Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Notes on Little Red

Okay, here's what I'd like to know. About what percentage of the slush pile is made up of stuff that's this outrageous? IOW, if I act like a professional and write well, what portion of the slush pile am I really competing with? If you get a lot of clueless subs like this, that it's needless to say have no chance, why do so many excellent writers, published and unpublished, have to submit like ten times and then sell the ms., unchanged, on the eleventh? That ms. must have impressed some or most of the first ten as being of publishable caliber. When you find these writers among the unspeakably bad slush, aren't you saying "OMG, this one is actually for real"? Yet it's almost sure to get just as rejected as rhyming vitamins.

Remember earlier when I said that a good 50% of the kitchen-full-o'-slush was so inappropriate, illiterate, or crazy that it makes you despair for the future of literature? You didn't really believe me, I see.

That's ok. It's a tough concept to get your head around until you see the stuff yourself. Watch this space for some examples.

And then let's remember that once you've excused yourself from the "what are you using for brains" category, you still have to navigate the difficult terrain of writing a really good manuscript. A very sizable chunk of the other 50% are just not ready yet. They have plot problems, or haven't figured out who their audience is. They have good voice but no story. They've got part of what would make a really appealing book, but it needs something more. Etc.

Ok, so let's assume that you've put yourself in the "wow, this could be published" category. You still have to find the publisher at which you could be published. Maybe one publisher has declared a short-term and undisclosed-to-the-public moratorium on acquiring picture books. Maybe another publisher has something already on their list that's too similar to your project. At three other publishers your manuscript is read by someone other than the editor who would see what your manuscript could be. And at four other publishers it might be seen through a haze of bad-slush-induced grumpiness or haste. These can all be factors.

This is, again, why you must keep working on your writing, and keep submitting. In an ideal world, there would only be the publishable stuff in the slush pile, and every editor would read every submission, with fresh eyes and a hopeful attitude. Instead, we get 15,000 manuscripts to slog through, knowing as we do that many thousand of them are dreck. But we keep trying, and so should you.

23 comments:

Elizabeth Fama said...

Didn't you forget another twig on the branching rejection tree? That is, isn't it true that most editors don't have carte blanche to publish the manuscripts they discover and adore in the slush pile? -- they have to pass the manuscript by a committee of editors, and a marketing team, and an accountant, and the janitor, who may all say "We don't like this," or "This won't sell." Well, maybe not the janitor.

Or would you have contacted the author with positive feedback by this point, so that it wouldn't count as a mysterious rejection?

Kidlitjunkie said...

When reading the slush pile, if I find something that may have merit, if I am in a charitable mood, I will request a partial/full.

But most of the time, unless something really blows me away with its brilliance, I will toss it a form rejection and assume that if it's good enough for me to publish it, it's good enough for an agent to get behind it and get it to my attention properly.

Anonymous said...

if it's good enough for me to publish it, it's good enough for an agent to get behind it and get it to my attention properly.

Extremely telling and helpful comment. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

If it's good enough for me to publish it, it's good enough for an agent to get behind it and get it to my attention properly.

Then why on earth do you accept unagented submissions at all? It's almost false advertising to do so. If rejections are just busy work, might as well close the doors.

But as someone who sold two books before an agent would even read a full, I can only conclude that agents and editors sometimes have different criteria.

Janniel said...

And then there is the problem that 99.9% of all agents have no interest in repping pb's at all, even for their own clients. The rewards are too small for the effort involved.

Anonymous said...

I am a published picturebook author/illustrator with a major house (still a newbie, but hopeful).
I find EA's blog entirely refreshing, educating and extremely charitable. Kidlitjunkie: learn from EA.

Kidlitjunkie said...

Then why on earth do you accept unagented submissions at all? It's almost false advertising to do so. If rejections are just busy work, might as well close the doors.

They are not all busy work. One of our editors published something this year from the slush directly, and it's fantastic. I would love to find something in the slush - in fact, I requested two fulls this week.

But the fact is, sometimes you really can't tell from a query letter. Sometimes you even can't tell from a first five pages. And if I request a partial or full, then if I reject it, I make sure it is a personal rejection.

I don't want to request your MS and then have it languish at the bottom of my pile for months and months and months on end. It's not fair to you. It's not fair to me.

So unless something blows me out of the water - and sometimes something does - I won't request it, because I can't really give it the proper time and attention it needs. Why should I get your hopes up when your MS is just going to sit on my desk, forgotten?

I live in hope. I once went so far as to email a guy when my request for a full came back to me with a mistake in the address. (The manuscript, unfortunately, didn't live up to the potential in the query. But at least I tried!)

Anonymous said...

In the past two years, I've tried to catch the attention of an agent, sending two queries and sample chapters to her exact specifications. I also included a bio with writing credits etc.
I didn't even get an email response. Nope. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
I felt like a dork, even contemplating sending a third query.
Ironically, I sold both of the manuscripts I queried-- via icy cold slush. I'm now working on a sequel, by request from the editor.
Tooooooo bad, Ms. Super Agent.
THE BOOK SOLD ITSELF!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

"...if I'm in a charitable mood,..."

Sheesh. It's not just the slush we're battling. Please, "toss" me a form and get it over with.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and I thought security guards on a power trip were dangerous!

Anonymous said...

Kidlitjunkie, am I right--you've been an editor for only two months? And so jaded already! Wow.

Anonymous said...

It appears we have a wannabe EA (or a self-promoted Miss Snark) on our hands. Watch the tone of your posts, honey. They are in dire need of an editor.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Settle down, guys. Can I suggest a little more sympathy for both sides?

Kidlitjunkie said...

Have y'all ever waded through slush? Remember the kitchen full of slush image?

Yeah. It doesn't take too long to get jaded.

And, by the by, 99% of the slush I read it so bad you'd laugh if you read it, amazed that someone would seriously consider submitting it. And I don't mean stuff from serious writers, stuff that's honed and decent and unfortunately just isn't right for us or polished enough for us. I mean stuff from grandmothers who have been telling thier stories to their grandkids and want me to publish thier story and please put the money in this bank account.

Reading hundred after hundred of those makes it hard to still be reading with fresh eyes when something with actual merit comes along. I don’t mean that I deign to request some things. I mean that it’s sometimes hard to be in the right frame of mind to request things altogether.

I’m not trying to be nasty. I have the greatest respect for writers who practice the craft and work hard and send out their work and wait – I know I could never be that patient and go through that so many times. It would kill my nerves – I don’t know how you people do it again and again, but I completely applaud you – because without you, there wouldn’t be a publishing industry at all.

Unfortunately, there is just too much and not enough time. I am not trying to be nasty at all, but I am trying to be honest. And I am not just talking from my own experience (more than two months, thank you – I’ve done several internships, and while an internship is not the same as an EA position, one of the primary responsibilities is ALWAYS reading slush) but also from conversations I’ve had with the other EAs and editors in my department.

Do you want me to lie to you? Me personally, I’d rather hear a hard truth and understand the way things really are than get things sugarcoated. I suggest you stop getting your feathers ruffled. If you don’t like what I have to say, don’t read it. But I’m not looking to knock you down. I’m just looking to break some misconceptions based on what I see.

Colorado Writer said...

I WANT THE COLD, HARD TRUTH!

Anonymous said...

Kidlitjunkie,
I appreciate your honesty. Writing is a business and writers need to understand how the players play. Thank you for your eye-opening words of wisdom.

Rilla said...

Yes, I'm with Colorado Writer and KidLitJunkie. I want the cold hard truth, not rudely or condescendingly...just the plain truth...
That said...I hope EA will take me up on my tagging you for the 8 things meme...I'm changing it a bit. Changing it to:
Eight Things I See in a Manuscript That Make Me Say I’LL TAKE IT! Meme.
I hope you'll oblige...it would be a great help along with all the other helpful observations you continue to post.

Anonymous said...

Many of us have been in the business long enough to have heard a million "tales from the slush pile." The Pile is exasperating to BOTH sides--editors and authors alike.

We visit this blog to gather honest information and enjoy a little entertainment from our clever EA. My guess is the collective feature-ruffling occurred not because of WHAT you said (as it's nothing particularly new), but HOW you said it.

TnTexas said...

[i]My guess is the collective feature-ruffling occurred not because of WHAT you said (as it's nothing particularly new), but HOW you said it.[/i]

I wouldn't say my feathers were ruffled, but I was a bit confused by this part; and I think others probably were too:

[i]But most of the time, unless something really blows me away with its brilliance, I will toss it a form rejection and assume that if it's good enough for me to publish it, it's good enough for an agent to get behind it and get it to my attention properly.[/i]

The statement about the manuscript needing to be good enough to get an agent's attention first so that it could get his/her attention properly was a bit confusing. If an editor feels like the sluch pile is not a proper way to get his attention - that anything publishable will come through an agent first - then I do wonder why he bothers with the slush pile in the first place.

Kidlitjunkie said...

The statement about the manuscript needing to be good enough to get an agent's attention first so that it could get his/her attention properly was a bit confusing. If an editor feels like the slush pile is not a proper way to get his attention - that anything publishable will come through an agent first - then I do wonder why he bothers with the slush pile in the first place.

Definitely a fair question. The answer is, really, is that stuff from slush rarely gets noticed. My imprint’s policy is that we only accept query letters. I don’t make this policy – but I can tell you that it’s damned hard to tell if something is awesome from a query. If I was making the rules, I’d ask for the first ten pages, or something – it’s far easier to tell if something has merit from the style of their writing – if it grabs you, if the characters come to life, etc – than from a one-page query.

But I don’t make the rules. And some people who are damn fine writers do not write great queries. It can be really difficult to pick the good queries from the bad. So difficult that most of the time, unless the queries wow us, we won’t request the full. It sucks, but that’s pretty much the way it is. I get really frustrated sometimes because there is just no real way to tell. And when you are reading query after query after query, sometimes they all kind of blend into each other.

Agented manuscripts are different, though (duh.) When we get an agented MS, me or my boss will try to read it all the way through within the week, or at least within the month. It stands out, because it comes unfettered by a hundred other slush letters. And more importantly, we get the whole MS, so we actually have a basis to accept or reject it on beyond the author’s description. And furthermore – when you send in a query, any number of people could read it. I could read it, another EA could read it, our intern could read it. If it’s fantasy and the other EA reads it, you’re getting a form rejection. But if it’s strong fantasy and I read it, I might ask for me. It’s totally the luck of the draw. But with agented MSs, the agent usually knows which editor likes which sort of book – and can only give it to editors who might actually be interested in it. (I know, y’all know all this already. I just bring it up in contrast.)

It’s not a great system. While people do get published from the slush (see some comments above) – one of our new authors was actually discovered in the slush – it is just very rare, because it is very difficult and the competition is vast. So, yes. The slush pile is almost never the way to get our attention. It happens. But honestly, it’s very rare, and depends on so many factors – and yes, can even depend on the editor’s mood.

But why do we bother? Because hope springs eternal. As I have mentioned before, one of our editors found a fantastic writer in the slush. I once found a MS I loved in the slush – and before I even could get back to her, she had an agent! We bother because we really, really, really want to find the gems, and we know that they’re out there, somewhere.

Anonymous said...

What kidlit is saying, and which came through loud and clear in her simple "agent to get it to my attention" line, supports the conclusions I've come to about the business. (1) Get. An. Agent. (2) You can bust your butt on a query letter, but it's unlikely to get results unless you can also send in at least ten pages. Even one chapter, if it's much less than ten pages, likely won't do the job, and I got this from the mouth of a big-name editor at a conference. Submit only to companies and agencies that will look at ten pages to begin with. Even then, you're going to get rejected if your book is, say, fantasy, and the fantasy-lover isn't the one who slits open your envelope. So we're back to:
(3) Get an agent. Without one, your chances stink, period. Yeah, you might make it out of slush. You might win the lottery, too.

Anonymous said...

What if you write pbs? Seems few agents rep these.

ae said...

If you solely write pb you should figure out a way to sub to pubs.

The agented only houses have editors who attend conferences (one way of doing it) and sometimes w/o stating so do look at pbs or queries, with the exception of Hyperion, and as I know it, Candlewick and Harcourt (could be wrong...I've never subbed to them but have heard ramblings from others who have). I am pretty sure one of Hyperion's BIGGIES found his way in after years of working at it, thru a conference critique. He is also the illustrator which means they had to SEE his work.

Few agents rep pbs because of a less favorable commission, but some do. Especially if you are prolific (have a nice body of work) and have a consistent style to your work.

The problem is you have to fit well and fairly within the agent's list without being competitive with one of their other authors.

And sometimes they look for a certain overall tone in the writing.

Honestly, I don't think you need one unless you are looking for the bells and whistles...or can't find another way in...and as I said above...you can.

It just takes time.

With, I assume eighty percent of writers subbing pb, I bet this causes quite a tempest when it comes time to send in.