Conquer the Slush Pile

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Zach and Katie finished writing their final drafts.

Both have the goal of publishing their books, ideally by the end of next year. But neither one feels all that confident, or excited, about the publishing road ahead.

"I think what I'm gonna do is find the top 10 book publishers, send my manuscript to each one," Zach said. "Probably an email, right? Like a job application?"

Zach's book consists of 20 short stories. He also has a few poems and illustrations. His goal isn't to be a bestseller, but he'd love to see a copy in the local bookstore. Maybe submit one of the short stories to The New Yorker. This isn't a "quit the day job, write full-time" mission for him, but he does like the sound of being an official "published author."

"You can't send it directly to the publisher," Katie said. "Especially not the big ones. They throw all of the 'unsolicited manuscripts' in their slush pile. And once you're in the slush pile, it's never getting looked at."

Katie's book is a sci-fi thriller she's been working on -- off and on -- for nine years. She's done about six different "final" drafts, but feels like this time is finally it. She started working on a sequel and wants to get the first one out to build momentum for a full trilogy. She's not very vocal about her dream, but deep down she wants to write a mega-bestseller and have movies on Netflix. Her main character would be played by Keanu Reeves.

"The big publishers really call it a slush pile?" Zach asked.

"Yeah. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy doesn't it?"

"Something like that," Zach said. He let out a sound that was part laugh, part sigh.

"So then who do you send it to?" Zach asked.

"Well, the smaller, independent publishing houses sometimes accept manuscripts directly, but because there are so many authors and so many manuscripts out there, most traditional publishers rely on people called 'literary agents' to sort through all the submissions and find which ones have potential to be a bestseller, or win awards, or whatever," Katie said.

"So the agents are kind of like recruiters then?" Zach said.

"Exactly. And that's the thing, you don't even send them your full book. They ask for a 'query letter' which, yeah, it's like a cover letter for your book and also some highlights about you as a writer."

"That doesn't sound so terrible."

"Yeah... if you're willing to wait around for months and get rejected a bunch of times."

"Hmmm, I feel like maybe you've tried this before? Sensitive subject?"

"Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday," Katie said, looking off in the distance. "I set out on my quest at night, packed 10 PB&Js in my backpack. I walked 500 miles through the wilderness."

"Let me guess, it was snowing and the climb was uphill both ways?" Zach said with a smile.

"Yep. Twenty degrees below zero too. And so I finally make it to New York City and there it is, the big literary agency."

"But before that, I had to climb a mountain and there was this rickety old bridge with boards missing. There was a pit of lava below. I slowly made my way across, almost falling to my death at least three times. I sprint to the haunted house, manuscript in my trembling hands. There to greet me at the front door is a fire-breathing dragon."

"Alright, now I feel like you're just reciting Shrek."

"The dragon was the easy part. I tip-toe upstairs to the attic and there's the literary agent. He slowly spins around in the chair like that scene at the end of Psycho. I hand him my query letter. He skims it then reads the first page of my book. With no emotion whatsoever he shakes his head. 'Nope.'"

"Did he say what was wrong with it?"

"Not really. I asked him and he said it had potential, but I don't have an audience yet since I haven't been published before."

"But that's what the agent's supposed to help with, right?"

"Exactly. That's what's frustrating to me. It's like applying for those jobs that say, 'We need 10 years experience.' But how am I supposed to get 10 years experience if all the jobs ask for 10 years experience?"

Zach sat in silence for a second, looking down at his stapled manuscript.

"It's just such a letdown, you know?" Zach said. "We worked so hard on these books and it sounds like the publishing stage is even harder than writing the damn thing. Or at least more tedious. I don't know. It doesn't sound very fun."

"And that's the thing," Katie said. "Even if you get a yes from the literary agent, it can take months, years even, for them to get a yes from a publisher. Then the publisher has edits to make and that takes a long time. You're looking at a 2-3 year process, at best."

"But at least you're getting paid for your work after all of that."

"Well, that's tricky too. So the publisher pays the author an advance. They say, 'Here's $5,000.' When you sell a book, let's say the price is $20, that goes against the advance. So it wouldn't be until your 251st sale before you start making new royalties since those first 250 go toward the original advance (250 x $20 = $5,000). And the literary agents wind up with 10-20% of the deal, kind of like sports agents or real estate agents."

"Well, they've gotta feed the dragon."

"And repair the bridge."

"Right," Zach said. "But the advance is much bigger than $5,000 right? Didn't Michelle Obama get paid like $50 million or something?"

"Well yeah, so Michelle Obama, Stephen King, JK Rowling, publishers know they're gonna sell millions of copies of those books so all of the publishers are competing with each other. It's like a famous athlete, every team is throwing big offers at them. But for the vast majority of authors, that advance is in the $2,500 to $10,000 range. If you land one of those big publishers you were talking about earlier, sure, that'll be closer to $10k. But a small, independent press, you're looking at under $5k."

"Wow, that's it? So my only option is to pitch my book to an agent and hope for the best? And two, three years from now I maybe make $5,000? Ten thousand tops? I'm sorry to be such a downer today, but it feels like such a letdown. And I mean, I was never in this for the money or anything like that, but - well, why can't I just get my book out there myself? Why do I have to wait for the green light from an agent in New York City?"

"You don't have to wait," a voice said from the back of the library. "It's not your only option."

"Gandalf?" Zach asked.

"Come again?" the man replied.

"Sorry. Um. Well, I'll just go ahead and ask. Are you... a wizard?"

"No," the man replied. "Just a librarian. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."


"Don't worry about it. The name's Cal. Here, come with me."

The old man waved them to a bookshelf at the back of the library. He pulled an old rare copy of East of Eden off the shelf and looked around to make sure no one else was watching. The bookcase slowly swung open and Zach and Katie looked at each other before walking behind the wizard librarian.

They stepped forward and all they could see was a white fog. It was like staring at a huge blank sheet of paper. They could barely see Cal's blu