Thursday, September 04, 2008

Will slush evolve?

This article in the UK Guardian by Aida Edemariam has been written before, but it's useful to keep republishing. (I found it via BookNinja.) It's about the much-feared slush pile, found in most publishing houses and magazine office, where unsolicited writing accumulates. I met my first slush pile as an assistant to an agent in London, and then spent time with one for about two years in my first editorial job. In both cases, I did read most of what I found there, but as I always told interns who handled this pile more often, it's easy to just reject 90% of what you find. So much of it is flat-out nuts.

As a sidenote, I'd like to say how tired I became of stories from the slush pile. It's a bit like what we're seeing here in Boston now with college kids, all talking as if they're the first to live in a dorm, go grocery shopping without their parents, etc... Interns going through the slush pile inevitably think they're going to thrill you with hilarious jokes at some unknown writer's expense. "This one says 'My novel knows no boundaries, and will exhilarate you beyond measure," and look how he spelled exhilirate!!!" I suppose it feels good to mock these writers when you're a sophomore in college with your own literary ambitions, but I learned to really hate it.

And sadly, Edemariam is not above it in this article, mentioning submissions from "prisoners who think it a good idea to include a picture of themselves with a gun pointed at the viewer (true story)." Who cares? It's just so tiresome. And it's a bit annoying that she writes about her own experience though she only did this for 5 months.

Anyhow, the article on the whole, despite my grumbling, makes some good if not mind-blowing points. Larger publishing houses often won't even consider slush, preferring to leave it to agents and then wait for the more reputable agents to bring them the best of the crop. This has created some opportunity for smaller, independent presses - in this case, Tindal Street Press in the UK is the example of that:
"Because we're small and we've been building a reputation, we haven't been an obvious choice for agents," says editor Luke Brown, "so the slush pile has been vital for us."

I certainly glanced into the abyss as an editor, even after it was my responsibility, and did find at least one book in there. It's a frustrating process though, as multiple people explain in this piece. Other success are added at the end of the article:
There will always be someone hoping to be like first novelist Rawi Hage, picked off a slush pile at Anansi Books in Canada to win the world's most lucrative literary prize, the £80,000 Dublin Impac Literary Award; or Nobel prize winner William Golding, rejected by 20 publishers then picked off the slush pile by Charles Monteith at Faber; or JK Rowling, picked out of the post by office manager Bryony Evens, even though she knew the agent she worked for didn't publish children's books.

So dare to dream?

But in this day and age, there are so many other ways to get your writing out there, so surely the whole mentality of publishing will change. I still say, as I've long maintained on this site, that we need gatekeepers to find the best and brightest, to hold us to a standard for arts in general, and literature in particular. But editors and agents have so many more resources now, so the field is changing, and publishers must take chances to get returns. It's an unless, desperate game of seeking out the next trend. Writers may go into it not realizing that they are being put into this game, if they are not away of the currents in publishing and the up-and-coming markets, and then they'll be dropped just as soon as that trend ends. (Look at the author of the book on the hideous candidate Sarah Palin, who wrote a book about the Alaskan governor only to see the publisher slammed with orders after McCain's disastrous decision.)

So writers, beware. I would recommend waiting until you are really confident in your writing, until you have shared it with others and feel good about it, and had smaller pieces published. At that point, put together a writer's CV and really present yourself well and find an agent who you known likes the kind of writing you're doing (look at the acknowledgments sections of your favorite books!). That's the best way forward, just to generalize. And if the agent is a good one, they'll steer you through the trends and keep you grounded on your own identity as a writer, whether you're on the bestseller list or keeping your day job to pay the bills.

Perhaps I'll wait for a future post to talk about pedestrian but innovative ways of sharing books, from BookMooch to a table with a box labeled "Honor System" (just walked by that in the rather boring Harvard Square, where I know work).

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