need an agent in this business. Here at Touchstone/Fireside, the Slush Pile isn’t very large. Anymore. I tackled it, sending polite notes of rejection to the authors.
Generally, if the author has no agent, I send a form letter that says something to the effect of “We’re sorry, but we only accept agented submissions, due to the overwhelming quantity of submissions we receive.” If the submission did happen to be agented, but it still became slush because no one has heard of the agency and the proposal was unprofessional, we generally send a short note on an editor’s letterhead thanking the agent and gently declining. I write these polite little notes while snickering. Some of this stuff is truly awful. I know, I shouldn’t be this mean, but just hear me out!
One of the very first pieces of slush was an expensively prepared folder/binder with professional graphics. Inside was a professional proposal, first chapter and table of contents, just as there should have been. The front was a photograph, blown up and set in nostalgic tones of sepia, of a little girl in an old-fashioned white frock. Yes, it was a frock. I think the little girl was the author. The text over the photograph read If I Only Had a—and the last word was covered by a slip of paper that read CENSORED: US POSTAL SERVICE. My first impression was that this was the story of a girl who always felt like a guy and so eventually, after years of inner turmoil, had a sex change. Possibly, I have seen too much daytime television. I’ve also recently read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, so that might have something to with it.
The story this author wanted to tell was actually the story of how men are treated better than women and still have a superiority complex. The author then went into great detail about how her own father had stalked home from the hospital and not spoken to her mother because she had borne him a girl, the author, instead of a boy. Had this been a professional and unique exploration of gender roles in our uber-modern society, I might have read on. But I have a distinct feeling that this author wanted simply to tattle on her dad for being sub-par. Not exactly a venture this (or perhaps any) publishing house would be willing to take. So I sent the professional package back to the author with the same ol’ form letter everyone else gets.
I find the slush pile to be a muted, boring version of American Idol. Each submission is sent in by someone who honestly believes that a person on the receiving end of their writing will get back to them immediately and enthusiastically, just as each bad singer truly believes that Simon Cowell will give them a thumbs-up. In both cases, rarely does it happen.
It is an old piece of advice to writers the world over – write what you know. Unfortunately, most people know little beyond their own lives. Therefore, the magnitude of their life story is exaggeratedly large – to them. Quite frankly, to a publishing house, their life story means nothing. Even if they have survived life-threatening illnesses and managed to stay optimistic. Even if they are a good mom who started a business so she could spend time with her kids. Even if they’ve written 98,000 words already. It just simply doesn’t matter. If the submission is not agented, no one but an intern is likely to give it a glance. And if the intern doesn’t want to learn or is a little lazy, (I swear, this is not a self-description!) even she might chuck it in the trash. Who would notice?
However, there does happen to exist a related industry called self-publishing which is a near, less accomplished cousin of the book publishing industry. Self-publishing can be done online, with little or no help from an agent or an editor. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. No one at the self-publishing house will market, sell or edit any book, unless the author pays for these optional services. The self-publishing establishment will never, ever take responsibility for any book. So why read it? They simply print it the way an author specifies and ship it out. They are a giant copy machine in a tie. This is where a few of the submissions that cross my desk belong. The autobiography of Grandma Sara who’s on her death bed and wanted to see her story put to paper belongs at AuthorHouse or one of several other self-publishing companies with a print-on-demand feature, not at a major publishing house who is interested primarily in making money from an author’s ideas. (Don't worry, ideally, the author benefits greatly as well.)
I have seen, in the past couple of weeks, more candidates for self-publishing than I’d like to think about, most of them autobiographical accounts that would interest no one but the children of the authors. Sad but true, undeniably. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting, occasionally, but only that they don’t seem very lucrative.
Trends seem to filter through every branch of the media and that doesn’t exclude even the Slush Pile of a publishing house. A testament to our monkey-see, monkey-do tendencies if ever there was one. As I’ve mentioned, there is a group of people out there that seem to think everyone in the world will be interested in their life story. These people can be seen on a park bench, when all you meant to say was, “Hello,” and, “How ‘bout this weather,” and got stuck in a sob story. They can be seen at work, when they actually respond with a truthful answer to the question, “How are you?” and they can be seen in a publishing house’s Slush Pile. What they don’t realize is that no one wants to hear a sad, melodramatic story unless the main character is a celebrity of some kind or if the person has done something astronomically huge that no one else has done. Both instances are rare and, accordingly, so is the publication of this type of book.
A second trend I’ve noticed is the prison mail. America’s prisons and jails are chock full of prisoners just itching to tell their own stories. I think many of them have so much time on their hands that just as Malcolm X decided to copy down the dictionary, these men and women write down their own lives. Many wish to tell their story of innocence despite the fact that they’re serving life sentences. The truth is, frankly, it is difficult for readers to sympathize with the bad guy. For all our sinning, we humans are self-righteous as can be. We want to see the bad guy stuck in jail, not having his story published. The nice guy finishes last isn’t really a feel-good scenario. So, sales on that type of book would probably be a little lacking. Next!
The most disturbing prison mail I’ve received so far was from a sex offender who felt that the New Hampshire state law was allowing people to be hateful toward him. He wanted to write a book about acceptance of all people and how sex offenders should not be ostracized and publicly humiliated daily. Granted, the New Hampshire state law requires that all sex offenders’ faces, descriptions of cars, workplaces and other personal information be published on the Internet for all to see. Pretty much the modern age’s answer to a good ol’ fashioned lynchin’. But when this man has raped someone, it’s hard to feel bad for him. The fact is, we as a society don’t accept him. His whole existence has become unacceptable, hence the prison address. Not a salable topic, to be sure. But, I must guiltily admit, that I enjoyed the proposal. I enjoyed the argument the inmate has made because it was an excellent illustration of human selfishness. The man did not, and never will care that he ruined someone’s life. He cared only about himself and had the New Hampshire laws not placed him under the lens of public scrutiny, he’d be perfectly content. A defense of New Hampshire’s law, to be sure.
Not all unagented submissions are so bad, though. I have found exactly three that made it through the first cut, and even then someone told me I was being generous! I handed all three off to the assistant editor. I do not know what eventually became of them, but I haven’t heard anything so I imagine nothing.
The first was a joke-type book which was full of obituaries. I know, I know – just hear me out, ok? They were obituaries of fictional characters that have become like friends and family members to us. We identify with these ultra-popular characters and they are pretty much “out” - or dead. The author had included some examples of his obituaries to be included in the book. Snow White had died at, like, 50 years old. The obituary read – It Finally Worked! Pat the Bunny had died of a rare skin disease caused by excessive amounts of infant drool. They were all similarly hilarious. I enjoyed them immensely. Had the author gotten an agent first, someone might have taken a closer look. I know I did.
Another piece of (technically) slush was a proposal for romance novels for the elderly set. I thought this idea was great. Written by a woman in her eighties (!), this series of novels would be about finding love – again. As an old person. Old women have time on their hands – tons of it – and what they often choose to do with this plethora of time is read – romance novels. But I’m sure they’d enjoy a romance novel about someone in their own shoes. However, the author chose to name the series something like “Never Too Old” or “Young Enough” or something equally condescending. In my New Jersey town, there is a nursing home that runs a pick-up and drop-off service for the people attending only during the day. The bus they use for this is plastered all over with the name of the nursing home – Young at Heart. Personally, I would not want one of those white-haired heads bouncing up and down in that bus’s windows to be mine. I might as well wear a sign that says, “Hey, everybody, look at me! I’m old and obsolete riding on a short bus!” It would make me feel like a child or an invalid. How embarrassing! The series names the author picked reminded me of exactly this situation. A person reading a book that said in bold on the front, “Never Too Old…” might as well wear a sign that says, “Hey, everybody, look at me! I’m too old for real romance, so they made this to pacify me!”
I thought it needed to be a series without a name. Just a bunch of romance novels that were marketed in places where the elderly would see the ads. The author was an elderly person, so maybe she had a better handle on how to market to her own group, but I felt that no older person would want to read something that was pretty much engineered for them. Much like most teens don’t want to read “teen fiction” which is often read by kids much younger than their teens.
I wanted to see a sample chapter because I felt that the whole idea was pivotal on the author’s ability to write, not just think up a good idea. I let the assistant editor know this and my ideas about the name, but I never heard another word, so I assume this proposal ended up where the previous one did – in publishing ether. I don’t know if there is such a thing, I’m just saying I never saw it again.
The third and last proposal that has caught my eye did so because of the author’s actual ability to write. I was amazed, reading his sample chapter, that he could string sentences along like that! And from the Slush Pile! It was a crime thriller, not unlike C.S.I, and I thought it was pretty good. Not good enough, apparently, because I never heard boo about that one either.
The Slush Pile has now disappeared. It will fill up again, and it’ll disappear again as long as there is an intern to hack through it. I wonder what aspiring authors would say if they knew that the person deciding their fate, deciding whether or not their book actually crosses an editor’s desk, is just an intern with no experience whatsoever?
I don’t believe publishing houses are nasty or mean exactly in their choosing of who gets published and who does not, but most are in this game to win. They want to collect on an idea, not just marvel at how unique it is. Although, when an editor gets to enjoy both is a happy, happy day. Publishing people are still book worms. They love a good book, one with dense, three-dimensional characters and unique plot twists. But if that book they love so much won’t sell much to the general public, a good editor knows when to say no. And a good editor knows when to pick up that very salable but immature book and sing its praises. Because, at the end of the day, we all want to go home and eat dinner. Not live in a cardboard box, sleeping under the manuscript pages of a really great book we can’t sell.
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