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The Death of the Slush Pile

8 February 2011

This January 22, 2010, article in the Wall Street Journal caused a great many online discussions and disputes among agents, publishers and publishing observers.  Oh, and Stephenie Meyer?  She was a mistake.

Excerpts:

In 1991, a book editor at Random House pulled from the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts a novel about a murder that roils a Baltimore suburb. Written by a first-time author and mother named Mary Cahill, “Carpool” was published to fanfare. Ms. Cahill was interviewed on the “Today” show. “Carpool” was a best seller.

That was the last time Random House, the largest publisher in the U.S., remembers publishing anything found in a slush pile. Today, Random House and most of its major counterparts refuse to accept unsolicited material.

. . . .

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won’t read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

. . . .

As writers try to find an agent—a feat harder than ever to accomplish in the wake of agency consolidations and layoffs—the slush pile has been transferred from the floor of the editor’s office to the attaché cases of representatives who can broker introductions to publishing, TV and film executives. The result is a shift in taste-making power onto such agents, managers and attorneys. Theirs are now often the first eyes to make a call on what material will land on bookshelves, television sets and movie screen.

Still, discoveries do happen at agencies, including the biggest publishing franchise since “Harry Potter”—even though it basically took a mistake to come together. In 2003, an unknown writer named Stephenie Meyer sent a letter to the Writers House agency asking if someone might be interested in reading a 130,000-word manuscript about teenage vampires. The letter should have been thrown out: an assistant whose job, in part, was to weed through the more than 100 such letters each month, didn’t realize that agents mostly expected young adult fiction to weigh in at 40,000 to 60,000 words. She contacted Ms. Meyer and ultimately asked that she send her manuscript.

. . . .

Book publishers say it is now too expensive to pay employees to read slush that rarely is worthy of publication. At Simon & Schuster, an automated telephone greeting instructs aspiring writers: “Simon & Schuster requires submissions to come to us via a literary agent due to the large volume of submissions we receive each day. Agents are listed in ‘Literary Marketplace,’ a reference work published by R.R. Bowker that can be found in most libraries.” Company spokesman Adam Rothberg says the death of the publisher’s slush pile accelerated after the terror attacks of 9/11 by fear of anthrax in the mail room.

A primary aim of the slush pile used to be to discover unpublished voices. But today, writing talent isn’t necessarily enough. It helps to have a big-media affiliation, or be effective on TV. “We are being more selective in taking on clients because the publishers are demanding much more from the authors than ever before,” says Laurence J. Kirshbaum, former CEO of Time Warner Book Group and now an agent. “From a publisher’s standpoint, the marketing considerations, especially on non-fiction, now often outweigh the editorial ones.”

Link to The Wall Street Journal (Note: This link may expire at some future time)

Agents, Big Publishing