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A Good Author Is Hard to Find

Memo from Inside the Publishing Industry

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Daniel Krall

Mention the word "slush" to anyone who's worked in publishing for longer than five minutes, and you're likely to get an expression of sheer horror. Slush pile is a term used to refer to the collective mass of unsolicited manuscripts and query letters—novel or nonfiction synopses with a few sample pages attached—that daily deluges the offices of agents and editors throughout the industry. Occasional hits emerge from the morass: Twilight began as an unsolicited query. But far, far more often, the slush pile's contents are a cross section of the staggeringly mediocre and the truly deranged, the balance of humdrum-to-nutball shifting depending on the week, the season, and (I swear) the phases of the moon. As an assistant to a literary agent, my job is to act as a human spam filter, picking out the rare promising tidbit to pass on to my boss and deflecting the rest with a polite but firm form rejection.

The world of the unsolicited query is a strange one, populated by renegade aliens, evil Russian scientists, and improbably large-breasted women. Apocalypse is often pending. Aliens figure prominently, as do the Mafia, strong and silent men, vampires, demons, angels (fallen, guardian, tempted/ing, various degrees of smutty), disturbingly racist visions of extremist Muslim terrorists, passive and lascivious women from a variety of tropical locales, black gangsters, and money-grubbing Jews. Potential audiences in the millions are cited (e.g., "There are 3,456,787 people who like horses in the United States, all of whom will read my book Love on Four Hooves"). The query's author is regularly the next Dan Brown/Stephenie Meyer/William Faulkner or some combination of the above.

Any given morning might bring the Old Testament rewritten by George Bush Sr., a management guide whose author is possessed by the spirit of Nikola Tesla, a 200,000-word epic about a Nazi-­battling rocket scientist, picture books featuring woodland creatures with nauseatingly alliterative monikers (Tippy Tommy Turtle, etc.), erotic poetry about Santa Claus: book ideas so startlingly awful I cannot even make them up, but must wait for them to arrive in the inbox one after another with the regularity of a metronome.

Rendered in a labyrinthine and frequently unintelligible grammar, the truly awful query is often notable for its length, its torrid verbosity, and the mechanical specificity of its sex scenes, which tend to read like appliance-repair manuals in their exhaustive and emotionless depictions of moving parts. The bad query's sentence sometimes resembles a battlefield wherein subjects hack it out desperately with adjectives,perennially besieged by legions of unwieldy adverbs. Apostrophes go on suicide missions and commas appear at random. Formatting tends to be interpretive; it is not uncommon to find e-mails that are 50 pages long, are bright pink, contain pictures of the author on vacation, or are written in Papyrus.

The general assumptions about successful writing one assumes to be relatively fundamental (author has fairly solid understanding of grammar, has developed cohesive and intelligible plot, possesses at least a tenuous grasp on reality) go out the window altogether. After years as a slush reader in various aspects of the industry, I am quick to recognize and dispatch; I can often tell within the first sentence if a query will be any good, and I am now so ruthlessly efficient that I can blow through an inbox of 50 e-mails in half an hour, sometimes rejecting submissions within moments of their arrival.

What is notable about these missives is that they emerge most frequently from placid backwaters and sleepy Midwestern towns, that vast expanse of "the middle" so famously spurned by New Yorkers and left-coasters alike. A slush veteran is left imagining a series of identical suburban homes, each containing its own madman churning out treatises on intrepid terrapins, the seeding of the earth by lizard people, and legions of brown-skinned immigrants constructing terrorist plots and conjuring the overthrow of civilized society. Persons who seem not to have ever read an actual book in their lives, but who have nevertheless developed comprehensive views on the nepotism and intellectual elitism of the publishing industry at large, which is (of course) controlled by "politically correct" quasi-­Communists pushing some nebulous but entirely nefarious agenda of homosexuality and Jesus-hating. I know this because a number of unsolicited queries take great pains to tell me so, somewhere in between the synopsis, the character description, and the inevitable Erotic Moment.

The slush pile seems, in some sense, to serve as a sort of representative sampling of the collective unconscious of the American public—a surreal landscape of vengeance, conspiracy, otherworldly beings, and really big guns. Sexual relations between ladies and gentlemen are fraught with peril (especially given that one or more participants in any romantic endeavor may very likely be aliens, demons, were-vampires, undead, or in a coma); queerness is almost nonexistent, as is any sort of radical politics (unless by "radical" one means "hoping to overthrow the government and install in its place a parliament selected by extraterrestrials from a more spiritually advanced dimension"); and people of color exist only as grotesque caricatures.

I wish I could say that my role as an intermediary between the humble masses and a publishing contract has taught me grace and compassion; instead, it's taught me that the world is overrun with racist, lady-hating lunatics, hell-bent on inflicting their own horrific visions upon an unsuspecting populace. And yet, once in a very great while, I find a little island of magic in a sea of despair: that query so lovely, so perfect, so charmingly funny that I can almost picture its author, its sample pages peppered with a handful of flawless phrases that make me catch my breath in wonder and think, Yes, thank God, this one. This one. For that chance, I'll keep reading. recommended

*The rejectionist is a pseudonym for an assistant to a major New York City literary agent. You can follow The Rejectionist's day-to-day adventures at www.therejectionist.com.

 

Comments (28) RSS

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1
Love the blog. I read it daily. I wish I could send you my query but I don't know where you are.

"Snowy snowy wings" was my favorite line ever from your posts.

I'm in Seattle and I don't write about lunatics. :)
Posted by AmyK on November 25, 2009 at 4:31 PM · Report this
2
Good article, and you;ve made a blog fan. I often tell people who ask that a well-crafted query letter is vitally important. And still, it may all depend on who reads it, at what time of day, and what that person had for lunch.
Posted by Corey on November 26, 2009 at 12:16 PM · Report this
3
Love that last line. For that chance, I'll keep writing.
Posted by M.Witzl http://witzl.blogspot.com/ on November 27, 2009 at 11:09 AM · Report this
crazycatguy 4
And yet, Twilight is such a stinky pile of crap...
Posted by crazycatguy on November 27, 2009 at 1:29 PM · Report this
Josh Bomb 5
looking forward to more Rejectionist columns!
Posted by Josh Bomb http://www.satanosphere.com on November 27, 2009 at 1:46 PM · Report this
6
I know the guy who wrote the management guide whose author is possessed by the spirit of Nikola Tesla. I swear to God. In case you wondered, he's the most narcissistic, creepy-ass closet case you've ever imagined. He quotes his own book in status updates on Facebook, but it's not egocentric because he's not really quoting himself, he's quoting Tesla, see?
Posted by katallred on November 28, 2009 at 1:17 AM · Report this
7
I know the guy who wrote the management guide whose author is possessed by the spirit of Nikola Tesla. I swear to God. In case you wondered, he's the most narcissistic, creepy-ass closet case you've ever imagined. He quotes his own book in status updates on Facebook, but it's not egocentric because he's not really quoting himself, he's quoting Tesla, see?
Posted by katallred on November 28, 2009 at 1:19 AM · Report this
8
Hmm. Your job sounds like a lot of fun, but you're bitching about it. Maybe you just don't know the difference between comedy and tragedy? Also, if the slush pile is so deep and diverse (if almost uniformly crappy), how come you can only remember about four examples? This is self-indulgence at a whole new level, which is saying something at a paper that employs Mudede, Kelly O, et al.
Posted by Blarg on December 1, 2009 at 7:32 PM · Report this
9
"but who have nevertheless developed comprehensive views on the nepotism and intellectual elitism of the publishing industry at large, which is (of course) controlled by "politically correct" quasi- Communists pushing some nebulous but entirely nefarious agenda of homosexuality and Jesus-hating."

Uh.. not for nothing, but I think you just proved them right.
Posted by Umm..Yeah on December 1, 2009 at 8:14 PM · Report this
10
Written in Papyrus? Don't you mean on?
Posted by ggg on December 3, 2009 at 1:57 AM · Report this
11
ggg: papyrus the font, not the paper.
This is the first time I've read this blog and I am most definitely a fan.
Posted by writer in the shadows on December 4, 2009 at 6:41 PM · Report this
12
i live in cincinnati, oh, and yeah... the houses are all alike and i'm certain there's a crazy person in every basement churning out the "next big thing" -- probably a love story about jack the ripper and stalin where ripper stumbles upon a time machine and travels into the future to find his one true love.

love your blog.
Posted by lexcade on December 6, 2009 at 11:38 AM · Report this
13
Hey, this is incredibly inspirational - I'm already firmly into the pile called "Maybe" simply by virtue of not being a raving lunatic. :)
Posted by Pelotard on December 7, 2009 at 2:19 AM · Report this
14
So the churning madmen, in their identical suburban homes scattered across the 'placid backwaters and sleepy Midwestern towns, that vast expanse of "the middle" so famously spurned by New Yorkers and left-coasters alike' have somehow developed 'comprehensive views on the... intellectual elitism of the publishing industry at large'?

Where'd the dumb hillbillies ever get THAT idea?

Posted by laffingboy on December 7, 2009 at 5:34 AM · Report this
15
Hi, which agency do you work for? I'd like to know, so I don't send my query there by accident. Seems like you have enough troubles on your hands, I'd hate to send you a query that doesn't have all the liabilities you've cited in your rather snarky article.
Posted by ipscabibble on December 7, 2009 at 7:04 AM · Report this
Rev.Smith 16
Love the rejectionist & have for many months- thanks stranger/ paul for bringing her here!!
The cracks about 'Steve' are the awesome, too.
See:


"Received fictive effort from different Friend of Friend of Friend of "Steve," containing non-ironic usage of the word "wiener." To refer to his--uh, the "narrator's"--masculine apparatus. In a sex scene. As in: I felt my wiener sti--

You know what, never mind. Just because we had to read it doesn't mean you do. Suffice it to say we are including bill for emotional damages with rejection letter."


Dat's some good shit.

See also:
http://blog.bookviewcafe.com/2009/11/25/…
http://www.elizabethwrites.com/blog/
http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/20…
http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2009/10/1…
http://www.romancingtheblog.com/blog/200…
Posted by Rev.Smith on December 7, 2009 at 10:50 AM · Report this
17
Oh. Mylanta. I think I just had an "Erotic Moment" reading this post.

If it takes a million words to become a good writer, then how many million writers' bad words have you read? The answer makes my head hurt.

How many licks to get to the center of a tootsie roll pop?

Posted by jmartinlibrary on December 7, 2009 at 8:45 PM · Report this
18
As an editor for a big New York publishing house, I think it's kind of funny-sad that an agent wrote this. I'll admit that I've had my share of bizarre submissions, yeah, but as some comments here have pointed out--this is the epitome of elitism. This might be something to joke about with your friends, but a public forum on this feels like poor taste.

Agents go through slush even more than I do I suppose, but the intrinsic assumption here is that our Rejectionist knows what's best and what deserves to be published. However, having seen how projects go from Word docs on someone's computer to a book on the shelves, I think one thing's clear: it's not always about the quality of the writing. And it's certainly not always about the quality of the agent.
Posted by nyc editor on January 5, 2010 at 7:10 PM · Report this
19
nyc editor @18: Hey, what a coincidence -- I'm a NYC editor too, and I don't see anything wrong with this entry. Joking and blowing off steam about the badness of slush is pretty much a universal constant in the industry, and doing so in public is no problem as long as you don't identify specific works or individuals.

You know what I find odd? A supposed editor flinching over jokes about slush, calling them "the epitome of elitism" (spare me), and objecting to The Rejectionist's assumption that it's possible to tell what's good and/or publishable.

That last assumption is the basis of the editor's trade. Are you sure you aren't really an author?
Posted by TNH on January 6, 2010 at 6:37 AM · Report this
20
I'm a slush reader for a magazine as well as a writer, and I have to say that, although rather strongly worded, it's pretty accurate.

When you think about it, what kind of people have the time and dedication to finish an entire novel-length work? Madmen, that's who. (And madwomen, of course.) Either you're mad from talent, or simply mad. Since genius is far rarer than insanity, you'll find a few gems in the slush pile, buried under the ravings of the rest.

Normal, healthy, well-adjusted human beings don't have the time or the stomach to write novels.
Posted by FawnNeun on January 11, 2010 at 1:40 PM · Report this
21
Nah. We're all driven mad by the pain of a thousand paper cuts inflicted by vile guardians of the kingdom such as yourself, cruel rejectionist, who don't recognize our genius.

On a more serious note, if that's what represents the vast majority of the slushpile, it may just be what America wants to read. By denying reality, you've limited books to a niche market of the (temporarily) sane.
Posted by bookish on January 13, 2010 at 11:08 PM · Report this
22
Great post - very funny and unfortunately I suspect all too true.

You note that "these missives...emerge most frequently from placid backwaters and sleepy Midwestern towns, that vast expanse of "the middle" so famously spurned by New Yorkers and left-coasters alike," but then go on to say that they "serve as a sort of representative sampling of the collective unconscious of the American public."

I would like to point out that the vast majority of people in this country live on the coasts, and therefore they (we - since I live there too) represent the American people - not the cutesy, 'real' Americans who live in the heartland, even if they do have a disproportionate impact on the American Presidency. WE are the 'average' Americans and thankfully we are not as homophobic, racist, misogynist, or anti-Semitic as your slush pile might lead you to believe. Unfortunately, it appears that we have not been writing nearly enough manuscripts, or at least not sending them your way. I'll get right on that.

In the meantime, keep up the fight - odds are that you'll find another few gems in there that will make the slog through the pile worthwhile.

Good luck!

Danielle
Posted by Danielle42 on February 22, 2010 at 8:39 AM · Report this
23
I can't be the only one who thinks "a 200,000-word epic about a Nazi-­battling rocket scientist" could be a pretty good read if done right.
Posted by madscientistmatt http://madscientistmatt.blogspot.com on September 14, 2010 at 5:17 PM · Report this
24
I can't be the only one who thinks "a 200,000-word epic about a Nazi-­battling rocket scientist" could be a pretty good read if done right.
Posted by madscientistmatt http://madscientistmatt.blogspot.com on September 14, 2010 at 5:19 PM · Report this
25
@madscientistmatt

Nope - I want to read that one too! What's not to like about a Nazi-battling rocket scientist? How is that any more silly as a concept than a Nazi-battling archeologist, a.k.a. Indiana Jones, protagonist of one of the most successful movie franchises ever?
Posted by Becks on October 6, 2010 at 10:44 AM · Report this
26
You really should get this stuff into a book you know . . .
Posted by Yuri on November 2, 2010 at 11:12 PM · Report this
27
So, in order to be worthy of publication, a writer has to accept and endorse homosexuality? Socialism? Communism? Thanks so much for being the latest exhibit in the argument for the Liberal minority trying to force their beliefs on the rest of the country.
Posted by whatever59 on December 4, 2011 at 8:02 PM · Report this
28
For Danielle...

83% of Americans are Christian.
http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyN…

34.3% Republican, 33.1% Democrat
http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_c…

At least this stupid rube knows how to use research to back up a statement. Liberal majority MY ASS.
Posted by whatever59 on December 4, 2011 at 9:14 PM · Report this

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