The Slush Pile, A Critique

The slush pile.

If you’re an editor, you know what this is. If you’re a writer, you fear what this means. If you’re a reader, you’re thinking – a pile of snow on the side of the road?

No, the idea in publishing is that a group or a set of manuscripts sent in to the publisher, unsolicited, stack up in volumes untold, and that this pile is then sifted through by ‘first-readers’ or assistants. Larger organizations don’t  accept unsolicited manuscripts, while smaller publishers sometimes do. And when they do, they are flooded. Hence, the slush pile.

In the magazine business, most submissions are unsolicited (because an agent isn’t going to make money off a short story sale – only the big-time novelists seem to use agents for magazine submissions, but why this should be, I can’t say), and, yet, you will see that, still, magazine publishers refer to a ‘slush pile’ having accumulated in their inbox.

There are a few things, as an editor-in-chief, that I don’t like about this idea known as ‘the slush pile’. I’m sure there are bits and pieces of industry that is disliked in other markets; it’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for you, I think the great Carlin once said. But, lucky for you and for me, I am in a position to disregard certain elements that others have adopted. And, I’m in a position that allows me to blog about them. Not bad, eh?

There was a recent magazine (better not to name it) that, in it’s acknowledgements, thanked so-and-so for helping to sift through the slush pile. I was surprised to read this. Talk about bad form – how embarrassing for the publication, and, really, how sad for those submitting work.

It’s sad, because it is a misuse of the term, really, and it invites an attitude among publishers that needs to go away. Let’s talk about these two points, shall we?

The first, in regards to the publishing industry, is that it appears that this term has become a loose one, used to describe the volume of submissions received. This is a mistake in logic and/or definition (perhaps it’s semantics, but I don’t think so, and you’ll soon see why). For a magazine, one like DeadLights, for instance, the truth is that we solicit submissions. We want authors to submit and interact. We seek submissions out via advertising and social media. We want them, man! Therefore, the submissions received are not unsolicited.  The volume of submissions we receive cannot, by definition, be regarded as a ‘slush pile’. We asked for it and we received, in other words.

My second point? The attitude taken by publishers in regards to this ‘slush pile’ conundrum. If you work for a medium size book publisher, let’s say, and you receive 80,000 word manuscripts from authors without agents, you can regard these submissions as a ‘slush pile’ by definition. Now, I don’t know how or when this happened (or who kept it up), but, in the industry, a level of distaste for such submissions has occurred. I imagine it has something to do with underpaid and overworked staff, but I digress. Some publishers view these unsolicited manuscript submissions as unprofessional, as the clear sign of the Amateur Writer. I won’t debate for one side or another here, because I’m not a book publisher.

I’m a  magazine publisher. As such, I have noticed that this level of distaste and this feeling of such submissions as being the work of the amateur has trickled down from the larger publications and into the smaller magazine circles – or those that take themselves seriously, at least. This is what makes me sad, because there are writers out there who work hard and are trying their best to create fiction that pleases.

These writers deserve fair hearing and respect. The work a magazine receives is not a slush pile by definition as we solicit writers to submit, and it follows that they do not deserve the sort of spite that has permeated larger organizations, the sorts that receive sets of unsolicited manuscripts. If it were as simple as a mistake in definition, in terms, in semantics, that would be the end of it, I’m sure, but it’s the attitude that comes with this error that validates this topic as one that’s important to the industry. It’s also the attitude that damages Horror as a whole unit, a genre and a family.

This attitude of presuming to know better than the amateur, that those with power to publish are in some form higher than those submitting; it’s this that must end. Self-confidence is all well and good – experience is valuable – but, when it is in a sour form, it damages professionalism. When it then seeps into the work ethic and is translated to the writer in some shape or form, it is a no-go.

Now, I can’t speak for other publications. I can only write out my own thoughts here and then speak about our own magazine(s). We take a different approach to submissions. We read every author bio that comes in (this is something we enjoy, hearing about the writer – what they’ve done and where they’re headed), and, as of now, we respond via form letter. We try to attach personal notes when we can. Sometimes we send out constructive criticism. Sometimes, we are even lucky enough to make new friends. We don’t always get to attach notes like these, due to the amount of stories we receive. I hope we can, though, in the future, when we have a little more help.

What I think is important to note, also, is that we do read every story that comes in. Impossible, you say? No, it really is not. It takes time, discipline, and patience. If you’re willing to put in the hard work, it’s doable, and if you love the genre, it can even become a real treat in your daily routine. And, it’s why we tell writers that we may take up to four weeks to respond.

I know that there is a lot of push for quick turn-around, and there is merit in wishing for that, from a writer’s point of view. The faster you hear back, the quicker you can get your story out to another publication, should it be rejected. I get it. But expedience is not all it’s cracked up to be, my friends. In that world, you may have an editor look over your hook sentence, deem it unfit, and send it back without having looked at the essence of your story at all. You may find that your work is considered to be amateur without due cause. You may find, I’m afraid, that, in the worst case, your story has fallen into that stray inbox location that some inaccurately define as the slush pile.

One thought on “The Slush Pile, A Critique

  1. Joseph VanBuren

    Great article! As both a writer and someone looking to possibly work in magazine publishing, I appreciate your perspective.


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