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 very 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!
Shelly 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.