Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tales From the Slush Pile

We haven't talked slush in a while, mainly because I've been too busy dealing with it to take the time to comment on it. Subs are up, way up, and I'm told it's so across the board with most publishers and agents.

I first became aware of this one weekend near the end of January. In a 48-hour period, we received as many submissions as we would typically see in, oh, six weeks or so. Every now and then we get a burst like that. Numbers tend to even out over time, so usually a big burst comes in the middle of a relatively dry period. But in this case, January had been cooking along at a good bubble.

And February continued at a strong pace. It seemed like it might taper off in early March, but now we're back up to healthy, big numbers.

Given that subs are up everywhere, how do you make your submission count?

You're probably sick of hearing reminders to follow the guidelines. You'd be even sicker if I posted a reminder every time we saw a submission that ignored our guidelines. A good ten percent of our subs are auto-rejected because they're not what we publish. At all. Not even close.

But there's another subset of submissions, those that are what we publish but aren't submitted properly. Occasionally, we get a sub with a routing list that includes every erotic romance publisher in the business. We don't take multiple submissions, and so those subs get rejected immediately. Ditto for those that were previously e-published elsewhere, though we will take a look at works previously published in print when rights have reverted.

You might think this is harsh. Okay, but I want to work with authors who deliver material according to specs, who understand that the rules apply to them, and who can follow clear instructions. You're asking me to enter into a business relationship with you. Don't start off that negotiation process by making me doubt your ability to deliver the product I need.

And for the record, we do allow some wiggle room on some other bits of the guidelines. For example, if someone sends the wrong kind of attachment, we've been known to read them anyway. If attachments are missing, we ask for replacements.

/guidelines rant

Let's take a look at some specific examples of things we're seeing in the slush pile, and the reactions they get.

Submitting Multiple Manuscripts at One Time

This is a bad idea. It makes me think you have buckets of bad stories stashed in every corner, and you're shoveling them out in clumps just to try to get rid of them. If you want to impress me with your productivity -- and believe me, productivity is impressive, even if loads of unpublished manuscripts are not -- you can mention in your cover letter that you expect to have your next submission ready to submit by X date. (Bonus points for showing me that your work habits include keeping an eye on the calendar.)

Unemployed Journalists

Things are tough all over, and I don't mind at all when a newly laid-off journalist -- or copywriter, or speechwriter, or technical writer -- tries her hand at a short story. In fact, it shows a bit of gumption when a writer tries something new during a bad economy. And employment as a writer is a point in your favor because the skills set can transfer to our kind of publishing.

That said, not all of the skills transfer perfectly. Writing is always harder than it looks -- I nearly said "writing erotic romance," but really, that's true of any kind of specialized writing. If you're between jobs and looking for some freelance action, take a day or two to brush up on things like scene structure and dialogue before you dig in to a fiction spec project. Go to the bookstore and browse a few books in your target genre. A small time investment up front might pay bigger dividends.

Lashing Out

We know there's a lot of stress out there these days. Don't take it out on us, especially not in response to a rejection or a revise & resubmit request. We get snarky complaints covering every possible nuance -- I call them Goldilocks mail. Too fast, too slow. Too form letter-ish, too picky about the revisions. You name it, we've heard it. And we've heard it's opposite. Sometimes on the same day.

Will it count against you? Maybe, if I remember your name later (and remember why I'm remembering it, which is a whole 'nother thing). We see so much that it's hard to keep it all straight, and I prefer to err on the side of believing that people are not bitches.

But, you know, I do remember some of it. Alicia's bound to be thinking that I'd remember more of it if I noticed more of it. I tend to brush right past mean behavior. Anyway, I keep threatening to make lists of misbehavior so I don't forget it later, but who's got time for that? It would be much easier if it never happened in the first place.

The Good News

We're still acquiring manuscripts. Lots of publishers are. The economy is causing some pain in the industry, but doors are still open in many places. The upswing in subs is probably due to the slower rate of acquisitions at many houses, but good stories can still find good homes. So don't shy off from submitting. You can't win if you don't play the game.

whose current needs are for longer stories, not shorter ones, with unusual paranormal angles -- see Kitsune by Lila Dubois for an example


Anonymous said...

[b]That said, not all of the skills transfer perfectly. Writing is always harder than it looks[/b]

Particularly true for fiction. I live in an area heavy with non-fiction writers. When I was in a critique group, we'd invariably get a non-fiction writer who wanted to write a novel. So far, not of of them got past writing the first three chapters, complaining that non-fiction was a whole lot easier.

One of my local newspapers had a reporter who wrote a thriller. The paper didn't mention it, but I'm guessing he shopped it around and all the agents rejected it. So they paper published it on their Web site. The story was not up to publishable quality for a novel. The reporter had all the prose writing skills there, but he didn't understand how to put together a good story, and it showed.

Just because you can write in one area doesn't mean the skills transfer. It often takes a lot of hard work.

Julie Harrington said...

And here I am overly obsessing over publisher writing guidelines, reading and re-reading them before submitting. Now I feel slightly better about that. LOL.


Cathy in AK said...

I can't count the number of agent and editor posts I've read where the basic message is follow the guidelines and be civil about it. Why is that so hard for people to understand? Then again, the more others mess up, the more likely my submission will get a read ; )

Thanks for the good news. It's nice to see some sort of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Babs said...

question about submissions. how long should it take when a full MS is requested by an editor at your house to get an answer? and when you do get one, if you submitted it via email, will you be contacted that way either rejected or revision request? or will you be called?
just wondering.
Thanks and have a good day.

Edittorrent said...

You guys have the right idea-- all those submitters who make it clear that acquiring them is going to lead to a lot of trouble? They're just making you all the more appealing, right? :)

Edittorrent said...

Babs, it depends on the editor. How's that for a non-answer? Most of us turn around our manuscripts in anywhere from, say, four weeks to four months. If it takes longer than that, it's probably because we're interested and are trying to figure out how to fit it into the calendar. Or because something got lost in transmission. Or, in the case of one editor, because a leave of absence slowed things down for a bit.

We usually communicate via email because it creates an automatic record of all communications.


Babs said...

Brilliant! Thanks!