Life in the Slush Pile: Surely Make You Lose Your Mind

Slush pile (sləSH pīl): the black hole of unsolicited manuscripts in an editor’s inbox

This post must start by saying many incredible authors and stories came from the slush pile. (Check out this WSJ article to read about them.) But finding that diamond in the rough is analogous to finding guys like Mark Zuckerberg who can drop out of college and become billionaires. It’s unusual. It’s unlikely. But it isn’t impossible. 

I get several unsolicited (meaning I didn’t meet the author at a conference or event and they do not have an agent) submissions a week from writers. For the sake of math, let’s call it five. Five doesn’t sound like that much, and in reality, it isn’t. Some editors get five unsolicited submissions a DAY, or even within a few hours. But let’s stick with my measly little five per week for a second.

5 submissions a week x roughly 52 weeks in a year = 260 submissions a year

Now, I can read pretty quickly. So fast, even, that when I asked my husband what my superpower would be, he said reading. (It was closely followed by organization. I couldn’t decide whether or not to be offended by that one. I mean, come on, couldn’t I also fly?) But I can’t properly read and evaluate 260 unsolicited submissions, not without sacrificing sleep, sanity, and the rest of my workload.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out to editors. It does mean that when you do, you should adhere to three important guidelines.

  1. Follow the rules.
    • Does the website/blog/Twitter/flashing neon sign belonging to the editor say they are closed to unsolicited submissions? If yes, then respect that boundary. Querying someone who does not accept unsolicited submissions means you are highly unlikely to get a response or even a read.
    • If the editor allows unsolicited submissions, submit according to the guidelines on their website. If they don’t want attachments, don’t send attachments. If they want only a summary, send the summary (not the full manuscript). If they want you to use Comic Sans…well then find another editor because that’s just craziness.
  2. Make your pitch AMAZING.
    • The average editor only spends two minutes reading an unsolicited submission. (Okay, I made that stat up. It might be too generous.) Set yourself apart from the rest of the slush pile by keeping your pitch:
      • Personalized. None of that “Dear Editor” nonsense.
      • Professional. You should say “Dear someone.”
      • Punchy (look at that alliteration). Capture their attention in the first lines and keep them hooked. This goes for any query to editors, agents, publishers, or even potential critique partners. Check out this Writer’s Digest article for tips on an amazing query letter.
  3. Practice patience (the alliteration continues!)
    • Life in the slush pile is definitely not life in the fast lane. It can take editors up to six months to respond to an unsolicited submission, if they respond at all. Resist the urge to follow up unless the editor’s guidelines say it is okay to do so.
    • Don’t lose hope if you don’t get an immediate yes. Don’t lose hope if you get a slow no. Don’t lose hope if you get nothing at all.

I want to make up a stat on how many manuscripts are written in the U.S. every year, but I already made up one figure in this post and I should probably stick to the facts. Either way, I’m guessing it’s a lot. Definitely in the hundreds of thousands. Probably in the millions. Figure out what makes your book one in a million (you had to see that one coming), and then even that slush pile black hole won’t stop you.

Good luck!

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