Posted On April 17, 2013 by Print This Post

How to Survive and Thrive in the Publishing House Slush Pile with Shelly Ellis

The slush pile can be a frustrating place to be at times, especially if you can’t seem to get out of it. Shelly Ellis gives us classic, back-to-basics advice on how to survive between submission and sale.

How to Survive and Thrive in the Publishing House Slush Pile

Hi, everyone, and thanks for having me back at Romance University!

Awhile ago, I read on an agent blog that the publishing house slush pile is the author photo4very worst place that a newbie author can find themselves. “Whatever you do,” the agent warned, “avoid ending up there.” I can understand his advice; the house slush pile does have a bad reputation. First of all, very few big houses still accept unsolicited submissions and for many of those publishers that do, searching the pile for new talent seems to be low on the priority totem pole. In fact, one editor who I follow on Twitter — Peter Senftleben of Kensington Publishing Inc. — was candid when he described how low it ranked.

“OK, everyone needs to realize my reading priorities go: contracted ms > option material > agented subs > non-agented subs. #pubtip,” he wrote back in February.

There are exceptions, of course, like many digital-first publishers that encourage unsolicited submissions. But for those of us who don’t have an agent and would love to get our work out there, the bad rep the slush pile gets can make one feel like the proverbial redheaded stepchild. Thankfully, I’m happy to report there is hope among the slush!

Every book contract I’ve had, regardless of the publisher, beginning with my first anthology in 2000 to my current three-book series, has been from rolling the dice with the house slush pile. By analyzing what worked and what didn’t, I discovered the method I used with editors was virtually the same approach I used when pitching to an agent — with a slight difference. This is purely anecdotal, but here’s a list of tips for how to survive and thrive in the house slush pile.

Do Your Research

Before submitting to any publisher, I not only look at the house’s web site, but I also read the first chapters of several books under its imprints and purchase a few to get a feel for their style. Do they gravitate towards spicy, serious, or humorous stories? What’s the sex level of most of their romances: sweet or erotic? Some houses like Harlequin make it easy, giving a detailed description on their submissions page of what each imprint is seeking. For other publishers, you have to do a lot more footwork.

I scan the acknowledgements page in novels to see what editor worked with what author. From there, I figure out the editor I plan to submit my manuscript. (On a side note: I find assistant editors are better at responding to submissions than senior and executive editors.) Then I shamelessly and stealthily stalk these editors, reading their blogs, interviews, and following them on Twitter, seeing if they can give more insight into what they’re looking for. This process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months, but it is well worth the effort.

Be Professional and Polite at All Times

This seems like a “well, duh” tip, but I think more writers skip this step than you would believe. Spell the editor’s name correctly in your query. Properly format your partials and full manuscripts. And now is not the time to be too aggressive, overly quirky, or even funny. Let your personality and talent shine through your work, and don’t try to cram it into your query letter or your face-to-face meeting. Also, trying to pitch editors and agents—unless explicitly asked—on Facebook and Twitter is a big no-no.

Ask for Feedback and Listen Very Carefully

I’ll be honest. I’ve messed up this one, and afterward I resolved never to do it again. I pitched one mid-sized publisher two years ago and was surprised when one of the editors responded 10 weeks later. She said she liked my manuscript but wanted me to revise and resubmit. Her email was very brief, maybe two to three sentences. I was so excited that I made the revisions I thought she wanted and sent her the modified manuscript a week later. A month or so later, I received a rejection on the revised manuscript with a note of “Sorry. Not really what I was looking for.”

In retrospect, it probably would have been better to ask for just a little more feedback. Why I thought it would have blown my chances by asking her this question is beyond me. Instead, I blew my chances by not seeking the proper feedback and following it.

Remember the Two P’s: Persistence and Patience

The submission process is a fine balance between patience and persistence. It’s taken me a month to receive a response from an editor and almost a full year to hear from another. I’ve had to figure out when was right time to follow up with a polite inquiry. It varies according to the publisher, especially if they have estimated response times listed on their sites. When I do follow up with an inquiry of the status of my manuscript, I try to give the editor an update. “I’m making progress on the second book in the series… I’ve recently received a good review on RT Book Reviews.” Something to let them know, “Hey, I’m working and I’m improving while I’m waiting.”

Make It Easy for Them to Say Yes, Not No

My current editor told me one of the reasons why she chose my work out of the hundreds of submissions wasn’t just because she liked my novel, but “because you made it easy for me.” She said the manuscripts for the series fit what she was looking for and were so clean that she only had a few suggested changes. Based on the work I had already shown her, she was fairly confident I could make the revisions she wanted. She also liked that I had the synopsis for the follow-up novels prepared.

This goes back to doing your research and being professional. Editors have enough to do in their day-to-day jobs, and will have to face an uphill battle pitching your work to the other editors, the publisher’s sales team, etc. Make the editor’s job easier by presenting him or her with the best, most comprehensive product possible.


Do you have any tips for surviving the pile? Do you have any questions on how to keep treading water while you wait?

Heather Webb joins us on Friday – don’t miss it!



CANT STAND THE HEAT coverShelly Ellis began her romance writing career when she became one of four finalists in a First-Time Writers Contest at 19 years old. The prize was having her first short-story romance appear in an anthology. Since then she has published short stories, a few books, and was chosen as a finalist for a 2012 African American Literary Award. Her latest release — Can’t Stand the Heat (May 2013), the first novel in her Gibbons Gold Digger women’s fiction series — received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

When she isn’t writing novels or working at her day job as a magazine editor, she and her hubby are preparing for her little girl who is due any day now.

Visit her at her web site , on Facebook, and on Twitter at @ellisromance.

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19 Responses to “How to Survive and Thrive in the Publishing House Slush Pile with Shelly Ellis”

  1. Loved this Article, I’m going to post it to Romance Writers Australia as well as read it again when it comes time to pitch my own novel in the next couple of months.

    Thanks for your words of wisdom Shelly!

    Posted by Annalise Cutajar | April 17, 2013, 12:23 am
  2. Great article, thanks for sharing, Shelly. However, the red-headed stepchild comment is offensive and bigoted. I’m sure you don’t mean to offend – is there any chance you’d be willing to remove it? Thanks so much.

    Posted by Donna South | April 17, 2013, 3:30 am
    • I by no means meant to to offend anyone with that statement and certainly not to come off as bigoted. I apologize if anyone took offense to that statement and hope the bulk of what I was trying to stay still came across.

      Posted by Shelly | April 17, 2013, 4:52 pm
  3. Hi Shelly,

    The slush pile is the wasteland, but something to wade through carefully. I scan targeted websites weekly looking for an in.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | April 17, 2013, 6:59 am
  4. Hi Shelly – thanks for being with us today! How do you compile your info? Spreadsheets? Word tables – so that you keep track of the stuff you find on research?


    Posted by Robin Covington | April 17, 2013, 3:56 pm
    • Unfortunately, I’m not that organized but its more mental notes associated with each editor. I try to keep previous email exchanges (whether its an acceptance or rejection) so I can note their preferences.

      Posted by Shelly | April 18, 2013, 5:12 pm
  5. Hi everyone and thanks for commenting. I apologize for being unable to respond to questions and comments. I gave birth yesterday and am now stuck at the hospital! Thank you for commenting.

    Posted by Shelly | April 17, 2013, 4:29 pm
  6. UPDATE – Shelly just emailed me that she had her baby today and is at the hospital!

    So . . . . Congrats!

    This is now an official baby shower – feel free to offer your congrats!


    Posted by Robin Covington | April 17, 2013, 4:52 pm
  7. Shelly,

    Thanks so much for posting your experiences!

    It’s a series of frustrating moments when it comes to having our writings accepted by the powers that (supposedly) be. 🙂

    And major congrats on your newborn. So much life ahead of you and your child is in the best of hands.


    Posted by HH | April 17, 2013, 5:34 pm
  8. Hi Shelly,

    I can’t imagine querying an editor via FB, but I’m sure it’s happened. Thanks for sharing your slush pile experience with us. You made a valid point about being professional.

    A big congratulations on the new addition to your family! You have the honor of being our first Visiting Professor commenting from the maternity ward. Great to have you with us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 17, 2013, 5:57 pm
  9. Shelly,

    Congratulations on your new arrival!

    Thanks for a great post and the time you took to share your experience so close to D-day!

    Looking forward to your next when you are back in the saddle!


    Posted by Cia | April 17, 2013, 6:00 pm
  10. Congratulations on your new baby, Shelly! I live in babyland, myself, which is why I’m late posting today. I’ve had my grandbaby here all day!

    Boy or girl? Either way, I wish you and your family bouquets of good wishes!

    Thanks for a great post, too!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 17, 2013, 6:16 pm
  11. Congratulations Shelly!

    Great article and a great day for you and your baby. So happy for you, and yes, you definitely have the distinction of being our first VP in maternity …lol…best wishes!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 17, 2013, 10:08 pm
  12. Thanks so much for the congrats, everyone! 🙂

    Posted by Shelly | April 18, 2013, 10:55 am
  13. I’m a former acquisitions editor and this great advice. Research is so important, and I found that many of the agents who sent me queries didn’t know the first thing about the publishers I worked for. It’s just like a cover letter for a job…if you don’t show that you know something about the company and how you’re a good fit, you’re less likely to get noticed. Thanks!

    Posted by Wolf Hoelscher | April 19, 2013, 12:08 pm

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