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Getting Out of the Slush Pile

(Originally published in the SCBW-I Bulletin, reprinted in The Writer and The Writer's Handbook, and in condensed form in Quill and Quire (Canada)) Completely revised and updated for publication in Once Upon a Time, Winter 1996 and Spring 1997 Most recent update: December 6, 2009

by Harold Underdown

Spread the word:  

 

Table of contents:

bulletThe beginning: the story itself
bulletOverworked story types
bulletWhat to include
bulletRecommended approaches

For more help:

bullet Basic info for writers and illustrators
bullet
My FAQ file
bullet Recommended books, web sites, etc.

Ever wondered what it's like to read the submissions that publishers receive? Do you imagine a senior editor sitting at a nice desk with a cup of coffee leisurely reading a few manuscripts before going to lunch with an author? The reality is a little different, often involving the junior staff at a big house or freelancers coming in one day a week, who sit in front of a large stack of manila envelopes and try to get through as many as possible before they have to go on to something else. I speak as a veteran--I've been editing hardcover children's books for a number of years now, and as part of my job have read quite literally thousands of unsolicited manuscripts.

If your manuscript is in a pile of hundreds, how can you be sure it will be noticed--and, even better, get a response? After all, publishers call this stack the "slush pile," which sounds like a demeaning term. But we say "slush" with a mix of frustration, bemusement, and hope--frustration with the volume of material, bemusement at some of the more misguided submissions, and hope that we will find something interesting today (and if not today, then tomorrow). The slush is the future for a publisher, and so many children's publishers still do read the slush, though not always in an organized or speedy way. (Use the SCBWI Bulletin and market guides, Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, The Children's Book Insider, the Children's Book Council's member's list, or publisher-provided info. to keep track of who doesn't read slush. For more information about what happens inside a publisher, including a chapter of interviews with editors, consult my Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books).

Wade through the slush pile with me, and you may find out how to increase the chance that your manuscript will be one of those that get pulled out (Footnote: What does getting out of the slush pile mean?), and you will certainly increase the chance that it will be read. If you avoid the common mistakes, your chances are better than you might think, since well over 90% of authors put themselves out of the running by committing them.

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The beginning: the story itself

Anyone reading the slush comes away with a strong sense of the difficulty of telling a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, about characters a reader is likely to care about, since so many manuscripts fail to do this. Experienced writers know this, from having written stories that didn't work as well as ones that did, but beginners may be able to recognize their own mistakes. Look at what you've written and compare it to published models. Does it open with an interesting problem and end with a satisfying resolution? Does it get from one to the other via a series of events that develop believably one from another? Do the characters act in believable ways? Does the main character at least participate in solving his or her problem, if not actually solving it themselves? If you can't answer yes to these questions, you may have a story that needs more work.

In working on developing a strong story, seek out models, as I said. But do not rely on your memories of books from your childhood as models, which all too many authors seem to do. Seek out some of the wonderful books being published today. With 4,500 new titles per year, there are many forgettable books, but there are many award lists online or at your local library that will help you find the cream of the crop. Read them, decide which ones you like best, and try to do better. Strive to be original as a way of getting the reader's attention--and thus getting out of the slush pile.

It's the story that matters, and making it fresh and original. Nothing else matters:

Endorsements of various kinds are not likely to be of much use in getting the reader's attention. Every other manuscript I read in the slush pile includes the statement that the children of the author loved it, or that he read it "to an entire class of fifth graders and they wanted to hear more" or that she showed it to a local librarian who thought that it should be published. Of course children like being read to, and of course a librarian, or teacher, or neighbor is going to say good things about a manuscript. Telling a publisher that they did just shows the author's inexperience. The only endorsement that does matter is that of an author already published by the editor that the manuscript is sent to--this may even get you a personal response.

Winning a local writing contest is also not a distinction that carries much weight. Winners of such contests usually send us good short stories for adults with children as main characters, which is why they won. Nor is being published in something like the National Library of Poetry; this is just another variation on vanity publishing.

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Types of manuscripts

Looking more closely at the pile, certain kinds of manuscripts are both all too common and not what publishers of the kind I've worked for usually want, even thought you might see stories that seem very similar on the market. So they are likely to be rejected quickly by such publishers, which are the trade publishers, with a more literary bent; others might be happy to see them. Here are some of the types of manuscripts of which I've seen too many:

Hot Topics:
Anything in the news brings a brief flurry of manuscripts, from picture books to novels, that in some way "cover" the topic. Olympics and presidential elections, for example, usually set off a small flood--of manuscripts that came too late, given the two-year lead time needed for a book, and don't manage to do anything but be "about" the Olympics or the election. Publishers do publish about events, but they plan well in advance and usually work with writers they already know. "Green" topics may have a longer life, for good reasons, but they are too often overwhelmingly pedantic and focused on one of a few topics, such as recycling ("Tony Two-Liter Gets Recycled"), which is already overpublished. Some treat multicultural books as a topic, too; see my article, "Writing Multicultural Books for Children" for more guidance. There are only so many books that can be published on a particular "topic"--it's more important to write well about something you really care about, since hot topics cool off.

Hot Characters:
By "hot characters" I mean perennial favorites, perhaps given new twists. These include Santa, the Easter Bunny, or even characters from cartoons. There's no point in using copyrighted or trademarked characters, though because someone else controls them. Popular characters in the public domain aren't a problem in that sense, but it is in fact difficult to come up with a truly original approach to a familiar character. Even if you have, publishers think twice about books tied in to holidays. They may sell well, but only once a year.

Personified Objects:
This category ranges from the mundane (Clyde the Cloud who teaches you about the weather) to the bizarre (Harry the Horizon Line). Publishers get a lot of these simple picture book stories, all of them meant to teach something, either practical information or values. This kind of book may still be published by niche publishers, but general publishers just aren't interested, except for the very occasional one that does something very different. Is your story about Bob the Book so distinctive that you will hold the slush reader's attention past the first line? If you're not sure, drop this approach.

Messages:
One common way a story can go wrong is if the author is sending messages instead of telling a story: messages about manners; or respect for people different from oneself; or the joys of having a sibling, and so on. We all want children to feel better about this confusing world we live in, and to pass on the knowledge and insights that we have gained. Many manuscripts written with this motive, however, are dominated by the Lesson the writer wants to teach (which may even be stated at the end of the story, as if it were a fable), whether it is the importance of manners or our need for nutritious food.Such topics can be effective themes in a story, but only if the conflict and resolution are believable and entertaining, and only if the characters are engaging. They are not so effective if the characters are pushed around so that the writer can prove that having a new sister is wonderful. Ask yourself if you are telling a story or sending a message, and remember that politicians send messages--writers tell stories, whether they are writing fiction or nonfiction.

Anthropomorphized Alliterated Animals:
This includes Sally Squirrel, Carter Carp, and Billy the Bossy Beetle. A publisher may get hundreds of stories that fall into this category each year, as if a story is only a story for children if it has a talking animal with a cute name. Often, simply using human children works better in a story, since the AAAs behave neither like real animals nor like real children. Yes, children like picture books with animal characters, and they do get published, especially by mass market publishers (not the companies you can send your manuscript to, unfortunately) but unless you are using them in a truly distinctive way, use animal characters at your peril, as manuscript readers see far too many AAA stories.

Isn't ------- (insert name) cute?:
Authors writing about their own pets or children, or about grandparents who have wonderful relationships with their grandkids, feel that their stories are very meaningful. They are, to the family involved, but a non-related child reading them would find them as interesting as a slideshow on the neighbor's adorable twin's first trip to the beach.

Verse:

Many people will try to write like Dr. Seuss;
They try and they try, it just isn't much use.

As you could tell, I can't do it myself. Authors often ask plaintively at conferences why so many editors just say no to verse. It's not that we are prejudiced against rhyme--part of the reason we say "no" is that it's hard to tell a story in verse, and usually it sounds much worse than prose. Few authors can pull off consistent rhyming, or consistently inconsistent rhyming, in sentences that aren't twisted about to fit the rhyme and rhythm. Just as important, for our market--hardcover trade books--we usually need prose anyway. If you have an interest in verse, your target is mass market publishers. But their books are produced in-house or on commission. The sad truth is that the publishers who actually read submissions need little in the way of verse and get far too much of it. (If you feel driven to write rhyming picture books, click the link for an article on the subject with links to additional resources.)

Series:
Some people put a lot of time and effort into developing a whole series of picture books or novels, as in a proposal I once saw for 32 picture books about two brothers' adventures on a farm. Mass market publishers do publish series, but usually develop them with a packager or in-house; trade publishers like the companies I have worked for almost never sign up more than one book at a time. (Nonfiction can be an exception to this rule, by companies publishing for the library market). But for most nonfiction and fiction, put your energy into the best possible manuscript, not into planning a series. If you don't sell the first book, you certainly won't sell a series.

Genre novels:
This category includes formulaic middle grade mystery and adventure stories, YA romances, and other books that essentially derive from existing categories in mass market fiction like Nancy Drew stories or Goosebumps. Or they may be memoirs of teenage years written many years later. Even if competently written these won't hold the attention of the eager slush reader, who wants to find something different.

So, please avoid these types of stories if you want to catch the eye of a reader like me and get out of the slush pile.

As a practical matter, see the sidebar for what to include in a submission.

What to include in a submission
  • A copy of your properly formatted manuscript, not the original, with your name and address on it in case it gets separated from your SASE.
  • A SASE. Always, unless the publisher states in their guidelines that they do not return rejected submissions .
  • A brief cover letter. Stick to one page.
What not to include:
  • Illustrations, unless you are certain you are cut out to be an author/illustrator.
  • Colorful envelopes, fancy paper, etc.. This will only amuse the cynical reader, in the wrong way.
  • Express delivery or registered mail. These convey a hint of desperation.
  • Resume, unless your experience is truly relevant to the particular book.
  • Tapes, slides, CD-ROMs, etc.
  • Marketing plans and series ideas, except for submissions to library nonfiction publishers and the like. The manuscript is what counts.

All this, I know, is a bit depressing. I've been telling you what not to do. So what can you do to get out of the slush pile?
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What Works?!?

Doors seem to be closing at more and more publishers. How can a writer make sure that her or his manuscript is read?

Does an agent help?

Good, established agents get access to houses with closed doors--there's no question that that is true. But can you get one of these agents to represent you? Please read Agents for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for more information on agents.

Footnote: What about multiple submissions?

What about email and web sites?

With email and personal web sites a fact of everyday life, some writers have asked me if publishers are open to email submissions or will look at manuscripts displayed on web sites. The basic answer is no. Most publishers find handling physical mail easier and less intrusive than email. As a rule of thumb, if a publisher does not specifically give information about email submissions, or even email queries, do not assume they will accept them. Use the mail. Similarly, do not create a personal web site or join a manuscript display site in the hope that publishers will find a manuscript on the web. Editors are mostly quite web-savvy but do not go out looking for manuscripts in this way. They are getting plenty of submissions the old-fashioned way.

What does work: Recommended approaches

So how can you get out of the slush pile? There is no 100% guaranteed sure-fire way, and even if you do get out of the slush pile you may not get published. But here are some things you can do that can help your manuscript get read:

1. It may help to address your submission to a particular editor, if you have made a real contact with someone, either through an encouraging letter or through meeting him/her at a conference, so that they are likely to remember your name.

If you write to someone who does not know you, the manuscript most likely still goes into the slush, especially if addressed to the head of the imprint or other senior staff. There it will be read by a manuscript reader. This is not a bad thing. Often, the manuscript readers are the junior staff at a big house, the ones who are seeking new authors. So if you don't know someone, why pretend you do? Just let the manuscript go straight to the manuscript reader. Above all, do not phone and ask for names. Even if you do get a name you'll just end up in the slush again, perhaps after a pause of weeks or longer before the editor skims through his or her mail and concludes they don't actually know you. For more on this, read Editor's Names on Manuscript Submissions. Once your manuscript lands on an editor's desk, you need to make sure they read it, so....

2. Get their attention with your cover letter, which should be no longer than half a page, or it won't be read to the end. If you have a fiction manuscript, tell the editor what excites you about it. Give them a reason to read on, but not by comparing your manuscript to Dr. Seuss or other names. Make clear to your reader that you have something unique for them, not just (for example) another competently written chapter book on the familiar theme of a conflict with a friend. Can you imagine your hoped-for editor proudly presenting your book to a skeptical group of executives for their approval, using your comments as support? If not, you aren't writing a strong enough cover letter.

In nonfiction, if your book fits an underpopulated niche, trumpet that fact in your cover letter. If you are writing something that you believe is unlike anything published, be sure to check Children's Books in Print, other reference guides, and the amazing memory of your children's librarian. Or do you have a new angle on a familiar subject? Say so, and show how your manuscript is different. This will get the reader's attention not only because he or she is looking for something new, but because you will have demonstrated an unusual degree of savvy. This approach works best in nonfiction, but may help also with picture books and older fiction. Reading the major review magazines--Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly--can help, and PW is particularly useful for news of publishers, gossip, trends, etc. (Writing cover letters is an art, so for more information read Jacqueline K. Ogburn's guide to cover and query letters). Be sure to stay out of the "topic" book trap and...

3. Do your market research. Try submitting your manuscript to lesser-known publishers and other forms of publishing, not only relatively new companies like SourceBooks or Egmont, since they almost immediately get as swamped as anyone, but also regional, niche, magazine, and specialty publishers. For every well-known major publisher, there are dozens of lesser-known ones. You could call these the minor leagues, but don't scorn them. At such publishers, you can gain valuable experience working with an editor and also start to build a track record. I know I pay more attention to someone if they have been published in such a way; it shows the author is realistic and committed to their writing career, not just seeking an immediate payoff at a big name publisher.

Send away for catalogues to those publishers who will send them for a SASE, or research their books online. Keep track of what houses are looking at unsolicited manuscripts. About half of the members of the Children's Book Council do not, and submitting a manuscript to such publishers without a personal contact is a waste of time. The online version of the CBC Member's List notes current submission requirements for those publishers who supplied the information. This is a useful resource to use together with Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, which is the standard market guide, and potentially a huge time-saver for you. But don't spend too much time on submissions. What you really need to do is....

4. Work on the manuscript. Then, work on the manuscript some more. When you think you are finished, go back and work on the manuscript. Be tough on yourself. Many manuscripts that publishers get seem not to have been revised, critiqued, or rethought in any way--taking part in writer's workshops or local writing classes is thus a very good idea. Seek feedback from professionals in the field, not friends, or family, or companies who charge you to publish them. And don't be afraid to take risks.

The best way to get out of the slush pile is to write what you are passionate about, and then try to find an editor who shares your passion. Strive to get beyond competence to something only you can write about in a particular way. After all, if you aren't passionate about your writing, there's simply no reason to be in this field. There's no guarantee that you will get out of the slush pile, and even if you do you aren't likely to get rich from your writing. So it helps if you get something out of the writing itself.

In the end, the manuscript has to speak for itself. There is no magic formula beyond that, no way to make sure that your manuscript will be read and published. You can't control everything. All you can do adds up to this: send your polished manuscript with SASE and a letter pointing out its unique qualities to the Submissions Editor of a particular children's imprint that you know publishes the kind of book you have written, keep records, and follow up.

Read The Acquisitions Process for information about what happens next.

Good luck in your efforts. Luck is another thing that helps....

Copyright © 1995-1999, 2005, and 2009 by Harold D. Underdown.

Feedback and questions appreciated. Contact me and I will do my best to answer them or point you to the right resource.

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Footnotes:

Targeting vs. multiple submissions:

Multiple submissions may seem like the way to get your manuscript out there, but too often authors use multiple submissions as a way of not doing research--I've read thousands of unsolicited manuscripts for various publishers, and the ones identified as multiple submissions are almost invariably badly targeted. And this is not just my observation: not too long ago, Franklin Watts closed their doors not only to submissions but to queries as well. Why? Because this non-fiction publisher was being flooded with picture book submissions, which they do not publish.

Another reason not to multiply submit: As a manuscript reader, I know I pay more attention to a manuscript if the author shows in their cover letter that they know what kind of books my company publishes, and has reasons for sending us this particular manuscript. I pay less attention to multiply submitted manuscripts, because I want to work with an author who has chosen my company with some care and thought.

So save time and postage by targeting only a few publishers. Submit to them one at a time, and notify them that if they take too long (you decide how long that is) you will submit to another house. This procedure works better and is in your self-interest. As more and more publishers get overwhelmed, more doors will close. There may be ways around those closed doors, as I suggest, but we are all better off if you avoid multiple submissions.

Back to the article.

What does getting out of the slush pile mean?

Consider first what it means to be in the slush pile. If your manuscripts are going into the slush pile, they are often sitting for months before they are read, and when they are, you may only get a form response. Often there is no way around the slush pile, at least on first contact with a publisher. But if you write well, and take the advice I give here, you can hope to get a personal response from an editor, who you can then write to with the expectation that you will now not end up in the pile. And that means that your manuscript will go straight to that editor, who will write to you again, and with luck and persistence, and perhaps years of work, you may end up with a contract from that publisher. Getting out of the slush pile is a first step, then, but an important one.

One thing you should not expect is a faster response time. Some companies get their slush rejections out promptly, while you can wait months to hear from an editor who has expressed interest in seeing more of your work when you send him or her your newest story. It takes time to write a thoughtful letter, and writing thoughtful letters is the first thing to be put aside when an editor gets busy.

Back to the article.