Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Morning Light--by Walter Elmer Schofield --1866 - 1944 Helen Ginger on her excellent blog, Straight from Hel which follows and reports publishing news and trends, linked to a story in the venerable Wall Street Journal that proclaimed the death of the slush pile.

Although the story, if true, would give every agent and editor in the business cause to celebrate (can you imagine wading through such an enormous number of submissions?), I think that rumors of the slush pile’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

As recently as early last year, I was a slush pile girl myself. And it worked out pretty well for me.

I started out with a very small Southern publisher for my first book, A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box in 2006.

Wanting to try my luck in the Big Leagues, I started researching. I decided trying out with the Medium Leagues made the best sense. Midnight Ink, a well-respected mystery subsidiary of Llewellyn Worldwide, was accepting manuscripts. Amazingly enough (at the time), they wanted full manuscripts. I read this part several times. Full manuscripts. Mailed to them. This was unbelievable enough to give it a go. Plus, I respected the award-winning mystery authors who were published by them.

I took an online course on synopses (MI did want a one-page synopsis along with the full.) I tore up a bunch of synopses but finally got one I thought would work. I mailed it off…the synopsis and the huge sheaf of papers that made up Pretty is as Pretty Dies, single-sided.

I believe in covering my bases. I sent cover letters and synopses or queries to other publishers for the manuscript—including Penguin’s Berkley Prime Crime.

I sent queries to agents (mainly online queries, but probably ten mailed ones.) I was rejected a bazillion times.

Months later? Many months later? I found out that Midnight Ink wanted Pretty. I was delighted! They had a great plan for marketing, cover, etc.

I continued receiving rejections for Pretty from other publishers. No one else asked for a full, so I didn’t tell anyone that the manuscript was off the table.

I queried agents again.

More rejections from agents—even with the contract in hand.

I read on blogs—particularly Pub Rants—(thanks, Kristin!) how to negotiate a boilerplate contract. I counter-offered and did the best I could under the circumstances. It worked out well.

Roughly a month after negotiating my contract with Midnight Ink, I heard from my current agent. The system just takes a long time, y’all. They’re all inundated with emails and mail.

My Midnight Ink editor and I were about two months into revisions when I heard from Penguin. Pretty is as Pretty Dies had, being an unsolicited manuscript, gone into the slush pile. What’s worse? The editor that I had sent my original query and first 30 pages to had left Penguin at the time my email arrived at their office.

The other editors had taken on that editor’s slush pile, working through hers as well as their own.

Months later? They’d discovered Pretty—and were interested. After some quick checking, they’d found the Publisher’s Weekly blurb saying that Midnight Ink had it under contract.

Amazingly, this editor emailed me to congratulate me on my deal with Midnight Ink and to say that they were sorry they couldn’t have published it at Penguin.

I was absolutely stunned. Could I pitch them another series? I asked. I’d come up with one soon. I loved working with Midnight Ink—and it would be great to work with Penguin too.

At that moment? I had no series ideas at all. I was caught completely off-guard.

But they were interested in a series based in Memphis. An epicurean mystery with a Southern accent. I could submit the first three chapters and they’d see if my vision for such a series would work out.

It did work out. And thankfully I had my excellent agent helping to guide me through the waters this time.

But neither series was pitched to them by my agent. Both got to my editors through the slush pile. In both 2008 and 2009. My process of being pulled out of it reflected a tremendous amount of luck in the form of timing. I hope it also reflects the amount of research and effort I put into it…despite the rejections I received. Perseverance goes a long way with writing.

I know what the Wall Street Journal is getting at. It’s a tough world out there. Publishers aren’t able to hire the manpower to wade through the slush. Agents are facing layoffs at their agencies, too.

But there’s still slush. And there are still folks out there reading it. God bless them.


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