The Slush Pile Is Gone: What Ambitious Writers Must Do

Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961
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Great piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the death of the “slush pile”, where would-be writers once awaited rescue from their hard-working anonymity:

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention “D-girls” and “manuscripts girls” from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won’t read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.

It used to be that you could bang out a screenplay on your typewriter, then mail it in to a studio with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a prayer. Studios already were reluctant to read because of plagiarism concerns, but they became even more skittish in 1990 when humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio stole an idea from him and turned it into the Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Coming to America.” (Mr. Buchwald received an undisclosed settlement from Paramount.)

The irony, she writes, is that the Web was supposed to make it easier. Not so. You must have an agent.

Her piece also offers a terrific sidebar on how to sell your material, but I saw some things she left out.

I’m now writing my second non-fiction book for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin; my first, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, was published in 2004 by Pocket Books, the paperback side of Simon & Schuster. In both instances, I easily found an agent eager to sell my work. How?

Be excellent. If that sounds elitist, too bad. The Web, and technology, has given millions of amateur writers the technical tools to produce a lot of material. It has also fostered the seductive illusion that, by banging out a lot of it — whatever it is — you”re now highly experienced as a writer and therefore must be really good and it’s your right to get published right away. Wrong.

Writers whom agents eagerly court are writers with a track record of excellence. We have, most typically, been writing for years, not weeks. We have been published by some of the toughest, most jaded and demanding of editors for outlets like The New York Times or The Atlantic or have passed through the gates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We’ve been vetted.

Hone your skills. Every day. This is not a joke. The most skilled and ambitious professionals I know are deeply committed to their craft. We read, study, watch and listen to work we think inspiring and intelligent. We read/watch/listen to  — and analyze — everything vaguely similar to what we hope to achieve,  fully aware of how much competition is out there and how carefully they are sharpening their swords.

At every level of the game, even with decades of terrific experience and credentials, we take classes and workshops, some even pursuing MFAs or other advanced degrees. We apply for, and sometimes win, grants and fellowships to help us work on material that is perhaps less immediately commercial but helps us grow as artists and creators.  We spend time, money and attention on our skills and our craft.

Get to know other excellent writers. Other terrific writers have already been published and found an agent. If they decide you, too, are ready for prime time, they might share that contact data with you. They also may not. It’s an awkward moment when someone, as they always do, asks for the name of your agent. It’s like asking for your partner’s phone number. That writer may not be a good fit for your agent, in terms of their talent, material or personality.

You best get to know other skilled writers by joining an industry association or group and, best of all, giving of your time and energy so others have a chance to get to know and possibly like you. I sit on the board of the 1,415-member American Society of Journalists and Authors; a fellow board member had a Times‘ best-seller.

Be generous. No one likes a grabby user, and the writing world is filled with them. Just because you reallyreallyreally want to become rich and famous thanks to your astonishing talents doesn’t mean anyone else will rush to get you there — nor should you ever expect this. When you, too, can share a contact or some advice, and you feel comfortable doing so, do it. I don’t help everyone who asks, but I have surprised a few people by doing so. If you are a much younger/less experienced writer asking for help, think through what you can offer in return — maybe a mass tweet or access to your Facebook contacts, all 567,890 of them, when your mentor’s latest production comes out. 

Be strategic. Before you try to find an agent, think through carefully what it is you offer and why that agent, in particular, might be a good fit for you. Ask around. (See suggestion No. 1)

Be patient. Such an unfashionable idea! I wrote at least four unsold book proposals before I sold my first book, then wrote a few more before  I sold my second. It may be hard to fathom, but not everything you write is worth an agent or editor’s or producer’s extremely limited time and attention. If you find an agent, trust their thinking. If you don’t, find another. The world is filled with agents, many of whom may be a very poor fit for you and your work.

Timing is everything. Both of my books wouldn’t have been of as much interest to an agent or publisher even six months before they sold; the mood of the marketplace and the zeitgeist were, at that particular point, especially receptive.  No one wanted my  book about guns or self-protection pre -9/11, but it sold shortly thereafter, when Americans suddenly felt scared in a whole new way. My current book is about working a low-wage, low-status job, something millions are now doing in this recession.

The agent is not your Mom/lover/BFF. They are a skilled professional whose credentials and other clients and projects you will check out thoroughly. Won’t you? You wouldn’t just hand over the keys to your home or vehicle to anyone unfamiliar — but that’s what you’re doing with your hard-earned career when you commit to an agent. Check them out and, if you decide to work with them, and vice versa, respect their time. Don’t burn them out or freak them out by calling and emailing all the time for their reassurance or guidance. That’s what your therapist or writing group is for.

13 thoughts on “The Slush Pile Is Gone: What Ambitious Writers Must Do

  1. andylevinson

    Conservative writers are doing fine….it’s just no one wants to read or hear anymore “hope and change” jibberish

    As for Hollywood…..violence always sells, human struggle against authority…against the MAN…

  2. Nick Obourn


    Nice post. I think the most important advice and the hardest to follow through with is the “Hone your skills everyday.” No matter what kind of writing you do that’s the thing you always hear. Write everyday.

  3. solfish

    I find this article very depressing. Does the impractical mystic of dubious mental health stand a chance of getting published anymore? Does the future of The Word now belong exclusively to self-promoting careerists with agents and MFA’s and fellowships?

  4. Steve Weinberg

    Yes, Caitlin’s advice about becoming a book author for a respectable publisher is accurate and generous.

    I will, however, mention something that she pretty much slid over because she is addressing primarily folks–like herself and myself–who are writing books and magazine features to earn a living.

    If you are a talented writer and want to publish a book but don’t plan to count on writing for your income, you might consider bypassing an agent, at least the first time. If your book would be a good fit, you can approach university presses or regional publishers that will entertain your proposal without an agent involved.

    I have published eight books, all serious nonfiction. I collaborated with an agent on three for major publishers (W.W. Norton; St. Martin’s Press; Little, Brown) and sold the other five myself to university presses and regional publishers.

    Congratulations to Caitlin for accumulating and sharing so much wisdom about writing/publishing. I hope my addendum to her T/S post resonates with at least a few of Caitlin’s audience members.

  5. Facebook User

    eeek, sounds overwhelming. I’m just worried about my master’s thesis at this point :/

    Anyway, nice meeting you last week!

  6. Caitlin, thanks so much for sharing so much valuable insight with us into the mind of the custodian of the creative keys.

    I’m constantly jockeyed by my friends and associates to write a debut novel. They think simply because I’m a descendent of William Makepeace Thackeray that there’s a bestseller waiting in the wings – and I imagine they also want a credit for ‘inspiring’ me in the first place.

    This is where your advice stands out like a diamond in the rough. Be Patient, I shall tell them, because Caitlin says so. And Caitlin is enormously shrewd and clever. I know this already, on account of this post alone.

    As an addendum to your already sage list of advice, I’d throw in Find Your Place. Not just the place to work, but the genre in which you’re heading. Most writers have one area in which they’re comfortable. So focus on that. It’s already too late to deviate, in my opinion.

    Acknowledge your own genius and savour the results.

  7. Marjie Killeen

    Caitlin, this is great advice, especially for a relative newbie like me. But I still need to figure out how to spend the necessary hours honing my craft without packing on the pounds and losing my eyesight. I’m not kidding – my contact Rx went up .5 this year.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Solfish, sorry if you found this depressing but better — no? — to know what you are up against, in my view. There are many teachers eager to take you cash and your hopes while you still, eventually, have to clear the hurdle of a publisher and/ or agent to find an audience. Some do self-publish so that is an option. You still have to be excellent though!

    Dave, thanks for your kind words and such great advice. It can take a while to find your voice, let alone an audience hungry to hear it. While it is extraordinary to be a descendant of so august an author — the pressure! I do not envy you that one bit. There is this odd fantasy that such skills are somehow genetically transmitted!

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    Marjie, I hear you. I gained 23 (!!!) pounds writing my first book as I spent most of my time traveling for research or sitting at the computer. Both my doctors, horrified and mystified, asked me what happened. I wrote a book, I told them…

  10. Pingback: Advice for Aspiring Writers

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