Avoid an Outhouse Called the Slushpile

AN article about WHY to avoid the slushpile and How writers can avoid the slushpileSeveral times each week a would-be writer comes to me with this complaint:  ‘I’ve spent two years (or one year or three years) sending my book to agents, publishers, or producers, AND I’M GETTING ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE.  I GET A FORM REJECTION. OR NO ANSWER AT ALL.  I’M SICK OF IT.’

Confession: I’m sick of it too.  Sick of hearing good, talented people complain because they’re going about getting published the wrong way.  Plain truth: What these writers are doing doesn’t work, has never worked, will never work.  Why?  And what works?

First, where does their writing land?  Simple.  It’s called the slush pile.  Every agent, editor, and producer has one, a stack of manuscripts in a corner, about to topple, waiting to be read.  Hell, probably a whole wall of stacked of manuscripts, and all about to topple.  Here’s a promise—they’re not going to get read.

And here is why, via a story.  My current agent, small but well known, tells me he gets an average of two hundred unsolicited manuscripts per week, people asking him to represent him.  He can’t possibly read them himself.  He’s far too busy trying to get a better contract for me and Meredith, or any of one his writers who’s on the TIMES’ best-seller list.  He is diligent, smart, experienced. His life is spent writing-mails or jawing on the phone, bringing actual dollars to his writers and his firm.

So, he hires an employee to read the slush pile.  All of it.  Not an experienced editor, just someone willing.  Suppose she works forty hours a week.  That’s an average of five minutes for the letter of introduction you wrote and the entire manuscript, maybe four pages of it.  She may hand the agent one or two manuscripts a week for a quick look.  The rest get form letters or no response at all.

Most agents, editors, and producers are worse.  Some of the top agencies have a simple notice posted on their web sites: No unsolicited manuscripts accepted.  What that really means is, ‘If you’ve haven’t attracted enough attention to get someone we know to recommend you, don’t knock on these doors.’

Can you blame them?  They have to make a living, too.

The producer you sent your script to?  Forget it.  He gave several scripts to his secretary, who may also be his mistress, or to the guy who delivers the inter-office mail, and said, “Tell me if you see anything great.”

Is that really what you want for yourself?  Do you think that’s a decent shot at breaking into publishing?  Are you willing to accept that as your big chance?  And throw up your hands in despair when it doesn’t work?

My friends at Kindle are glad about how you’re handling the writing end of your business.  But, when you turn to them, your chances are only marginally better.

Fact: Publishers and movie makers are families.  Relatively small ones.  If you’re not a member of the family, and you don’t know anyone who is, they’re not going to give you work.  Like other tight-knit groups, they save jobs for family and friends.

You protest: Win, that’s the way it’s done.  WRITER’S DIGEST says so.  The agents themselves tell writers exactly how to submit a manuscript to them.

I would not tell everyone, but I will tell you…  It doesn’t work.  Plenty of writers know better, and they are getting through the gates to be published.

So, how DOES it work?

It works like most other things in the world—though personal contact, connections, networking, and that unknown quantity called personal chemistry.

Let me tell you another story.  I got my first agent by walking into her office, offering her some pages, and asking her to represent me.  She did, and made three sales, including a terrific movie deal.  Got my next agent by walking into the office of a bigger name agent and doing the same.  Got my third agent when a celebrated writer-director took me into the office of a powerhouse movie agency, and getting me the movie agent that I’ve been with now for forty years.  My next agent happened when I asked for a meeting with one of the top firms in New York.  And magazine work came through recommendations.

Meredith’s story is the same.  Neither of us has work that spent one moment in the slush pile.  

If you say you don’t know anyone in publishing, I offer one response:  Why not?  Meeting editors and agents is part of your job.  As much a part as the writing itself.  Be bold!

How do you go about making the connections you need?

Starting points:

1)      Did you go to college?  Take a creative course?  Get a writing degree? Undoubtedly at least one of your instructors, or another in the department, has published or knows someone who is publishing.  Ask for a reference to an editor.  If the editor of ELLERY QUEEN gets a letter or phone call from someone he knows, he will probably read the story himself.  If not, it soars, like a paper airplane,  into the slush pile.

2)     Does your city or state have a writers’ conference?  Most do.  Go there.  You will meet professional writers, and very likely agents, editors, and producers.  Pick out the ones who publish or produce the kind of thing you write.  Find them in the bar and ask for a quick word.  Be prepared.  Have a three sentence summary of your story or concept ready to light up their eyes.  When they express interest, ask if they’d read a few pages.  When they say yes, hand them a treatment and several chapters.

These people will remember you, your alertness, your look of energy and intelligence, etc.  They’ll read your pages, very likely right there during the conference.  After a couple of days, you may get an answer.  Even if it’s no, it’s likely to be helpful.  You’ll a good reason for the no, and will learn something.  Keep up the effort and you’ll get a yes.

3)     There are scores of these kinds of writers’ conferences.  The big ones usually have bunches of agents and editors.  Get there and work the crowd.  If you don’t drink, head to the bar, anyway.  This is the place meetings happen with the pros and with future colleagues.

4)     One conference in particular, Thrillerfest, is set up specifically for writers to pitch their projects to editors and agents.  It’s in New York every July, so flocks of publishing pros attend.  They simply sit at a table and interview one writer after another.  You have a time limit to make an impression.

A student of mine went to Thrillerfest last with an excellent pitch of three short sentences.  She left with about fifty requests to see chapters or the full manuscript.  No publishing deal yet, but her book is being read by the people who count.

The Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference, in Colorado, has the same set up but on a smaller scale.  Do what works for you

5)     The best route of all.  Study lists of agents (such the membership list of aar.org) and see which agents handle what you’re writing.  Then write them personal letters, with chapters attached, tell them you want to come to New York during a certain week to find an agent you would feel compatible with, and ask for an appointment for a personal talk.  Each agent will be greatly impressed.  Eventually, you’ll end up with, say, five to seven appointments in five days.  And very likely, one will be someone who thinks you’re on the ball and they want to represent you.

Wait!  You say you don’t have the time or money to chase around to writers’ conferences?  I suggest re-thinking.  Like the law and medicine, writing is a profession.  Years of apprenticeship are required.  Making contacts, required.  Getting references, required.  If you want to succeed, make up your mind to put in a lot of effort.  For a lawyer, a talent for arguing is not enough.  Credentials and contacts are part of the deal.

Bottom line:  Want to be a professional writer?  Take a deep breath and start the hard work.  

About Meredith and Win Blevins


  1. Sumner Wilson says:

    Dear Win:

    Mr. Richard Wheeler says it’s useless to send your manuscripts to agents or publishers, so I reckon the list of agents you sent me won’t work. CreateSpace is my only option. I’ve published several times with them, and it is hard work. Darned hard work, to put it mildly. Besides writing your book you must also format the entire thing including how many lines fit on each page (both sides) making sure both sides of the page are justified, and have no hard-returns to deal with. But if a man/or someone of another gender, does it correctly and if you buy a decent cover–the only way to make sure your cover doesn’t look like a partial abortion is to purchase one, which is about all that needs to be purchased, since CreateSpace prints the book itself down in Charlotte, although they will print exactly what you provide them–it’ll turn out fine. CreateSpace’s free book covers are UGLY! as pure sin. Plus they will not amend errors for you. So you are not only the writer, but the editor/publisher as well. In a way it is fun doing this work, if you have time for it such as yours truly. The bad part is, you must also be your own publicist, distributor, bottle washer, cook and waiter/waitress. Those who already have a publisher or an agent have no idea this side of the publishing world exists. I’ve traveled quite a few hard trails delivering copies of my books to small book stores willing to take them on consignment. For the most part they are great people and will do much to help you sell books. But if a person expects to be published, forget about finding an agent or a publisher. Probably, if you’re a good looking cat or gal, you might show up in person in their office and work your charm in this way. That is, if you know where to show up at. Can’t vouch for this as I’m not a good-looking cat, and am older than Adam’s cat as well. I do agree that having an expert (not a drip under pressure either) edit your book is the way to go. Trouble is, this is like the kitten that makes water into the cash register, it eventually runs into a lot of money.

    By the way, anyone interested in learning what a good cover should look like, please go to amazon.com, select all programs, select books, type in, The Hellbringer, by Sumner Wilson. This is a great cover, and did not cost an arm and the traditional leg either.

    I hope those who are just beginning on the road to running down her publishing dream will read Mr. Wheeler’s post. He speaks the truth. You are not going to find anyone to help you by sending out your own stuff, and Win Blevins too says you must get out to conferences, learn what the core of your book is all about, put it all into a few short lines, and do it in a way opens the eyes of an agent or publisher. I’m glad these folks are here for us all. Their advice is worth more than money. We are all on our own. After all, they aren’t making more Shakespeares these days, and for that matter, the Wheelers and Blevins’ are few and far between, especially when it comes to helping the would-be author.

    Sumner Wilson

    • This is worthy of a longer reply, and Win will get to this soon.

      Sumner, we cannot stress enough: You must have joy, enthusiasm, and optimism around your work. You could write the best book since (fill in the blank) and it is going NOWHERE without that enthusiasm.

    • PS: You must NEVER be your own editor. It is impossible.

    • We will say here that university and small presses MAY be the way in the door if what you are publishing is exactly up their alley. Do not expect an advance of any amount more than will pay your mortgage and your groceries for one month. They do print beautifully. They are generally at the end of a career or at the beginning. They rarely fall in the middle. Again, Win will get to this in more length. He is a lengthier guy than I am.

  2. Richard S. Wheeler says:

    There are other ways to avoid the slushpile. Here in Montana are several small presses that regularly publish books of local or regional interest. Some are excellent, with editing and design that are topnotch. Meeting the editors or publishers (often the same person) is as easy as a phone call. You can usually walk into the office, sit down with someone who might buy your work, and talk it over. The other option is to start your own publishing company, and publish yourself and other authors who interest you. You will need deep experience, or will need to hire it, when it comes to selecting, editing, preparing, and marketing a book. Nonetheless, it is one of the historic ways the get published.

  3. Good article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  4. Dennis Goss says:

    The part that is most poignant to me is that the work doesn’t stop when the story is done. Not only with submitting it but also the marketing that has been discussed before. What I have also been reading about this topic is the standard submission is a query letter and maybe the first ten pages. Then if they are interested they will ask for more. Thanks also for reminding us about the conferences. There’s one here in San Francisco over President’s Day weekend each year and I need to make it out to the next one. Time to get out of my comfort zone. Thanks again.

    • Dennis —
      1) It doesn’t mater if you are indie-published or self-published, you will be doing your own marketing.
      2) If you had a start-up business, wouldn’t you consider that marketing was going to be part of your expenses? Of course you would, you would be right, and net marketing costs considerably less, while reaching more people, than traditional marketing.
      3) Think about going to the con at Book Passages rather than SF. (Assuming their target is appropriate.) It is small. The agents and writers and editors they get are high-powered, and you will have a considerably greater chance of meeting with them and developing a relationship. Cons that may cost a little more are usually worth a LOT more.

  5. Richard S. Wheeler says:

    Your readers interested in this topic will profit from this fine New Yorker piece about the legendary Knopf editor Gordon Lish. This details the ways that people who attend workshops achieve success:


  6. As always, the Blevins nail it on the head and Richard, as usual, follows up with professional and spot on information. There are many paths to publication – each of us on ‘this side’ of the fence have an interesting story of how we ‘broke in.’ Many of us ‘broke in’ many times as the market changed. I would also say that using one’s expertise, as well as connections, is a great way to start out. If you are the world’s foremost horseshoe champion and you have written a series of horseshoe tournament thrillers, then your prospective editor or agent needs to know YOU are the most qualified person to write those books.In other words, parlay your knowledge. It continually astonishes me when I meet interesting people who have fascinating life and work stories and then are writing something 180 degrees away from their wealth of knowledge.

    • Absolutely right.
      Parlay what you know, use those connections. Work your connections as a detective would. Ask questions, ask more.
      And, yes, one of the questions an editor or agent will ask you is this: “Why are YOU the person who should write this book?”
      Give them as many ways and reasons as possible to want to sell you, to sell you’re writing.
      Thanks, Randall for your expertise and good words — Win & Meredith

  7. larry yoder says:

    Win, a very honest statement. Publishing is not easy and your statement about work needs made into large letters.

    • Larry, there are too many times when I have friends, neighbors, colleagues in different fields who don’t understand that writing is work. And, yes, part of that work is getting out there. Connecting.
      (It’s been too long, Larry. We miss you and the way you come around to knowing and learning about new writers.)

      Best, always — W & M

  8. Richard S. Wheeler says:

    Excellent. You will not sell a book by mailing it to any publisher or agent. Even back in the days when NYC publishers tried to respond, they were swamped. Doubleday, half a century ago, got 50,000 manuscripts a year over the transom. Some publishers used to hire young ladies fresh from the Seven Sisters to read, paying them little and calling them apprentice editors. They didn’t have the experience to select worthwhile material or the authority to buy anything but it was all glamorous to the graduates. All they were doing was stuffing rejection slips into manuscripts. They maybe had an English degree and knew all about Milton and Shakespeare, but they didn’t know a marketable product from Kleenex. One publisher of my acquaintance would halt production now and then, require all its staff to read the slush in a single day, and return tons of manuscripts that were threatening to collapse the office building. Your best bet is conferences or workshops where editors and agents do appear. Oddly, given the mass of material thrown at them, they are usually looking for something good to publish. I made most of my contacts at the annual conventions of Western Writers of America (when it was still a professional writers organization and agents and editors flocked to the conventions, which is no longer the case). Networking, of the sort described above, is the best remaining avenue. In a few rare cases, successful self-publication on Kindle has led publishers to buy work from an authors. But the “who you know” approach is grim too. If you do finally get some famous author or agent or publicist to do something for you, that person won’t read your stuff. He’ll simply send it along to an editor with a comment such as, “would you do me a favor and take a quick look at this? I haven’t read it.” Usually, these approaches are the literary variation of the casting couch. Another approach is to become notorious or bizarre, do a Lady Gaga and hope to sell your material to someone who is properly repulsed and fascinated. Another promising way to break in is to find ways to do tie-in novels geared to TV shows or films. A few of those on your resume will qualify you to submit original work and get it read.

  9. Dear Meredith & Win:

    Read your terrific article that covers how an agent might be persuaded to read your stuff, bunk-um, or writing, whatever you want to call it. Loved it. Is there anyway I can persuade you to give me the name of your agent, and a warm recommendation. I’m sorry, just being facetious. I’m sure it doesn’t work that way.

    Thanks for the post. I usually learn something every time I read one of these informative article.

    • Sumner, be positive about your work. Fall in love with it. Even get delirious about it. Then, when your ms. is polished, head to a writer’s conference and meet people!
      Best to you — M & W

      • Sumner Wilson says:

        Dear M & W:

        Thanks for the reply. I’m working on my positive attitude right now, and figure I’ll soon get there, but it could take some time. Thanks again for the reply and the advice.

        Sumner Wilson

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