Friday, December 12, 2008

rerun: The Kitchen Full of Slush

While we are on the topic of slush and what part of it is worthy of Slush and Punishment, I thought it would be useful to go back to the Kitchen of Slush, which is a visualization exercise from the very early days of this blog.

The fundamental lack of understanding about how much slush there is feeds many, many of the most common mistakes writers make--mistakes that hurt their chances of getting published, and often hurt their morale.

First, you need to realize that you do not know what a pile of 15,000 manuscripts looks like.

Let's say you have a table that seats four. Imagine that in your kitchen at home. 1,000 manuscripts would cover that table in piles that would teeter. Tall piles. Take a moment to picture that.

Now fill the floorspace underneath and around the table with 4,000 more manuscripts. There is no room for chairs anymore. You can't reach the manuscripts in the middle of the table.

1,000 manuscripts fill your counter space; another 2,000 stuffs all your cupboards and shelf space. There is no longer any room for the coffeemaker or toaster; all of your food and crockery has been displaced to the living room. You cannot close the doors on your cupboards because of all the manuscripts spilling out of them. The kitchen is no longer about eating or cooking or anything but manuscripts.

The remaining 7,000 manuscripts cover all the remaining floor space in thigh-deep drifts. You cannot enter the room now. You can only reach those manuscripts at the doorway. Your kitchen is now less a "room" than a tank of paper.

Good. Keep that image in mind. Now imagine that you read 15,000 manuscripts last year, and a good 50% were so inappropriate, illiterate, or crazy that thoughts of the hard work you did in college and the enormous debt you're still carrying from attending that schmancy institution made you nigh-suicidal. The cause of literature seemed futile and meaningless. You might as well hole up in a shack in Montana, awaiting the end of western civilization and stockpiling Joyce.

Now imagine that another 47% were just poorly-written, or aimed at the wrong age level, or derivative of much better (and better-known) writers, as well as having several concept/plotting/arc issues. If asked to say what was wrong with any of these, you would first have to think hard about how to prioritize the problems you saw, and then think hard about how to put them nicely. (Editors are picky, critical people, but they're also nice people. They don't want to hurt your feelings.)

The last 3% were nice, but manuscripts that no consumer was going to spend her money on when she's got so many other choices.

Which left you with 0.02% --3 manuscripts from 15,000-- that were worth publishing and ended up paying you back for the time it took to read them. (As well as, of course, the tens of thousands of dollars it took to publish them. Let's not forget about that.)

Did those 3 manuscripts pay you back for the time it took you to read the 14,997 other manuscripts in slush? No. Why do you have to read another 15,000 this year, when you have more than enough work to do (and agented manuscripts to acquire) to completely fill your 50-hour work weeks?

That's a good question.

And yet we do keep reading. Maybe it's 'hope springs eternal,' maybe it's the thrill of the chase. Maybe we're nuts.

Now see if you can answer some of these commonly asked questions yourself:

1. "Why is it so hard to get published?"

2. "Why are decline letters so impersonal?"

3. "How can some publishers decide not to reply at all unless they're interested in acquiring?"

4. "Why does every publisher have to have a different set of submission guidelines?"

5. "Why are they so slavishly attached to their submission guidelines?"

6. "How can they be so perfunctory about something that means so much to me?"

Slush and Punishment entries are inspired by the bottom 50% percent-- the stuff anybody with an iota of taste, good sense, or sanity would know is not publishable. The "grey" area that has been recently mentioned in the comments is the top 50%. It's "well... maybe" territory.

But what each of you is striving for is really the top 3%-- the manuscripts that are almost sure to be published, if they find the right editor and the right house.


Sarah Laurenson said...

Thanks for the reminder, EA. And I know so many of you take those manuscripts, oh, everywhere.

While the concept of reading for a living is appealing, the reality is far from it for me. I'm glad there are people like you in this world who are willing to wade through all that to find the gems so I can read only those. So thanks for being you and being willing and tenacious.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I am dizzy imagining that slushy scene. Impossible to regulate this on both sides of the pile. In this economy a manuscript has to be so good you couldn't possibly say "no!"

Jo Treggiari said...

Nice to get the publishing perspective on this. Thanks for painting such a vivid picture.

Unknown said...

I really like this!! I just blogged on it. At first, it seems very depressing, for me to be one of 15,000. But actually, if 97% are that bad, I think I might actually make it at least to the top 3%--which means I'm really only one of about 450.

Jan Jones said...

Now that is one terrific post!

Jeez, and I thought my kitchen was bad...

Anonymous said...

I believe I'm agonna go out there and git me one of them agents. Pronto!

The Class of 2k8 said...

Wow. I felt a little lame about having to sell 2 books before I found an agent to rep me. Now I feel kinda sunny.

Anonymous said...


It certainly is daunting. I would like to think I'm in that top 3% (or at least the top 5%), but the thought that any editor/assistant has to slog through nearly 15,000 mss every year to even see my work makes me feel a bit depressed.

We are so grateful to you editors who are still open to unsolicited manuscripts. Some of us would have a hard time finding agent (especially us PB writers) so the slush pile may be our only hope.

I hope you have an enjoyable and relaxing end of December and New Year. You deserve it.

Anonymous said...

(Yes, I'm going as an Anon, as EA herself is anonymous, humor me for a second...)

Sorry, but you do get paid to read slush, correct? It is part of your job to have to wade through what you consider unpublishable, to find things you do want to publish?

Imagine being a writer, spending every spare moment of your life in front of a computer screen to the point that you have no life at all. Suffer through all the crap of every person you know asking EVERY TIME THEY SEE YOU, when you are getting pubished? Did more agents turn you down? And then suggesting you're a pipe dreamer for even trying. Go through that for three years. Or four. While you are not getting paid. While the industry tells you that you should be grateful for even getting a form reject.

Then you get an agent. Finally. And don't sell the book. Or the next one.

Also, some editors who simply never respond to your agented ms at all, for no reason. Then, if by some miracle you do get a book deal (still wating for this to happen) your advance is so low that it more than likely won't cover the cost of the print cartridges, paper, reference books, and writer's conferences you've attended. But you should be grateful, because 8 thousand other writers are willing to take your place.

Writers often write without a paycheck or health insurance. Editors, not being the "creators" of the books, can always get a job elsewhere within publishing if they choose (book sales rep, publicist, librarian, copyeditor, etc..) Writers don't have that option, it's trying to get published or nothing.

Sorry if I sound bitter, because I'm not, actually. But in what other industry do the gatekeepers -- who are getting paid -- moan and bitch about their job, while the penniless peons gather round, and say, "Poor her?" It's like the about-to-be-laid off GM factory workers feeling sorry for the CEOs.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I take your point, Anonymous; however:

1. I think my readers offer me this sympathy because I offer them mine. I understand that being a writer is a hard and often thankless job, and takes a great deal of faith, patience, fortitude, and stubbornness as well as talent.

2. Editors cannot always get a job somewhere else in the industry, especially now.

3. Yes, I get paid to read slush, in the sense that I sometimes take time while at the office to sift through the slush, thus pushing other tasks-- tasks I am expected to do (unlike reading slush)-- into the evenings and weekends I am not paid for.
Does my employer feel it's paying me to read slush? No.

4. And here's the most important thing. I don't post about the slush just to complain about it. I post about it because I truly think many writers are entering the playing field blind. The more they know about what they're up against, and what the people they want to work with (agents and editors) are up against-- the more we all understand the challenges of each other's jobs-- the better we will all be at our own.

Understanding the work that writers and illustrators and designers production managers do makes me a better editor, because being an editor is about more than just editing.

Understanding the work that editors and designers and illustrators do makes you a better writer, because being a writer is about more than just writing.

none said...

Makes me glad 'my' slush is online where I can ignore it.

(am I paid to read it? no--atm it's not even my job)

Anonymous said...

That was a great visual. Actually, it stressed me out in a way--just thinking "this lady has to DEAL with that?"

I'm starting to like this blog.

Barbara Martin said...

This just means that writers have to be on top of their skills with a story that grabs attention and carries it through to the finish line.