I used to work at a Major New York Publisher (all right: it was Tor Books). First, I worked in production, then as the Publisher’s Assistant. Both jobs were fast-paced, chaotic, exhausting. Sometimes I needed a break.
Those were the days I’d take a manuscript from the Slush Pile.
Slush manuscripts are the unsolicited manuscripts that are received every day at a publisher. At that time at Tor, if memory serves, we got from 5 to 20 a day (the sheer volume of slush goes a long way to explaining the response time at most publishers). And most of them were, I am sad to say, execrable. Not just bad, but outstandingly bad in a variety of ways. There were the manuscripts for which the author sent teasers (MY BOOK IS COMING! WATCH THE SKIES! HOOPLA!); there were the books that included blurbs from the author’s barber or barista or cable repair person; there were the books that, to draw attention to themselves, were printed in purple ink on yellow paper and tied with ribbons; there were books that came with boxes of cookies.
Clearly, the first lesson is: don’t do any of these things. In fact, most How-Tos will explicitly tell you: white paper, good margins, black ink, double spaced, etc. Short, smart cover letter. No bribes.
But even the manuscripts that looked reasonable were often startlingly bad. Not just in the mechanics of spelling or grammar. The larger issues of plot and character and style were a mess. And derivative? Seen it all before? Oy.
So the second lesson is: write a good book. That’s the simplest instruction I can give you in terms of getting out of the slush pile. Because there is not more joy in Heaven at the redemption of one lost soul than there is in the hallways of editorial when a reader finds a book worth championing.
Of course everyone believes that his or her book is good, right? I don’t want to give particular examples of this wrongheadedness; that’s not kind. So the best thing I can tell you is: get people you trust to read your work before you send it in. You don’t have to be in a workshop, but you do have to have readers who read. The kind of people who come out of a movie telling you, not just that they liked or didn’t like it, but why.
As fabulous as it is for your ego, what you don’t want for your your first readers is people who are awed that you wrote a book at all. You want readers who like you enough to make sure you don’t go out in public with your slip showing. And when those caring people give you feedback, consider it. Let your readers help you make it a better book. It may be your ticket out of the slushpile.