Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How to Overhaul the Slush System?

I am constantly amazed at how archaic the submission process is for the book publishing industry. I do understand that publishers need a way to weed out the
drivel, but honestly, there has GOT to be a better way. It just seems that the slush pile has gotten so ridiculously huge, that there's no chance for a deserving author to ever navigate their way through it (at least without connections).
In this day and age, shouldn't there be a better way? An online process that allows authors to post their work on a publisher's web site, much like posting a resume on That way, we could choose our genre, and even add keywords so editors could do quick searches for stories that might fill gaps in their list. And maybe SCBWI members and published authors could somehow rise to the top. That would at least limit the amount of paper you poor people are dealing with.
Have any of the publishing houses tried something like this yet? Why, why, why does it have to be so laborious and time consuming, the way it is now?

I absolutely agree that it's a rotten system for everybody. But if we could think of a better way of doing things, we'd be doing it.

Some publishing houses decide that the best way out of the hideous piles of slush is to stop taking submissions from anyone but agents. I can see the appeal of this sytem, but it also makes you dependent on agents, with whom, let's be honest, we sometimes have mildly combative relationships.

Others will only look at unsolicited submissions from SCBWI members, or published authors... but in my experience that doesn't guarantee you much. The number of people who consider themselves "published" is growing by vanity presses and gigabytes. Being a member in the SCBWI indicates a willingness to know more about the industry, and the possession of $75, and not much else. More to the point, I have seen some true dreck come from the pens of very talented people, and have pulled utter brilliance by a complete unknown from the slush.

Regarding the idea of making the submission process digital, this is not the first time I've heard this suggested. The thing to remember is that while many, many services on the internet (my hotmail account, my blogger account, the sitemeter on this blog, just to name a couple) are free of charge to the user, they are not free of charge to the company that runs those services. There would be a significant expense involved in having the servers and tech people needed to store and access 15,000 manuscripts in our computers. (Making the manuscripts key-word-searchable wouldn't change the fact that at least half of them are awful. And when it comes down to it, I don't care what your manuscript is about. If it's got good writing and a reasonable hook, that's all that matters.)

When we compare this expense to the extremely negligible expense of having people mail us submissions, having an intern open them, and letting them take up space in a corner until we read them, our decision is made for us.

If anyone has an idea of how to make the slush process better, I'm open to suggestions. But I've thought long and hard about it, and haven't come up with anything else yet.


Anonymous said...

Re: "there's no chance for a deserving author to ever navigate their way through it (at least without connections)."

I would add that this isn't true. My first book was pulled from the slush without a single connection (and I'd like to think it was "deserving").

The system is slow and painful, doubtless, but it does work, at least some of the time. I don't see how an online version as described would be better -- and it would have the added drawbacks of more technical failures and more editor eyestrain. Most of us already spend more time than we want to looking at a computer screen.

Anonymous said...

Like many things including democracy, it's a rotten system, except that all the others are worse.

Besides, most editors I know infinitely prefer hard copy, because a) it's so much easier and nicer to read, b) there's no such thing as an un-openable attachment in real-paper-land, c) the intern can read it in whatever corner of the office is free, d) they can take something promising to read on the bus/in the bath/in bed, d) on the very rare occasion it's ready to discuss, you can scribble on it.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but imagine that a digitized submission system would only bring in even more inappropriate manuscripts than we already receive.

At the publisher where I work, we get about three times as many submissions as we did 25 years ago. Back then most of the manuscripts were receieved back then were typed (like, on actual typewriters!). Now practically everything we get comes off a home printer. Hmm, might be a correlation there.

An awful lot of our slush pile consists of stories that are clearly first drafts, underdeveloped ideas, half-hearted attempts, "Dear Editor" mass mailings, and random crap like "I wrote this Santa poem and sent it with my Xmas cards but I bet it could be a children's book!" It's much easier for stuff like this to make its way to us than it was back in the days of carbon copies, so I sort of shudder to think of what we might get if people don't even have to bother with envelopes.

Anonymous said...

If each person desiring to submit something to the slush was first made to read it for one year as an unpaid intern, perhaps that would help.

Anonymous said...

What if those free interns could weed-out the really hideous mss with a quick delete and email reply so they're not taking up valuable space on the company servers? Then, they could star and/or comment on the goodish ones. Those could then be reviewed by associate editors and others that are further up the food chain, and starred/commented on as well. The ones with the most stars and the most comments would naturally rise to the top. It would be a completely interactive process, much like this blog. Dare I say it, fun even.

RE: eyestrain... no good ideas for this yet. However, the rest of the world is already staring at a computer screen 8 hours a day, so it seems the publishing industry should naturally follow suit. Maybe HR could find a way to make extra contributions into the employees' HSA for regular eye exams.

Dawn said...

A number of the religious publishing houses have created some cyberslush with You pay a fee of $98 to write a book proposal that gets posted for 6 months. They don't guarantee that your proposal will get read, but they are assured that their member publishers look at postings regularly. And, unfortunately, some of the publishers will only take submissions through this racket - er, service. No thanks - I'll keep my cash and take my chances in the real world.

Qual said...

Going the technology route will be disasterous for many reasons but three in particular:

1. Editors will become irrepairably demoralised staring at a flat panel monitor.

2. Before long the online submission process will become so streamlined it will go the way of some screenwriting agents today: Submit a 20 word logline and email address in an online form. That's it. The irony in the screenwriting world is, that good loglines are an art in themselves and not the natural domain of even the best writers (and the film buffs know it). So how could a system like that work for the book industry? Just look at the drivel we have to endure on the big screen these days ...

3. Editors will become irrepairably demoralised staring at a flat panel monitor.

Sorry for being repetitive on 1 and 3. But there you have it.

Some may say such initiatives will ultimately save the planet. Yeah right ... remember the paperless office in the early 1990s?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Tying together the posts by dawn and the anonymous editor -- there's another reason not to pay for ms. services such as (I'm not typing all that out) and Writer's Edge. Who believes busy editors are going to go trolling on these sites for new mss.? You've got to go to them, not make them come halfway. Writer's Edge does go a step better; it sends the subs to member publishing houses instead of just posting them on a site. If I'm not mistaken, the fee is a hair lower, too. There's a whole string of testimonials on the site, some from people who got published by recognizable houses, some by never-heard-of-them houses, some who never published and were not impressed with the service, some who got contacted by vanity presses. It does seem that this service puts some publishers and authors together. Still, it stands to reason that the "pressure" to read unsoliciteds just isn't there when the mss. aren't taking up physical room. I wouldn't want to go to this system, but it seems to be the "answer" that the Christian industry has come up with.

Anonymous said...

Seriously - how much of a slush pile ms is read? If it's only the first page or so, then maybe only allow one or two page submissions w/synopsis. Anything longer gets recycled unopened.
If the first page(s) and synopsis look good, then the editor can request the rest, maybe even by e-mail.
As an author, I would love to kill less trees when submitting my work. I would love to only submit the whole ms to someone who has seen at least part of it and expressed an interest.
But maybe this would encourage more people to submit, since it's very easy to pop a couple pages in an envelope with a first class stamp.

Anonymous said...

I hate to be the bubble burster, but... I do online submissions all the time. However, they are to editors I have a rapport with.
And guess what???? The response time is usually long. And I often wonder if they have lost or deleted my proposal and manuscript.
So, this does not guarantee quicker rejections or speedier contracts. And sometimes an email response is blunt and therefore hurtful.
This inside edge usually comes after publication at a house, or many, many submissions and finally an email relationship.

Anonymous said...

I've found that, too. Either the email wait-time is long and you have to wonder whether they've deleted the thing (if they lose paper submissions, how much easier to lose electronic ones), or the response time is something like 20 minutes and no sooner than your hopes rise, they crash.

Once, I submitted a SOLICITED series proposal (I mean, they dreamt up the idea) to a house WHERE I WAS ALREADY A CURRENT AUTHOR and NEVER got a response!! I kid you not. Then the editor left, so I never did find out what the deal was. But the point is -- responses are out of your hands.

Chris Barton said...

I've gone on at some length about this here, but what if publishing houses charged a fee per submission -- enough to make writers think twice about submitting but not so high that it would halt unsolicited queries and manuscripts altogether?

Anonymous said...

Interesting idea, Chris. Though when you consider all the scam agents and vanity presses who charge fees, it's clear that plenty of people are perfectly willing to spend money to submit their work. Paying a fee won't improve their work or give them any more common sense. In fact, it only seems to make them more bitter over time--I can't tell you how many times I've seen desperate cover letters that say, "please publish me, I've spent so much money on my writing career." Of course, the fact that there are scams involved make it heartbreaking, but even if the fees were legitimate, there'd be a lot of folks who'd eventually feel that they "paid their dues" --literally--and deserve to be published.

I think I'd have a hard time on my end, too. I know several writers who time and time again send almost-but-not-quite-good-enough stories; I always hope one of these writers will hit the mark but not all of them will, for whatever reasons. If there were submission fees involved, would it be harder for me to turn down certain writers knowing that they've paid more over the years with their near-misses? What if I gave them feedback and they resubmit and I still couldn't publish them? Would I be liable for not giving good enough advice?

(And yes, you could probably deal with some of these issues if there was some kind of muli-tiered system to account for writers whose work is of interest, but gosh, it would sure get complicated, and I don't think it would be any easier or beneficial than the current slush pile.)

Anonymous said...

Here's a good one. Twice, yes twice, I've received phone calls and/or emails from editors requesting to see manuscripts they rejected the year before!
I was dumbfounded twice. One editor told me she keeps the cover letters of the good ones on file-- just in case she finds a need for it later.
So, manuscripts are read. And sometimes they "click" at a later time. You just NEVER know.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many authors would give one day a month of their time to wade through slush pro bono? Especially if that got their work read while they did the wading.

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