The Slush-Pile Experience

I've often thought it would be fun to volunteer as a slush-pile reader for a day. When I say fun, I've no doubt I'd lose the will to live after about three manuscripts, but I do like the idea of gaining an insight into how publishers and agents feel about unsolicited submissions. Are 90% of them really crap, or is that just an urban myth? Are 90% of them actually pretty good, now that writers have internet communities on which to share advice, research markets and get feedback on their chapters?

Though I sympathise with the common lament that agents reject work without reading it, I must admit that even if I started out giving careful consideration to everything, this wouldn't last beyond the first covering email that said: “This is teh next harry potter. Tell me how much u r going 2 pay me lol.”
I can see myself whizzing through the submissions going:

Hmm, pretty good, but... nah.
Aww, this one has a picture of the author's puppy... but the book still sucks.
Hmm, nice writing, but it's the end of the first page and no one's died yet, so nope.
Huh, this author has the same name as a loser boyfriend I had 15 years ago, so... nope.

We writers know we must make sure our work is better than the rest of the pile, that our plot isn't the same old chestnut as everyone else's, that we spot the typo we've supposedly proofread a million times, and that we time the submission so that its position in the Leaning Tower of Envelopes corresponds to the ten-second window when the agent is in a good mood. The only trouble is that, as industry outsiders, we've got no way of knowing what the rest of the pile is like. What exactly are those clich├ęd plots and first-page no-nos? We don't get to see them because... well, they don't get as far as a bookshop. Without access to much unpublished fiction, it's difficult for a writer to appreciate the all-important (and perhaps subtle) differences between a standard rejection and a request for a full.

I think a bit of mutual understanding between agents and not-yet-published writers would be a good thing. Therefore, I have a bright idea. (Yes, just the one.) Agents and publishers could offer exciting Red Letter Days-style activities, like so -


The Slush-Pile Experience!
The perfect gift for the writer in your life.

Whether you've always fancied yourself as a top London agent, or whether you want to know once and for all how much worse a writer you are than the rest of the world, here's the chance to fulfil your dreams!
Your special day will start with five cups of strong black coffee and a couple of paracetamol (included) before your instructor shows you to your desk for the experience of a lifetime! Are you up for the challenge of trying to break into gaffer-taped Jiffy-bags? Can you last more than two paragraphs of a 500-page political rant in free verse? It's a race against time to read and reject 200 manuscripts by the end of the day! You'll learn all the terminology (including “What a load of crap,” “Oh God, please not the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice under a different title again,” and “This is brilliant, but I just don't love it enough.”) After your exhilarating fourteen-hour shift, you'll be treated to a witty email from a bitter author telling you why he is rejecting you.
A fun and original way to re-discover your sense of adventure!


Agents would get their slush-piles dealt with and writers would get first-hand knowledge of what really makes a submission stand out from the rest. The submitting writers would have their work read within a year by someone who didn't have thousands of phonecalls to answer and bestselling authors to look after. Everyone wins!

Thank you to Ali Farid on Stock Exchange for the "Rejected" photo.


Kath McGurl said...


I can't think of anything worse than being a slush pile reader (unless I wasn't a writer - then I wouldn't mind the job). As a writer though, I'd be scared of finding that everything in the slush pile is far, far better than anything I write, and ending up completely demoralised.

Poppy said...


(And also, um, a bit depressing . . sigh . . )

Great post Caroline.

Emerging Writer said...

Brilliant. I've love a peak at a real life slush pile.

E.G. said...

Very funny post! Insider info: it is absolutely true that people enclose photos of family members, pets etc / drawings their kids have done in their submissions. (Um, this is true of children's book slush piles, in any case.)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post! Very very funny. Oh dear, think my computer might be broken when it comes to being my turn..

Anonymous said...

Brilliant - and so true, I've no doubt!

The only comfort is that so much is utter dross, green ink and obsessive sexual deviancy, something lively, competent and imaginative really does stand out...

Nik Perring said...


Anonymous said...

Hilarious, Caroline - and probably so true.

Have any authors thought about including a mutltiple choice response form with their submissions?

a. Oh dear. You are sad and delusional if you imagine you can write
b. Don't give up the day job
c. Not bad but learn to use a spellcheck
d. Good writing, useless idea
e. Might be OK with some major reworking, etc...

And there'd definitely have to be a slot for 'your name is the same as my crappy ex-boyfriend' - love it!

Administrator said...

Great post, Caroline!

I would love to be a slush-pile reader for the day and see how the majority of authors tackle cover letters and synopses.

What an idea - let's hope an agent reads this, LOL!
Sam x

Anonymous said...

Very funny post, Caro. You are so good at this!

I have to stick up for slushpilees though. I am one of those who staunchly believe there must be good stuff in the slushpiles - partly because I know a lot of good stuff that has been sent to them. I think that it must be hard to devise a good system for going through them though and I imagine there are people who resubmit and resubmit as well. It is the sheer amount that gets sent in that is so boggling - it must be hard to deal with.

It would be good to know from publishers that do see unsolicited submissions as an important option how they cope with them and if they have any different methods for finding the stuff they want to publish.

Anonymous said...

If you want a taste of the Slushpile experience go to YouWriteOn or Authonomy - and those are the 'good' ones.

Gillian McDade said...

A really engaging read Caroline! And funny too! I must admit I'd love to be a reader for the day. I get the chance to read press releases every day - which I suppose is a quarter of the way towards being a slush pile reader! ;)

Gillian lol

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic idea! Feedback is so important, how do we know where we go wrong without it?

Glad I found you - via Woman's Weekly website.

Crystal Jigsaw

Anonymous said...

"Oh God, please not the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice under a different title again" - ROTFL!
Really funny post, though I was taken off the slush pile myself.

Administrator said...

I suppose, Anonymous, any writers's website where unpublished work is uploaded will give you a good taste of the slushpile.

I know that work i have uploaded in the past to my writing site could certainly be classed as that!

We're all learning.

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone for such a great response! I'm really glad so many people have enjoyed this post.

I completely agree that there is excellent stuff in the slush piles too. There has to be, because (unless YWO and Authonomy become the norm) anyone who wants to get published - good, bad or crackpot - has to dive into the current system and hope for the best. This does at least let everyone start off on equal terms, and there's more chance of work being judged on merit than there would be if it were all about being best buddies with the agent's cousin.

I can't decide which is more comforting - the idea that the slush pile is 90% rubbish (so competent work will get a chance eventually), or the idea that it is mainly of a high standard (so it's easier to accept rejection when up against excellent competition). Maybe that's an idea for another post!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, very funny.

Anonymous said...

"I suppose, Anonymous, any writers's website where unpublished work is uploaded will give you a good taste of the slushpile."

Not in my experience, Samantha, since the majority of writers in writing communities have not completed a whole novel, but, rather, flit around with opening chapters of quickly abandoned wips, and short stories based on a dream they had the previous night :-)
YWO and Authonomy are two exceptions, although I'm sure there are others I'm not familiar with.

Administrator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Administrator said...

Ah, Anonymous, well you ought to have a look at WriteWords where a fair number of authors do workshop completed novels. Obviously whole novels are not uploaded at one time, but often writers there upload the chapters sequentially, of the whole of the first draft and then upload chapters of the rewrite.

Interesting what you say, though. There are obviously some less effective sites out there.

Gillian McDade said...

Just to address the YWO/Authonomy issue, it's similar to a crate of mushrooms in Tesco. About 90 per cent of the mushrooms are good quality, while there are a few rotten ones at the bottom.
One of the top ten rated books on YWO entitled 'bwic-bo' was a finalist in the Daily Mail/Transworld comp 2008, so they can't all be bad.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Brilliant post,Caro!

slippingthroughtheworld said...

go caro! x

Jane Smith said...

I've had first-hand experience of the slush pile and it's dreadful. 90% is not only unpublishable, but almost unreadable in its badness: if you can write a coherent sentence and punctuate accordingly, then you're automatically in the top 10%.

A big, big problem was that so many writers submitted without checking the sorts of things we published: so even if their work was potentially publishable, I'd have to reject it because we just didn't publish in that area.

An excellent example of this found me a couple of weeks ago, when I started my new collaborative fiction blog: it's for flash fiction, and aims to be literary. And yet some banana sent me a piece that was over 7,000 words long, and told the story of a pornographic cricket match. Which was SO far away from what I'd asked for that I did actually read part of it, hoping I'd see why it had been sent to me. Alas, I didn't, and deleted it from my hard drive.

I shall bookmark this blog, which I've enjoyed very much: and I hope to see some of you over at my place one of these days. Thanks for the laugh!

Caroline Rance said...

Have just popped back and see that there are new comments - thank you all very much!

That's really interesting, Jane. A pornographic cricket match? Yikes! That image will stay with me for some time, I fear.

Jane Smith said...

It's staying with me, too, Caroline. In far too much detail. I'm still in shock.

Vincent Chandler said...

Hello all.

I work for Slush Pile Reader, Press a publisher in San Francisco. And much like Authonomy, we allow authors to upload their manuscript so members can read and vote for their favorites; however, we go a step further with a promise-to-publish for the highest ranked manuscripts across all genres. All of this, with no charge to the author - ever.

As writer and author forums and online communities abound, so does the level and breadth of support and significance for writers and their craft. Fictionaut is another great resource, for short-story writers, with an elite group of writing communities embedded within the site to hone and sharpen one's craft. The stereotype of what one expects to find online and in the slush pile, online and off, is vastly changing.

Many have been rescued from the slush pile, and many, many more have been lost within it. Just makes me wonder what we're missing.

Cheers and thanks...From California.
Vincent Chandler