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.  

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