In praise of reading slush

by | Jul 20, 2010 | Literary Agents | 119 comments

Amid news from Amazon that another domino has fallen in our inevitable (yes… inevitable) conversion to a primarily e-book reading society, there is one relic of the print publishing process that could very well end up falling by the wayside: the slush pile.

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.

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  1. The Invisible Writer

    So what will happen? If every slush-pile rejection will be listed as an e-book, what will be the filter for readers to find the next must-read?

  2. Sara Samarasinghe

    Interesting article! Thank you for posting this!

    I agree with the mention of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer … so much of that type of criticism has been going around, and it definitely connects to this!


  3. Nathan Bransford

    invisible writer-

    That world already exists – there are hundreds of thousands of books out there. So how did you find the book you're reading now?

  4. Sara Samarasinghe

    Invisible Writer – I think it's just a matter of chance and popularity. Also, self-publishing has made that world real on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other sites.

  5. IsaiahC

    I'm totally down with throwing on my boots and slumming it in the slush pile for a day or so, to learn what crap looks like. But…how? Any good tips on how to find really crappy writing? (And no, pasting my blog address back as a reply is not well received humor)

  6. Steven Brandt

    You advocate reading slush–but how can we do it? I'm part of a critique group, but I don't think that counts.

  7. Katie Alender

    The gatekeeping process may have to reinvent itself, but it will never cease to exist. After what may be an initial onslaught, readers will go looking for people to sift through the waves of material for them; these people will put their names on the books they're willing to stand for and be editors. Quickly, the editors will be inundated with material, and they'll want gatekeepers for themselves, who will be agents. And so it goes. With flexibility to allow for more maverick approaches. Purple cows or whatever. But it's like they say–when all the cows are purple, there's nothing so great about being a purple cow.

  8. Katie Alender

    Sentence fragments. Also the wave of the future.

  9. Nathan Bransford

    Ways of finding slush to read:

    – Interning or reading for an agency or publisher (CBSF isn't hiring, but there are always positions available).
    – Volunteering for or running a literary journal or online magazine.
    – Participating in and offering feedback for an online critique site like Authonomy.
    – Offering feedback for other writers in discussion forums like the ones on this site.

  10. Masonian

    Yowzah! I'd better sign on to read some slush… er… well. Maybe I'll just stick to freelance editing, or, pre-slush.

    It will be interesting to see what other collateral damage there is in the wake of this present transition.

    Though in the short-story niche slush sure doesn't seem to be going away.

  11. Anonymous

    Seriously, the idea that readers will in the future want to spend their time sorting through the slush pile for themselves seems crazy.

    An increasingly connected world means too much information and not enough time, and the only way to navigate it is filters. Whether those are agents and publishers or something else, someone out there is going to be doing the equivalent of reading the slush pile and sorting out what's worthwhile from what isn't. The fact that a chunk of that slush pile is already "published" won't change that.

  12. Nathan Bransford


    I agree. I think the slush will just be more diffuse instead of sitting on an agent's desk.

  13. sex scenes at starbucks,

    I cannot agree more on the slushpile. After 5 years of constant submissions to my magazine, I've read literally hundreds of short stories and I'd be hard pressed to find anything as effective as analyzing slush for training a writer. Isaiah, I'd recommend reading for a year. That way you get a full grasp of how odd trends come across your desk, what works and what doesn't, and the true nature of the slush reader: exhausted, jaded, and yet still panning for gold. Because seriously, nothing makes an editor's heart race like finding that gem after a couple of weeks of reading less shiny pieces of prose.

    I also do a lot of critting, which isn't quite the same thing. In critique, you're trying to make the piece better. With editing it's a pass/fail grade.

  14. Hillary Jacques

    Great post, Nathan!

    I know for a fact that my own queries got better after critiquing on a couple of sites, as a result of reading both good and bad examples, in addition to feedback.

  15. MissMystra

    Call me crazy, but this is actually one of the reasons I want to get a publishing internship. I would love to go through the slush pile in search of worthwhile writing. I'm sure I'd tire of it eventually, but I'd love to give it a shot! Unfortunately, I've applied for two years in a row for internships and it's just a really competitive field.

    Great post, though!

  16. The Invisible Writer

    I find books mainly via WOM, but that's from people I trust looking through the 250,000 new books a year. If there are 10,000,000 new books a year that mainly should have stayed on someone's home computer . . . ?

    I agree with Katie that some new gatekeeping system will come into play. Some kind of reviewer recommendation system will invent itself.

  17. Anonymous

    How is this going to impact the English Language?

  18. Stu Pitt

    Not sure what is meant by gatekeepers and tastemakers, but I hope quality critics give ebooks a shot.

    If Alan Cheuse or Michael Dirda says an ebook is good I'll buy it. Until then I'll keep buying the normal books they praise.

  19. BuffySquirrel

    Åcting as a slush reader whenever I want to buy a book is not a prospect I relish, given I already spend much of my days reading slush for a lit mag. That's given me a pretty good idea of how much dross there is whose authors nonetheless consider it worthy of publication. Slush-reading is horrendously time-consuming, even though you do get good at first-paragraph and even first-line rejections, and it's definitely not something I'd do in pursuit of fun.

    I find it hard enough now to find a decent book amongst all those published every year. Hence the book I'm reading now is a trashy novel from my dad's bookshelf; I felt like some brain candy and I knew this particular author wouldn't disappoint.

    More and more, though, I'm reading non-fiction. Even if the writing isn't always stellar, at least I can choose a book on the basis of subject matter in which I'm interested. This move away from fiction is, for me at least, almost entirely motivated by the difficulty of finding a novel that's worth the £7.99 to £8.99 I'll be expected to pay for it, and/or the time I spend reading it before I give up.

    I confess I'm also getting very tired of being told how I'll buy and/or read books in the future. I'm the customer! Surely I should get a say?

  20. Tina Hunter

    There are lots of small presses out there that are looking for volunteer slush pile readers. You just have to look for the opportunities.

    I, for one, have read slush and it was a truly eye opening experience…

    But I think I have to disagree with you Nathan. There will always be people who want to act as a filter for others (in my eyes thats a good thing) and for these people slush is inevitable. Now, that doesn't stop the rejected folks from self publishing but perhaps we will all start looking at the publishers name as a means of determining quality.

  21. Nathan Bransford


    Vote with your dollars, definitely. But again, I think people are underestimating the extent to which this world-of-slush is already here, particularly if you buy books online. There is already, literally, a million books to choose from and we manage to find the ones we want.

  22. Carl Grimsman

    I feel like I am getting exposure to slush — what a harsh word — reading the torrent of first pages and queries on your forum's Town Hall, from people hoping to get picked for a Monday critique. A good learning experience, for sure. Over 300 pages and 125 queries so far, that's, what, two day's email for you?

  23. D.J. Morel

    I don't understand why so many seem to think that the average reader will be buried inslush. Readers only ever look at books that they've heard about, that's the most important step. Not hearing about a book eliminates more than 99% of what's traditionally published today for all but the most avid readers (1% = about 2,800 books).

    If the number of books that are published grows, the number we hear about isn't going to change much. It's already at capacity, and even though I might consider a few hundred books before picking up the next one, I never have a problem finding something good to read. Just the opposite. There are tons of fantastic books out there, way too little time to read them.

    That kind of begs the question as to why anyone would want to write a book, when there is already so much brilliant material written… but that's a whole other ball of wax.

  24. Mark Terry

    Couple thoughts.

    1. Stephen King's "Carrie" was pulled out of the slush.

    2. I haven't read slush, but I've read a number of manuscripts or partials as part of mentoring programs or for friends or friends of friends. God knows there's some bad–really, really bad–writing out there, but there's also some stuff where you just have to cock an eyebrow and go, "Well, there's some talent and they're coherent, but they're just not ready yet."

    The stuff doesn't quite work.

  25. Livia

    It's really refreshing to read your opinions Nathan. I do appreciate what all the slush readers in the current industry do, but it's nice to see someone in the industry who's open to the idea that other slush sorting systems might be able to take the place of the current system. I'm a bit weary of the "poor uneducated public who's forced to drown under bad writing if there's no one to help them" scenario.

    I have a bit more faith in the intelligence of the crowd/hive mind. If a colony of ants can calculate optimal paths to food just by wandering around aimlessly, then several million humans on the internet should be able to find good books.

  26. Mary McDonald

    I participated in Authonomy and WEbooks…does that count?

  27. Dan

    Miller's fear is not that technology will allow the denizens of the slushpile to disseminate their work. As you point out, they can already do that and have been doing it for years.

    The problem is that e-books could tear down the institutions that identify the gems among the slush; bookstores and publishers and agents. If e-books continue geometric growth in market share, bookstores are gone. If you cut book sales in half, stores will no longer earn enough to pay staff or rent.

    If bookstores disappear, publishers cannot continue to exist in anything like their current form. Nationwide bookstore distribution is the key service publishers offer authors that isn't available elsewhere. If the bookstores die, publishers become near obsolete; their sales mechanism isn't structured to work in a marketplace where online vendors are the only accounts.

    Unless they can find a way to differentiate their product from the slush on Amazon, they're not going to survive in an e-book world, just as major record labels have really been laid low by the death of record stores.

    In the current structure, authors who do good work differentiate from the slushpile through a very simple mechanism; they submit to agents and agents sift out the best stuff, and then the agents submit it to publishers, who sift it again.

    If that infrastructure collapses, authors will be kicked into a world where they have to self-publish their work and try to connect with readers entirely on their own.

    Most media consumers aren't interested in searching for the rare gems among thousands of amateur submissions. People defer to expert opinion, whether it's listening to whatever music the radio DJs are playing, or buying the books that are on the front table at Barnes and Noble.

    It's likely that, in such an environment, a new tastemaker will emerge, possibly the Amazon "top reviewers." I kind of doubt their reign will be an improvement.

    I suspect, instead of being paid advances in a post-bookstore world, authors will have to pay for freelance editorial, freelance marketing and publicity and freelance cover design. They'll probably have to bribe amazon reviewers under the table, or spend a lot of time working out deals to swap positive reviews to juice their ratings. Then, in most cases, they'll still get no sales.

    This situation is not an improvement for anyone except authors who would self-publish currently. I still think Amazon is using the most favorable metrics to exaggerate its e-book numbers, but if Shatzkin and his crew are right about the growth of this market and the shrinking of traditional books, then publishing is going to get ugly.

  28. Other Lisa

    I have to wonder, a little, about the Amazon announcement, since they have held actual sales figures for books on Kindle pretty close to the vest, right?

    Also in the NYT article: hardcover sales are up this year too, "22 percent this year."

    This is good news.

    From my own recent experience in the land of eBooks (I got all the aps on my iPhone), I wonder if what might happen is, rather than an out-and-out takeover of paper/HC market share, that eBooks might expand the market for books in general (call me an optimist). I think with eBooks being less expensive and so instantly accessible, that maybe people will just buy more books. That seems to be what I'm doing.

    Gotta say, though reading on the iPhone isn't bad (and would definitely do in a pinch), I don't like it as much as reading a paper book. I don't think I really retain the information as well, I feel more like I'm skimming part of the time. It's funny, because I read MS on my laptop screen all the time and feel very comfortable with that.

    I haven't really seen books on the iPad yet but am wondering if there's something to the eInk idea and a stand-alone reader, because the iPhone definitely was a strain after a while.

    And. Slush. Yeah. "Agent for a Day" was enough to make my poor head explode…

  29. aimeestates

    I've never read slush, but I've learned loads from critiquing. Some of it's been painful, to say the least. But even published authors write drivel–I've read some first drafts that were later scrubbed into gems, and I'm glad I was included in the process so I could see the reality of it. I've certainly taken my attitudes down a peg and you won't catch me making those snide remarks about Brown or Meyer anymore, regardless of my opinions about any individual novel. I think the people who do have anger issues anyway…lol.

  30. Nikki Hootman

    I don't even think it has to be a writing slush pile. My "day job" involves wading through 300+ emails a week (usually all in one day) and it has been a tremendous education. Working on the buying side of a used book store was also instructive. Owners of used books are very similar to authors in that they've got a ton of emotional content invested in the product they want to trade for money. And they get really upset when you don't agree with them about the value of their books.

    BTW, Nathan, did you notice you used like eight colons in that post? 🙂

  31. Nikki Hootman

    PS… Speaking of slush-of-the-future, my husband and I have been having excellent luck lately using Amazon's recommendation system. I wonder how much of tomorrow's slush will be filtered by non-human means?

  32. Susan Mihalic

    Nathan, I've read the slush pile, and while most of it was dreadful, I never gave up hope that I'd find gold in there. Admittedly, I didn't read every word of every submission (you don't have to drink a whole carton of milk to know it's bad), but the possibility of finding gold kept me going. It happened a couple of times, too. A couple of nuggets out of thousands of submissions might not seem gratifying, but . . . yeah. It was.

  33. Mira

    I agree very much with what Livia said. I'm also tired of the idea that the basic reader is dumb and needs to be told what to read.

    The reality is that the reader always decided what to read. By buying books. Bestsellers are not bestsellers because someone told the public what to buy. They are bestsellers because readers like the books.

    If telling someone to buy a book worked, publishing would be a much wealthier industry than it is now.

    What I like about e-books is that the bottleneck disappears. Publishing shouldn't be a matter of luck. It should be a matter of reader interest in a quality product. E-books have an immediate chance to reach readers, which levels the playing field and gives quality books a chance to rise to the top.

    I think asking agents to handle the slush pile is too much of a burden on their time, and an inefficient way to find quality books. Let the market handle that. It does it with music quite easily. You-tube is a great example of that as well. Quality rises to the top.

    But, in terms of the actual topic of this post :), I believe you, Nathan! Every time I offer critique, I grow alittle as a writer. I can imagine the impact if I did that for hours a day.

    I guess your experience in the slush helped you become a good critiquer and reviewer. I suspect some natural ability can be given credit for that as well, though. 🙂

  34. Melanie

    There are always going to be book reviews and sales figures and word of mouth, all of which will continue to influence what people buy and read. Sure, the friends of ebook writers will buy those books, but for the most part, there's at least one respected third party that vouches for the books I choose to read. Just because more people have access to publishing doesn't mean the bestseller lists will change.

  35. Ishta Mercurio

    Isn't being part of a critique group equivalent to reading slush?

    Don't get me wrong – if you're in a critique group, you're serious enough about writing to at least know how to put a sentence together and come up with some great ways of expressing yourself. I don't mean to imply that what the members of my group put out is awful stuff that should never see the light of day, because it absolutely is not. But every one of my manuscripts was improved about 500% by the time my crit group had finished with it, and I think others would probably say the same. And now they're sitting in some slush pile.

    So if your slush pile is bad, then my own pre-slush stuff that my crit partners read is even worse, no?

  36. Sheila Cull

    With E books as with anything electronic, it reduces the need for specific talent from indivduals.

    Although I still can't see a book reader choosing something electronic and random over paper pages at a book store – where only the best get the honor of sitting on a shelf.

  37. Michelle Davidson Argyle

    Thanks for this post! I've sensed panic everywhere about this, but I don't feel it's a problem. It's just change.

    After hosting several writing contests through The Literary Lab and my own blog, I've experienced (on a very small scale, I'm sure) what it's like to sort through slush. It's simply exhausting, but it has taught me a few valuable things about writing and publishing. You agents are simply amazing!

  38. fakesteph

    Going through the slush pile (mostly with scripts) was more educational for me as a writer than any class I ever took in college. I think that when the slush pile hits the public (harder than it is now) that it may renew the public's faith in the gatekeepers.

    And I'm not sure that ebooks will ever totally replace physical books. I only listen to music on my ipod or computer, but I still purchase my music via CD.

  39. Ishta Mercurio

    I just read the New York Times article that Nathan linked to in this post, and was struck by the word choice: apparently, Amazon has sold more e-books than hardcovers, but there is no reference to how their e-books compare to paperbacks, or to all of their print books as a whole.

    I don't doubt that there is a digital revolution underfoot, but I believe that misleading word choices like this can fool the public into thinking that the digital revolution is happening more quickly than it is, and influence more people to purchase kindles and e-books, thus speeding up the switch to e-books.

    Humans, in general, have a herd mentality and will go where most of the others are going, and the media is not at all innocent when it comes to running misleading or slanted stories that guide people in one direction or another.

  40. Emily White

    If you're right and the slush pile is soon going to be in the hands of the readers and reading slush inevitably improves a writer's ability, then that's a good thing! In just a few short years, nothing will come out but masterpieces!

    All joking aside, I already find browsing through B&N daunting. I am going to be utterly overwhelmed if I also have to sift through straight up crap just to get to something worth reading.

    I just keep thinking about Family Guy when Peter decided to become a writer. How much of that will I have to read through before I find something good?

  41. Anonymous

    those statistics are interesting – 1 mss in 1,000 found vis slush making it to publication – esp. since that was my route.

    but what the figure doesn't take into account is that it's not (in my experience), one submission to representation. meaning, there were a number (ten?) slush piles that my mss landed on before the agent who took me on.

    Also, I don't think it's so strictly a numbers game for this reason: the agent's taste.

    I think a lot of what you're talking about comes down to that one person like that one mss and deciding to put their hand behind it (as it were) and push (or, place it with the next one person who likes it as much or equally or more.) and so on.

    what caught my eye was what you mentioned about reading slush is being able to spot clues. it would be helpful, even to people w/agents & are headed towards publication, to generally know what those clues are. staying on game being a never ending process …

    the crowd sourcing dynamic that you present seems somewhat at odds with the "trusted publishers" notion. how do you see the eyes of many (the hive?) functioning in relationship to/with the top down nature of the (publishing) business? ultimately, one person decides and decides to write the check. is it possible that gatekeepers won't be the crowd, but remain individual who assert their power in different ways? or, at different levels of visibility?

  42. Marilyn Peake

    I sympathize with you and other agents in regard to the slush pile. I cannot even imagine what that must be like! When you asked the other day why it seems that so many more people think they can be writers than other types of artists, I found myself thinking about that all through the day. The next day, I found myself wondering if a huge part of that might be the explosion in Internet reading, writing, and connecting online with industry professionals. Maybe people begin to think that because they write on the Internet and people read the writing they’ve posted and they can easily join writers’ groups where they receive praise and encouragement, they are indeed writers. In certain online writers' groups where it’s possible to become a big fish in a little pond, it’s easy to think that you’re functioning like every other writer: you write, others read that writing and praise it. I and many others don’t approach writing that way, but instead constantly challenge ourselves and demand of ourselves that our writing become better, and value the gatekeepers of the publishing industry that exist today, the agents and editors and other people who work so hard to improve the quality of promising manuscripts.

    On the brighter side, we’re probably living in an historically relevant Renaissance era. Back in the time of the historical Renaissance, there was another explosion in respect for art and people creating art. Even though we associate the Renaissance with magnificent works of art, there was probably a lot of drek produced. Only the magnificent works remained. If the slush pile moves freely into eBook format, reviewers and other people will form businesses that are good at reviewing books, in the same way that The Huffington Post established itself as a reputable online indie news organization that challenged the established TV press and now has its members interviewed on cable news. In the book publishing arena, TINKERS, a novel published by an indie press after being rejected by every major publisher, won the Pulitzer Prize: here and here. Having access to books like TINKERS is the positive side of a digital Renaissance.

  43. Dan

    Amazon's numbers are carefully chosen to support Amazon's boasts of robust e-book growth; the compared numbers are in total books sold, rather than revenue. Amazon is also stacking the entire e-book catalog against hardcovers, instead of comparing sales on a title-by-title basis.

    Hardcovers are prominent titles backed by current marketing pushes, so they sell a lot of copies. But they're a pretty small proportion of the total number of titles for sale in the bookstore or online. Amazon stacked hardcover sales up against e-versions of the same titles at lower prices, and e-versions of every book originally published in trade or mass market paperback format, and books published only in electronic format, and e-versions of older bestsellers that are no longer selling in hardcover.

    Amazon excluded free e-books from the calculation, but 80% of Amazon's e-books are $9.99 or less, and paid Kindle books include a lot of titles priced lower than $3 and often as low as $0.99. Hardcovers cost $14-17.

    Also note that Amazon is currently 70-80% of the e-book market, and only about 20% of the book market.

    Amazon has sold a lot of e-books. But, if Amazon were to compare overall sales (instead of only its own sales) of bestselling hardcovers to electronic versions of the same titles, the numbers would show that hardcover books are the dominant format and e-books remain a small slice of the pie.

  44. Anonymous

    You're awesome, Nathan. I'd read your slush anytime.

  45. Perri

    Isn't YouTube (and the Blogosphere) basically slush of one variety or another? We seem to sift through it okay.

    Of course, reading a book is a totally different experience, and a lot more commitment than a 10 second video of some kid snorting wasabi.

    I hope the e-slush readers of the near future will be a bit more patient…

  46. Scott

    Sounds like everyone's assuming that

    A) editors/publishers have good taste and are leading readers in the right direction
    B) general audiences need a filter to tell them what to read
    C)Books are a sacred art form

    All wrong. No offense to esteemed, intelligent book-publishers, but I wouldn't trust one of them to tell me what I should read any more than I would trust a schoolteacher to tell me what I should learn. That's like asking a car salesman what the best car model is. You have to educate yourself, and you have to hunt down your own reading material.

    Literature is following and will continue to follow the trend of the Information Age: we're not going to take the seller's word for it, we're going to look at other consumers' experiences and make an informed decision. I'm not talking about sycophantic blurbs (that's still the seller selling you on it), I'm talking about fellow readers who share an enthusiasm for a specific genre. Blogs, Amazon reviews, word of Twittermouth, aggregate sites that are not affiliated with the seller (RottenTomatoes, GameSpot, GoodReads). It's already happening in Hollywood, with the studios more and more at the mercy of audience word-of-mouth in spite of the $100 million marketing campaign, and it's going to take over books entirely.

    As you listen more, you find people and voices you trust– it might be Nathan's blog, it might be your brother who reads lots of that genre, it might be a guy in Connecticut who lives in a treehouse and writes Amazon reviews on a lot of related products he's tried. It will NOT be the publisher, or the bookseller, or the author. They are responsible for visibility, but not for converting large numbers of fans. Money cannot buy fans like it could in the 80's. Good products well-publicized bring a loyal, enthusiastic following. Poor ones fail: throw more marketing money at it, and you will sink the ship deeper. Look at Apple, look at Harley-Davidson, look at Facebook.

    Most of the conversation above has been about finding and protecting good writing, but I challenge the assumption that that's even what anyone is looking for. It's definitely a huge plus, but what people want is value, not quality. A book that has mediocre/barely acceptable writing but that tells a story you just can't live without reading will trump the literary genius' crusty little novella every time. Why else are Danielle Steele, J.K. Rowling, and Stephanie Meyer laughing all the way to the bank? They are giving people what they asked for, in exchange for money, and now both parties are happy. Maybe not intellectually enriched as much as they could have been, but pretty happy.

    You don't see novels sitting around in museums being admired by tourists. In our society they are a commodity to be consumed, like hamburgers. I know it hurts, and I'm sorry too, but it hurts because it's true. They also happen to be a civilization-defining form of communication and cultural identity, which makes them a little bit different and more important than hamburgers, which is why we are having this discussion at all.

    If you seriously read this far into my post, I am now genuinely embarrassed at having said so much, and will shut up.

  47. Jens Porup

    I read slush for Opium Magazine ( I've been reading for them for a couple of years now. I reject most stories without finishing the first page. Any story that can make me read every word, until the very end, generally gets my thumbs up. It doesn't happen very often.

    Too many people try to write "artsy." I would echo Oscar Wilde:

    "I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful."

  48. MJR

    I read slush for three years. The publisher eventually decided it was a waste of time and now doesn't accept unsol mss. Only one of the thousands of mss I read was published. Reading slush is truly depressing. You're right–only by doing it for a while can one understand this.

  49. Bryan Russell (Ink)

    My time as an editor of a literary magazine was invaluable. Both for the insights into writing, and the chance to really understand the subjectivity of the process – it's all about making a connection through words. Few writers can do this, and I don't think anyone can do it universally. Hopefully, you find a way to make that connection, and with enough people to make a readership.

  50. Anonymous

    More ways of finding slush:

    1) Search for Amazon e-books with sales ranks > 1,000000

    2) Anything from Publish America

  51. D.G. Hudson

    In any job where you read other people's writing — as an editor, agent or even if you work in a corporate communications department — you will see a lot of writing that begs to be edited and improved.

    If slushpiles fall by the wayside, and the hordes (including myself) can self-publish, I still wouldn't rely on yea or nay sayers on the web to help me choose what I should read. After all, it's only someone else's opinion, in this opinionated world.

    (and that's IMO)

  52. Heahter Nobles

    Wow, I'm completely depressed now…thanks a lot…lol. I wasn't even able to make your slush pile, I have no hope.

    Heather N.

  53. ryan field

    I think I've been reading from the slush pile already and didn't even realize it until you wrote this post.

  54. John

    Nathan –

    You ask us where we find the books we're reading now. I'm not sure about anyone else, but I find all my books through institutional sources.

    None of my friends read as much as I do, let alone have the same tastes. So, I rely on book reviews from professional critics, and whatever looks good on the front tables at bookstores.

    These venues for finding books are built entirely on the current publishing model. I have never purchased a self-published book, nor do I wish to. When there are so many great traditionally published stories out there, why take a chance on a book no one else seems to believe in? Amazon reviews alone do little to sway my interest.

    My favorite comment on this thread so far is Dan's at 2:06 p.m. It's like he climbed into my head and stole my thoughts. Thanks, Dan, for so eloquently stating this opinion.

    An eBook future means fewer publishing houses and fewer agents. As a result, a lot of authors will either have to hire freelancers, which are costly in this economy, or package and promote their products themselves. All of this time and commitment, and maybe nothing to show for it.

    Quite frankly, some of us have to work for a living.

    Even the music industry is somewhat better off in this scenario. In addition to selling their singles on iTunes, they can also earn money through concerts and merchandise.

    With authors, there's generally one main income stream: the book. And if they're fighting for the consumer's attention in a marketplace of thousands of previously unpublishable writers, it's a toxic environment for those who have honed their skills.

    So, Nathan, while I agree that eBooks might give more first-time authors a chance to be read, it simultaneously decreases their odds of actually finding an audience. Especially if we lose national publishing houses and professional reviewers.

    There's such a thing as too many options.

  55. John

    Scott – While you certainly have a valid opinion, I do take issue with your Hollywood comparison.

    While word of mouth is playing a bigger role in what movies are successful, by and large, most movies are made by Hollywood studios. They have the marketing muscle to make their products visible to millions of potential consumers.

    People who make home movies generally won't see them in theaters across the nation.

    That's the thing about what's happening with the book industry. New authors might be thrust into the world with no backup. If we no longer have publishing houses to make our work visible, it doesn't matter what the "value" of the book is. Stephenie Meyer published her books traditionally, and they were a huge success. What're the odds she would've sold as many copies if she self-published?

    I think it's hard to know how authors will ultimately be affected by the eBook revolution, but I'm unconvinced that it'll play entirely in the author's favor.

  56. Melissa Gill

    I think people once the majority have e-readers and most reading is done electronically, people will still need editors, publisher, and agents. Once people read the garbage that's bound to flood the system, they'll demand some type of "gold standard". A seal of approval that says, this is a good book. (Not even necessarily a well written book, but a good book.) And you can trust me becuase I published the same books you read on paper.

    The publishers and book sellers who find ways to exploit the technology, will be in business in the coming era, and those that can't figure it out will go bye bye.

  57. Sarra

    I tend to disagree with arguments saying that authors will have fewer opportunities to make money under an ebook / slush system. I think it's an exciting time for new authors. There will be an opportunity for any subject to reach its niche audience thanks to tools like google and internet forums. While a traditional publisher might frown on a book about vampires who sell babies as delicacies to other big-spender vampires, there is surely an internet audience that is looking for something exactly like that. Not me, but someone. 🙂

    Anyway, self-publishing or publishing through an ebook store will give us a broader range of stories and yes, that will include both gems and crap, much like the slush pile. But the stories that resonate will always find readers. It's just the nature of this crazy art. I say, bring it on!

  58. mshatch

    Having recently joined a few online writing groups and critiqued other people's work I actually do have an inkling of just how awful the slush pile probably is.

  59. Emily

    Are Monet's haystacks supposed to look like slush piles?

  60. Monica

    That's interesting. I'd consider it far more useful to inundate oneself with positive examples (classic literature) than negative examples (the slush pile). More enjoyable, too.

  61. The Original Drama Mama

    An interesting and valid point about the slush pile and how much you can learn about the art of writing by dredging through it.
    While quite happy to read pb and buy hc of my favorite authors, I also own an e-reader and enjoy digital books (I did a "test drive" for Sony last summer and had to write reviews on my experience). I don't fear a digital world of books, nor do I feel a world that allows anyone and everyone access to publishing. I can decide for myself if I like a book, just like I can decide if I like a website…granted visiting a website is free and buying an e-boo isn't but most books offer some type of "blurb" and if it was good enough to convince me to spend my $, slush pile quality or not, that's my own problem – at least it's me making the choice.

  62. Victorious Women


    I have read "slush," as you refer to it. I have read what some consider to be "bad writing."
    And the I Am a Nobody wins. One agent's slush is another's blockbuster.

    Publishers, in my opinion, may find gold by searching through the slush.

    Competition is! With that said, the issue is subjective. The reality: Who you know may override how well you write. Has publishing ever really been about talent or rules? And we can not forget arrogance!

    Emily Dickinson wrote the lines “I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you — Nobody — too? Then there's a pair of us! …

    She was in the slush pile. Compromise is not necessary.

    It is better to live and die true to oneself than to live in the confusion of rules set forth by intellectuals.

    Vivian Dixon Sober

  63. T. Anne

    As much as I don't look forward to a barrage of bad e-books, this post oddly brought me comfort. Thanks Nathan! *tired of slushing around*

  64. Rick Daley

    It seems e-publishing could follow in the footprints of Authonomy, where books are as much a popularity contest as a piece of writing. Rate my book, I'll rate yours. Reading not necessarily required.

    Books become vehicles for ads (banner ads and skyscrapers in the margins of your e-books, anyone? Skip this ad to go on to the next page.)

    This is our dystopian e-book furute.

    WORD VERIFICATION: cannu. As in, cannu handle the coming a-pocalypse?

  65. Rick Daley

    Damn it, that was supposed to be e-pocalypse…

    WORD VERIFICATION: solan. And thanks for all the fish.

  66. Augustina Peach

    Nathan: "There is already, literally, a million books to choose from and we manage to find the ones we want."

    I agree. The volume of new books published each year is like a slushpile for me (I'm using "slush" to mean "a lot of something," not "crap"). I never even consider reading the majority of those books, however. I have a set of informal rubrics that help me sort through the slushpile, ranging from my preferred genre to recommendations from friends or other trusted sources. Once a book passes the "get my attention" phase, there are additional filters that help me decide whether to actually purchase the book.

    My point is, we all have some mechanism in place to help us find something we want to read. I, for one, am sort of excited about the possibility that I might have more to choose from. Since I like to read in a genre that's not too popular with mainstream publishers right now (historical fiction dealing with something other than royalty), maybe e-publishing will bring me some choices I wouldn't have had otherwise.

    (I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago on my blog and was more eloquent there, ha ha – Musing Reader )

  67. Tara Maya

    I have read slush. I also feel like I have to wade through the visual equivalent of slush watching You Tube. Particularly if I'm watching with my kids, I'm wary of clicking on random videos, never sure if I'm going to find adorable muppets or someone's smutty-mouthed satire of adorable muppets.

    That said, it just makes sense to use the hive mind to sort through the slush, rather than destroy souls one intern at a time.

    Authors ought to think of the value of having their work in a private slush pile rather than on a public forum, where that First Novel is available for all time — even after they have finally learned to write.

  68. Kathryn Packer Roberts

    Sounds like a distopian future for us the way it was put there. I hate the idea that slush piles WOULDN'T exsist. As much as I hate them, they ARE a gateway, a needed gateway. And I have become very thankful for the rejections I have received in the past because they told me I wasn't ready and made me strive to do better.

    …but that's just me.

  69. Anonymous

    Regarding your comment:

    "if you haven't developed the ability to instantly tell good writing from bad: well, you're missing out."

    So is everything you reject "bad writing"? Are you saying that there is no one you have rejected who has gone on to publish with a good agency and publisher?

    I'm just curious.

  70. swampfox

    I've read slush…from the book rack at Walgreen's!

  71. Ishta Mercurio

    I want to add to my first post: I don't think that being part of a critique group is comparable to being faced with a never-ending slush pile day after day after day. There is a significant volume issue, and I appreciate that difference, and I feel indebted to agents and editors and assistants for wading through it every day.

    At the same time, reading slush – as horrible and demoralizing and frustrating and mind-numbing and sometimes wonderful (when you find that gem) as it is – is part of an agent's job and an editor's job and an assistant's job. Even if it isn't what they spend most of their time on, it is an essential part of their job – it's how they find the next book – so they find a way to build it into their day.

    But it isn't part of my job, and I just don't have the time to build it into my day. It isn't about wanting a gatekeeper to do the thinking for the general public because, as Scott and others have suggested, I doubt that there is enough intelligence to find quality in slush. It's about the time. I just don't have it, and most people don't.

    Another, separate thought: there are only so many people in the world. These people only have so much time available to them. In other words, a finite number of books will be read in any given year. That's just reality; it's just numbers. If the number of books out there explodes to be 1,000 times what is currently available in the bookstore, what do you think will really happen in terms of all those newly self-published e-books actually being read? I think their odds are pretty awful. Much worse than if their authors revise, get input from professionals, continue to revise and improve, and get published by a company that has the savvy to package their work well and market it properly.

    It takes at least 3-6 months of steady, 9-5 writing just to get a novel out. Even forgetting the many stages of revision and editing and polishing and assuming that an author will just write it and self-publish it as an e-book, that's a lot of hours. Is it really financially viable to spend that kind of time, and end up with something that doesn't get read by more than 5 people?

  72. corine

    It's not because a book is well marketed that it will work for me.
    Now i find books via goodread, by trusting the star rating system of people who share my tastes.
    In a way, my goodread 'friends' go through a slush pile of published books for me. You have to start somewhere, and peer group has been reliable. The risk of course is to see my horizon slowly shrink.

  73. Nathan Bransford


    I'm absolutely not saying everything I've passed on is bad writing. Far from it. I have to pass on really good stuff all the time.

  74. Melanie

    Let's vote about it!

    But seriously, those of us who are elitist, academic book snobs need to know that our accomplishment won't be cheapened just because publishing a book takes just a little more effort than blogging. We hate that there are gatekeepers keeping us out, but we know it'll be a lot worse without them.

    I'm half-kidding about the elitist part, but really… consider all the work you put into a novel and the standards many writers set for themselves. It means something to be able to say x-agent and y-publisher and a-,b-, and c-reviewers vouch for my work.

  75. JDuncan

    I can't recall where I read it recently, but it spoke about how this turn toward the readers being the tastemakers is going to backfire in the long run. It said something about how the general reader will basically burn out on trying to sort through the slush of poorly self-published material, and will gradually turn to picking from a narrower, more trusted source. They'll choose they authors they already know and trust to write good stories.

    I tend to agree with this. The general reading public isn't going to want to surf the slush. It's too much work. They want to know the books they are going to look at are good, even if it's not the thing for them. I'll be the first to admit I don't like having to hunt high and low for something good to read. I don't look online for reviews. I go to the bookstore and I get recommendations from friends. That's pretty much it. I honestly hope that the general public doesn't become the gatekeepers, because I don't believe they really want to do it. It will hurt authors in the long run.

  76. Ishta Mercurio

    "I'm absolutely not saying everything I've passed on is bad writing. Far from it. I have to pass on really good stuff all the time."

    What would be really great is if, when agents or editors have to pass on something really good, they had time to let the author know somehow that the book really is good, it's just not for them because of x, y, and z, instead of giving no response or sending out a form rejection.

    (I don't mean you, Nathan; I mean agents generally.)

  77. Alex Fayle

    I use my Kindle to download the free samples of all new releases in my genre and then read them to figure out why they got published or if they are self-published, whether I would publish them if I were a traditional publisher.

    Most, even the trad-pubbed ones, I don't get past the first page.

    It's a great learning experience!

  78. The Frisky Virgin

    Wonderful post, Nathan. To me, the slush pile is both a teacher and a diamond mine. You see the best and worst kinds of writing from the slush…and you never know what little diamond you'll discover.

  79. Brian

    Two important sides of the discussion are implied in Nathan's post:

    "… any book that makes it through represents the collective seal of approval of quite a few people in the publishing chain."

    There is an old saying about "poor" design:

    "a camel is a horse designed by a committee"

    Point is, the camel is still an awesome animal in its own terrain. Similarly, authors like Stephenie Meyer have achieved success because they wrote stories that millions of people enjoyed.

    High Art is there for those who wish it, with plenty of experts pointing the way.

    Back in the day, Pauline Kael was my guide on great movies. Kael could write with such a combination of knowledge and passion that she told me which movies to watch – whether she liked the movie or not.

    Some were blockbusters, some not. BUT every movie I watched added to my understanding and enjoyment of film making.

    Similarly, some books will be best sellers, some not. READING BOOKS leads to great books, unless you find a critic to trust.

  80. Anonymous

    I agree with the commenter who said that the general reading public when overwhelmed with e-books are likely to turn to the authors they usually enjoy.

    I'm all for supporting self-publishing e-books but after reading samples pages from dozens upon dozens on Amazon, I am mostly* turned off by the quality of the writing and the story idea. But I'm a writer, so I pay a lot of attention to the quality of the writing of the books I pick; however, the general reading public might not as much. Don't know. So far, I've never purchased a self-published book because none of the ones I've come across have been remotely interesting to me. Yet, I'm open to it.

    On the other hand, there are dozens of authors traditionally published that I've read a sample of writing and really enjoyed. I have a to-read list from those authors to keep me well read for years to come. And I suspect that I'll turn to those writers for new books first before their self-published counterparts.

  81. Lunar Eclipse

    I would be curious to know what you think of my writing.

  82. Reena Jacobs

    I read Laura Miller's article previously.

    I've critiqued a bit of work (slush) since I started writing. And I admit, it can lead to burn out. Not everything in the slush pile is good or enjoyable to read. But purchasing a book isn't the same thing as reading through a slush pile.

    When I go to the bookstore, I typically head to my favorite section. I don't have to read through every single book in every single genre in order to select a book. In fact, I usually already have a book in mind before I walk through the door. Any browsing is just extra.

    The E-book shopping experience is very similar. However, I get this nifty tool called a search engine. There's no need to comb through every book to find what I want. No. I type my interest and browse through the condensed list. If the list is too long or doesn't have what I want up front, I narrow my search to something more specific.

    I'll be honest. Sometimes I feel like articles like that are scare tactics to turn readers against self-published authors. The truth of the matter is most self-published books fly under the radar and receive very little recognition. If people don't know about the book, it's rather difficult to look it up.

    Sometimes I wonder if the fear is a reader will enter a search term and a self-published novel will pop at the top of the list instead of a novel which went the traditional route.

    I'll end by saying, my experience in the publishing industry is limited to research and likely quite naive. These are just my thoughts on an issue which seems to have little impact to the reader.

  83. Hillsy

    In the “Amazon as slush” model, the publisher of choice will be hubris. This comment section is a prime example.

    I have some strong, well-cogitated thoughts on the matter (I started this post 12 times in fact) but I saved myself the time of articulating them because, well, who cares? What will they achieve other than to sate some misplaced belief that my opinions deserve to be aired somewhere? And therein lies the problem.

    At the moment I’d say I have a realistic evaluation of my writing, and a realistic valuation of my chances of publication. But remove the mechanism of professional appraisal and my 1 in 5000 chance becomes 1 in 5000000. I am not Mylee Cyrus who will explode across chat shows, promoting her career, until the only legal way to shut her up is to go and watch the damn thing. I am not without confidence; I’m modest.

    While I welcome e-books as a mechanism and a format and laud the potential for increasing worldwide readership through value and innovation, while I believe an average reader’s habits may likely change very little, the continued degeneration into the shouty, shouty world of internet excess fills me with a little sadness and despair.

    I understand and accept the shift will unlikely make things worse or better, perhaps a pure a ‘change’ as possible with no value added or lost, but it will favour different people and hinder others, the entrepreneur over the accountant, Mylee Cyrus over Bill Murray. The question is do we favour the arrogant, charismatic swagger or the quiet, solid confidence? I am not qualified to make that judgement – not that anyone is listening anyway.

    Maybe it’s because I’m English.

  84. Tom

    This is, of course, nonsense.

    People who want to see their name on a cover in Waterstones want to even though they could go down the vanity route. That avenue cannot appeal more simply because it is easier or cheaper to do so via an e-book.

    You do seem to have ignore a fairly relevant point though:

    Without a slushpile, you have no incoming manuscripts, and nothing to publish….

  85. Victoria

    You know, there is an entire slushpile available on the net, free to read. It's HarperCollins' slushpile, and it is available at

    It is a really good example of the bad, the ugly and the awful. No doubt there are undiscovered gems too. Somewhere in there.

  86. Anonymous

    These sorts of posturing comments about how agents can pick what's good and what's bad are just so much self-important crap.

    Explain why it took Rowling, Meyer, Connolly and many, many others, dozens of rejections before they were published.


  87. Ted Cross

    This is what bothers me about the nice rejection letters I get (such as yours!) — I have no way of knowing if I am one of those truly awful writers that make up the majority of slush, or if I am one of the promising ones who isn't quite what you are looking for.

  88. Christine H

    How will books be selected? For the impoverished, it will be the libraries who will act as filters for the use of public funds for reading material.

  89. Brian

    To Anonymous

    Nathan has frequently explained why one agent will reject and another accept.

    Did the author pick an agent from the correct genre? Did the author need to polish the query letter until something sparked with a particular agent? Did the author need to polish the manuscript before an agent liked it?

    To Ted Cross

    Nathan has also explained that TASTE is involved. Therefore a book is not bad or good but is "on taste" for one agent/reader but "off taste" for another.

  90. Maria

    I love the analogy of releasing the slush out into the wild as if it was some fierce creature, dangerous to the public. It made me laugh. Thanks!

  91. Lu

    I doubt I'll ever get the chance to read through a slush pile, but I am currently judging a few writing contest entries. A similar experience perhaps, on a much smaller scale.

  92. Thomas

    A great post, and absolutely right. I spent a happy few months at the start of my career reading for publishing houses, and as an editor still get through not only piles of slush, but also the often traumatically awful first drafts of legitimate authors. And there's nothing quite like this experience for fuelling my own ambition. "Hey, I can do better than this…" is one of the most important thoughts any writer can have.

  93. Ted Cross

    To Brian –
    I know what you are saying, but all agents state that the vast majority of what they see is real garbage. Taste only gets involved when the stuff has potential. When we get a rejection letter, we don't know if we fell into the garbage category or the 'has potential' category.

  94. A.R. Williams

    What about magazines that publish short fiction, could they act as "slush" readers?

    A lot of writers write both novels and short stories. I'm not sure about other genres, but SF and fantasy still have a good assortment of magazines that can introduce readers to new authors.

    I think when people read a short story they like, they can easily do a search for the creator of the piece and see what else they have to offer.

    This can also work with well established anthologies. Readers find short stories that appeal to them then look for more work by those authors.

  95. Fawn Neun

    Slush is… let's just say slush is.

    I don't agree with that op-ed piece by Laura Miller. I think she's an unmitigated snob, and that's me saying it. Art is subjective and there's thousands of books I think are complete dreck, but I do understand that they may sing with utter Truth (capitalized) for someone else.

    We usually get much better quality slush at The Battered Suitcase than Dan Brown. Perhaps because we're labeled a "literary" journal, commercial wannabes don't bother to submit.

    We actually offer internships to writers so they can look at our slush pile and get an idea of the level of quality of short fiction stories that are being submitted. It's extremely enlightening and will make you much less bitter towards any agent or editor who rejects your masterpiece with a copy/paste thumbs down.

    Having been on both, I can say that it's actually not much fun on either side of the slush pile.

    No, I don't have the answer.

    I say self-publish if you like. It's just electrons.

  96. Magdalena Munro

    Poorly written books exist as high as the mind's eye can imagine and it doesn't bother me that many more will deluge the ewaves.

    When I am in the mood to discover a new author, there is nothing greater than a strong recommendation. For example, after reading When Nietzsche Wept, I was intrigued to read that Dr. Yalom highly recommended David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas which in turn became one of my faves!

  97. Anonymous

    Inevitable conversion to primarily e-book reading… I don't know. I have an e-reader and spent a lot of time reading on it for the first four months. The novelty, curiosity, etc. Now I can hardly make myself use it, and it hasn't been touched for months, except to turn it on every week, notice that although I haven't used it, it needs recharging, and plug it in.

    The stack of paper books is back at the bedside. I like them better, for various reasons. I'll use the e-reader when I can't get the hard copy, but given a choice, I have a feeling I'll still be buying a lot more books on paper, even at greater cost. My primary objective in reading is not, after all, to buy the cheapest book I can get; it's to buy one that gives me the greatest pleasure.

    I've got nothing against either one, but that's how it's turned out for me. I don't think e-reader improvements are going to change my preference.


  98. Scott

    John – fair enough, good point.

    I appreciated the comment made comparing blogs to books. I think the blogosphere is a great model for how the electronic book world may turn out: it's free, there is no standard for quality or editing except the self-imposed ones, and out of the millions of blogs out there, only a few rise to the top and get a readership (like this one). Many of the other minor ones may have a small fanbase of enthusiasts, a niche audience, and that's fine.

    Maybe all this will follow the film world's studios vs. independents model. Currently the two industries share a lot of similarities (95% of audiences watch major studio features, but for niche enthusiasts there are a lot of small-time independent films out there to look through). Perhaps as the major publishers wane, we will see an "indy" book industry made up primarily of niche enthusiasts (those who read any and all vampire novels that come out, or those that are looking mostly for steampunk crime dramas with a western setting).

    What a fascinating discussion!

  99. Wanda B. Ontheshelves

    Re: Are Monet's haystacks supposed to look like slush piles?

    A reference to "needle in a haystack," when it comes to finding good material in a slush pile?

    Speaking of slush…I think it's easy to tell if your work is "awful" or "garbage," or any other colorful description of poorly-written work…just read passages from several books considered good, or successful, then immediately read a passage from your own. You either stack up against the others, or you don't – it's quite glaring (I find).

    Here's something I really hate – you go to a lit journal website, and they have a list of author's names…no bio info, no info about their work, no quotes, nothing…you've never heard of any of these people before…and you're just supposed to click on the link to their story or whatever, based only on their name….it's like when you go in to vote, not realizing judges are on the ballot, or some obscure commissioner, and there you are in the voting booth, staring at 2 or 3 names of people you've never heard of…now I take the names of everyone I vote for with me, even if it's for "dogcatcher," so to speak…

    I thought the "catalog" I got from Graywolf Press the other day was really good, every author got their own page, a photo of the book cover, a few paragraphs of quotes and explanatory material…it only had 20 pages. That is, it's easier to make the decision to buy something, when there are fewer choices presented…

    Also, I'm reading a book of Marina Tsvetaeva's prose (great writing, so modern), and it's from the Ardis Russian Literature Series…I like the idea of a series of books on a certain topic (or authors from a certain geographical area) etc, because again, it makes it easier to make a decision to purchase, than randomly trying to figure out on your own.

    Now how this relates to slush piles…gatekeepers, maybe…

  100. Keetha

    Crap. Then there'd be no Slush Pile Hell, either.

  101. Melanie

    Hillsy: I'll take Bill Murray over Miley every single time. In fact, I'll take him over just about any celebrity being offered.

  102. Moses Siregar III

    I've also had the slush-reading experience on Authonomy, and I also recommend it.

    I gave up on participating heavily site once I realized that the only way to reach the top was to spam the heck out of people, but I had a great experience there with both receiving and giving critiques, and by meeting other writers.

    I've also kept my book on the site as a way to share my early chapters.

  103. Shelli

    Interesting. I've heard that writers should try to avoid bad writing, so they don't have their own writing tainted. Yet, I've always been a critical reader, even more so now that I'm writing. I learn just as much from the bad writing as I do the good. And let's be honest — those bad stories that got published give me hope that my story is probably good enough.

  104. Debbie Kaufman

    I had a minor skirmish with the microcosm of slush piles – cold reads for a writing conference. As the coordinator, I read all the offerings, ditched those that didn't follow the rules, and then took the first thirty that were left. (I did say micro, lol) Since it was my job to read them to the panel, I read them beforehand so I wouldn't screwup anyone's story.

    OMGoodness. I did find a couple of gems, but the majority made me pine for those papers my tenth graders gave me – the ones that caused me to grind my teeth and left my eyes in a permanent expression of surprise.

  105. Victorine

    I love that the readers are able to find more to read, with indie authors able to sell their work directly to the public. Is some of it horrible? Sure. But the slush won't sell, and the good will rise. It's happening right now. Awesome.

  106. Terin Tashi Miller

    I tend to agree with the general premise: more of the slush will be, and is being published.

    But what, besides an individual's own taste, preference, and perhaps knowledge of what "sells," determines a "great" book versus one that is rejected because, while not "bad," it just isn't what will sell millions of copies and make a publisher tons of money?

    I still contend what is wrong with the premise is the implication that books that do make it out of the slush pile are necessarily better than some that don't. After all, whether a book remains as slush or doesn't is up to someone's subjective taste and decision. As it has always been.

    Except now it's interns, or poorly paid entry level folks, as opposed to say, an actual editor (as in the days of Maxwell Perkins). Even, obviously, at a literary agency.

    Or, for that matter, that some agents'–present company, of course, excepted–opinions, or publisher's determination, is somehow better or more "qualified" than the general reading public.

    It appears to be true that people like to be given recommendations, suggestions on who or what to read next. That does not, however, necessarily translate into a fact that what people are reading based on a friend, family member, or even well-known or respected critic's recommendation is, in fact, any good.

    It just means that, because of the recommendation, people will buy it.

    That's one reason I'm a huge fan of the customers' reviews on Amazon. Presumably, the review is by someone who has bought the book, read it, and now wants to share an opion of it. As opposed to someone either given an advanced, free copy, or with a financial interest in the success of the book, such as a publisher's publicity department.

    I disagree that essentially subjecting readers to the slush pile is an end to the filtering process, or will requuire a return to filters after the initial shock wears off.

    What exactly is wrong with the "reading public" becoming the true arbiters of taste? Other than, of course, its eventual relegation of the existing arbiters to the status of, essentially, all the other readers out there with opinions–based on their interests, preferences, etc?

  107. John

    Picture, if you will, where a river meets the ocean. Imagine the flow going upstream. That's more or less the ocean of slush agents must contend with before passing on a purified version to the editors at another bottleneck and from there to the end customer.

    Marketing vs word of mouth will probably play a key role in any such dystopic literary future where each reader must trawl the ocean waters for good reading.

    Marketing, as a top down approach, pushes what the publisher thinks the reader wants. Word of mouth generally works from the grass roots.

    Neither is perfect, but in a world without a filter of some sort, I don't look forward to a new job as slush comber simply to find entertainment.

  108. Nathan Bransford

    Whoops! Sorry anon, my reply came off more strongly than I intended and in the process of deleting mine I deleted yours too. I wasn't offended by the question, which was about the instantly recognizing good/bad writing. As I had said further up in the thread, I have to pass on good writing all the time, and yeah, every agent has passed on books that have gone on to be successful. I'm not trying to say I can instantly divine the quality and prospects of books, just that in general I feel that time reading slush makes a reader better attuned to good/bad writing.

  109. Heidi

    This is interesting. I was speaking with a member of my writer's group the other day, and we both observed that when reading other writers' work for our critique group, finding things that we didn't like, or even blatant mistakes helped us look for and avoid these same foibles in our own work.
    So I agree that reading from the slush pile would be excellent training for any writer.

  110. BookMD

    Nathan –

    If you're still reading comments…!

    Can you explain the new service that Bowker is introducing? Sounds like they will read the slush for publishers?


    Most important, what will this mean for my favorite web site, Slush Pile Hell?

    (Yes, I've read slush. Lots and lots and lots and lots of it. And you do get very fast.)

  111. Jeni Decker

    I think any writer who has spent a significant time workshopping their book on a site where peer reciprocation is involved, can get the basic idea behind the slush pile.

    Only in the workshopping arena, we're also required to read a certain amount, pick nits, offer editorial advice. We can't just say, 'Pass, thanks'.

    So, while we aren't required to go through a slush pile daily, we are fully aware of the 'really horrible writing' out there from writers who could eventually go on to self-publish if they wish.

    That said, I've read some really bad books on workshops that were SO BAD, they'd come around to somewhere in the campy/funny area. Sometimes BAD writing is fun to read. That's why there are websites devoted to those types of things.

    That said, I wouldn't want to have to go through a pile like that daily AND be the dream-squasher!

    I'd prefer to read, reveiew, give a thoughtful, helpful critique and move on, guilt-free.

    The Catholic girl that I once was still has guilt issues, and giving some writing help for a 'bad' piece of work feels like sowing seeds in the garden of heaven;)



  112. Marjorie

    What do you think of the blog, SlushPile Hell?

  113. Tim Chambers

    Having spent a good part of the previous year reading the slush on, I concur that it is definitely a most valuable experience. And yes, a means of asking the readers themselves to sort the pile for the publisher that runs it. You get to see all kinds of stuff that will never make the grade, and it's easy enough after a while to see how your own work compares. It was the best and worst part of being on the site, an experience to which one can truly say "been there, done that." How you guys at the agencies manage to sort through it day after day, year after year is beyond my ken.

  114. Tim Chambers

    Having spent a good part of the previous year reading the slush on, I concur that it is definitely a most valuable experience. And yes, a means of asking the readers themselves to sort the pile for the publisher that runs it. You get to see all kinds of stuff that will never make the grade, and it's easy enough after a while to see how your own work compares. It was the best and worst part of being on the site, an experience to which one can truly say "been there, done that." How you guys at the agencies manage to sort through it day after day, year after year is beyond my ken.

  115. Corey

    1 in 1000 from slush to publication? That has to be the most disheartening statistic I've ever heard.

  116. Kevin

    I was in charge of a short story contest for a few months. The most entries I read in a month were about twenty, but I definitely understand what you're saying. My writing can easily be divided into what I wrote before, and after, the contest.

    And during, I suppose.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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