Ian Haight was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002-4. He has been awarded 5 translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. Ian is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with T’ae-y?ng H?, the translator ofBorderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun H? (2009) both from White Pine Press. Ian’s translations, essays, poems, and interviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Writer’s Chronicle, Barrow Street and Hyundae Buddhist News, among many other publications.
For Beginning Writers: The Slush Pile and How to Deal with It
The dreaded slush pile: the place where unsolicited manuscripts for publication and query letters go. I’ve heard junior editors say they will read the slush pile only to make amends with a senior editor. If you’re a writer, avoiding the slush pile or learning how to stand out in it is something you want to do.
Why is ending up in the slush pile such a negative? It depends on the press, publication, agent, etc. you’re submitting to, but the slush pile mostly contains work that has no chance of being accepted for publication, or in the case of an agent, for representation. Why is that? The majority of writing in the slush pile doesn’t follow submission guidelines or simply lacks accepted professional presentation norms. A lot of the writing in slush piles is unformed or unfinished, and so not ready for publication. Another problem with the slush pile is even if the writing is good, follows guidelines and looks professional, it may be unsuitable for what the press or magazine wants to publish at that very moment. Readers of the slush pile know all this going in, so the pile is often avoided or approached with disinterest, when read at all. For a writer, facing a disinterested reader via the slush pile is not good. So what can you do?
Slush piles for book-manuscripts have been all but done away with in this day and age. Except for one or two genres like Romance or Children’s Literature, most major publishing houses will not accept unsolicited manuscripts from anyone except an agent. This is also true of query letters—major publishing houses don’t even want unsolicited query letters. Mid-level presses still accept unsolicited queries, but usually only for genres they specialize in and know how to market (like cookbooks, health, or parenting). Small presses have in some respects followed the example of the major publishing houses: generally they too are closed to unsolicited manuscripts, though sometimes they will read unsolicited queries. So when we’re talking about slush piles, we’re really talking about slush piles for query letters and periodical (magazines, journals, etc.) submissions.
The rules of the game for query letters and periodical submissions with respect to slush piles is still the same: large respectable journals approach unsolicited submissions with trepidation and may not even accept them; agents often view query letters as a necessary burden to their business. Which brings us back to the original question: how to avoid the slush pile, or if you are unavoidably stuck in the slush pile, how to stand out in it?
If you’re a beginning writer the easy way is to pay your dues. You have to build a reputation. Start with smaller publications (like with press runs of 100-200) and build up. Determine press runs and the kind of market you’re dealing with by buying one of the Writer’s Market books for your genre (poetry, fiction, etc.). After ten publications (in poetry—with fiction maybe 1-2 stories is enough) with journals at that level, move up to journals with higher press runs, and do not submit to the easier journals. Continue until you get to journals whose publications appear in award anthologies, like the Best American Short Stories. After some years of dedicated work in this manner of publication and you have a sense of your own writing and a possible audience, you might try to query an agent, enter a writing contest, or approach a small or mid-level publisher with a book for publication.
What attracts the slush pile reader to your unsolicited query at this stage of the game is a publication record. The reader can see you’ve been writing for a while and have some decent publication credentials, suggesting you may know what you’re doing as a writer. This encourages the slush pile reader to give your writing a little extra care and attention than normal. If you’re lucky the dominos fall and maybe in the end your manuscript gets accepted for publication.
Barring this, networking is another good way to avoid the slush pile and potentially a quick pathway to publication. Agents and editors attend conferences where they actively seek out new writers to represent and publish. Attending one of these conferences and personally speaking with an agent or editor encourages them to engage you and your writing at a more personal level with the added benefit of completely avoiding the slush pile. Some agents acquire the majority of their new manuscripts at writing conferences. If you meet an editor at a conference, you can address a submission or query letter straight to him or her, completely avoiding the slush pile.
When you think about it, the slush pile is one of the big reasons why writers need to be tough-minded people who have patience and tenacity. Until you have an agent for your book, there are few conventional short-cuts to avoid the slush pile. Technology is making self publication via e-books more acceptable, and it is true agents are considering self-published e-books with more seriousness, as are publishing houses. But even with e-books and self-publication, developing a reputation (usually with sales or a large social network) is what helps a writer stand out from the crowd.