I hate the term “slush pile.” It’s a concept that I find outdated. Unfortunately, last week’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Death of the Slush Pile,” did a fantastic job of continuing the mythic symbol of the slush pile in the most unhelpful way.
First, to clarify, “slush” refers to any work that is sent to a publisher or agent that is unsolicited. Many New York publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions—and haven’t in more than two decades. Is this phenomenon really worthy of a trend article by the WSJ?
Even more strange, WSJ decries the disappearance of the publisher-based slush pile as something that harms aspiring writers—as if the opportunities available to writers have diminished as a result.
Not true. If any opportunities have gone away, it’s because publishers are cutting their title counts, cutting budgets, doing different types of projects, and finding a way to survive massive change in the media industry. It has absolutely nothing to do with slush.
What’s even more odd about this WSJ article is that most writers want to bypass the slush pile entirely rather than ensure they’ll always have a chance to get lost or misunderstood in it.
Writers who are new to the industry, or just have oddly shaped egos, will ask me, “How can I avoid the slush pile?”
Well, just by virtue of having something to sell that no one has asked for, you can’t avoid the slush pile.
Even if I, Jane Friedman, had a manuscript to publish—and I know dozens of New York agents/editors—my work would still end up in the slush pile. That’s because no one is coming to me proactively, asking to publish my work. It’s very rare for an agent or editor to approach anyone, and say, “Hey, let me give you a book deal!”
But some people DO get approached.
I bet you’d like 5 tips on how to be one of those lucky people.
1. Get media coverage. This can be on a large or small scale, but of course, the bigger the publication covering you, the more likely you’ll have agents and editors calling you within hours. Have you seen the movie Julie & Julia? Classic example of someone featured in the New York Times, then landing a book deal.
2. Get your work published somewhere that agents and editors scout for talent. Writer’s Digest magazine recently featured 12 journals that agents read. And take a look at this article that comments on how often NYT guest columnists for Modern Love get book deals. Writer’s Digest author Heather Sellers landed a book deal after publishing an essay in O magazine about 100 coffee dates to find true love.
3. Have a major personality, opinionmaker, or blogger recommend you in some form. You better bet that if someone like Seth Godin mentions you in his blog as some kind of amazing person, your popularity will skyrocket overnight. And I bet he receives so many solicitations for that reason that I feel very sorry for what his e-mail inbox must look like.
4. Develop a site/blog, or a community, or a tradition of content so significant, fresh, and original that it sparks #1 or #3. This is the dream for a lot of writers who start blogging or otherwise participating in social media. The WSJ incorrectly asserts that the Web has not been a great democratizer. Not true.
Just be careful that you’re not the desperate, look-at-me writer whose intention to score a book deal becomes a big turn off. The strange thing about being proactively approached by an editor/agent is that they’re most drawn to people who could not care less about them. (Remember how you can get romantically infatuated with a person who won’t even toss a glance in your direction? Same principle applies.)
5. Cultivate a network of connections who champion you without being asked. This is rare, but I’ve seen it happen. Some people are so compelled by another person’s work or story that they start beating the drum to everyone they know. These people can be like gold if they are positioned to influence the right people. From your end, it requires serious charm and also an idea or presence that’s truly inspiring and compelling.
Now, even if you can’t get an agent or an editor to approach you first, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time to make yourself attractive—aside from your stellar writing. You always want to make waves, and direct people’s attention as needed to the whitecaps on those waves.
Bottom line, it’s not about the slush pile these days as much as your skill in building individual and community relationships over the long-term—sometimes referred to more negatively as “networking”. The WSJ does get this part right when it says, “Relationships still trump everything.”
Without relationships, you’re stuck with the hope your brilliance will be discovered. And if you hope for an editor or agent to notice you, you’ll probably hope for readers to notice you, too. Deadly.
I don’t like telling writers to sit around hoping for someone else to notice their brilliance. It doesn’t happen that often, and you should never consider yourself an exception to the rule.
And that really gets to the heart of why I dislike the WSJ article so much; it promotes this idea of writers as passive creatures waiting for the hand of god to touch them.
Forget that. Find a way to create your own success instead. In today’s publishing environment, it’s imperative.