Much maligned, much feared, much sneered at, the slush pile is a repository of hopes and dreams for the authors who populate it, and a Herculean and Sisyphean task for those charged with making the pile go away to make way for the deluge still to come. The slush is full of half-baked ideas, the truly out-there, the very occasional undiscovered gems, but mostly good-solid efforts by perfectly respectable writers, who are up against simple math that simply isn't in their favor: maybe one in a thousand, if that, make it from slush pile to publication with a major publisher, and the odds are getting steeper by the day.
And yet with the transition to e-books, the slush pile could very well be one of the print-era relics swept out in the digital tide. When publishing one's book is as simple as uploading a document to an e-bookstore, who needs someone to sort through all those manuscripts to decide which ones should be published?
Writing in Salon, Laura Miller wrote a cautionary article about the literary consequences if everyone can easily become a published author, and she had harsh words about the slush pile, while respecting its importance:
You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven't seen the vast majority of what didn't get published -- and believe me, if you have, it's enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.
Needless to say I don't share Miller's fear about releasing the slush into the wild for the reading public to sort out, but I definitely agree with her on one count: the world is divided between those who have read slush and those who haven't.
If you haven't been exposed to the constant fire hose of submissions, if you haven't had to spend afternoons rendering instant value judgments on short summaries of magnum opuses, and developed the ability to instantly tell good writing from bad: well, you're missing out.
If you're a writer, in my opinion there's no better education than reading slush.
Reading slush, of all kinds, trains you to spot what works and what doesn't. It forces you to spot clues that will instantly tip you off to whether a manuscript is working or not, and even better/worse, you'll start spotting them in your own writing. And when a terrifically written book comes along and sucks you in you'll appreciate it that much more, knowing just how rare they are.
Maybe most importantly: reading slush reminds you that publishing is a business.
While I don't know anyone who thinks any slush pile-based sorting process is perfect and surely there are gems lost along the way, any book that makes it through represents the collective seal of approval of quite a few people in the publishing chain.
At least...... it does now. Soon, we could very well have a world where the slush pile is sourced out to readers themselves, who will likely turn to tastemakers and trusted publishers and brands to find the books they are interested in reading.
I by no means think the slush pile will go away entirely - anywhere there's a bottleneck and a tastemaker there will be slush - but it could lose its primacy in the author's (and agent's) life. Instead of the agents being the first line of defense, slush will become more diffuse among different and varied people, and will be less of the place where a book's ultimate fate is decided.
And if you're a writer, I say: read it while you can.