6.09.2006

Slush pile visual

Hi Miss Snark,

What does a slush pile actually look like? I can't imagine that's it's really just a tall, single stack of paper. That would make it a herculean task to add something to the end of the line. Maybe it's more of a vertical thing. I'm guessing that it's more in one's mind than on one's desk. Just trying to get a visual...


The slush pile is a misnomer. There are no piles of paper in my office, nor in most offices I visit. Stacks yes, but pile connotes disorganized heap, and that's more what I look like in the morning, rather than what the submissions look like.

The mail arrives mid day and the first thing that happens is I sort it into #10 envelopes and flats. The ms returns or other big packages go in another stack. I open the #10 envelopes first. Everything without an SASE gets thrown away. I quickly scan the letters. The ones that I think I'll want pages to read, I send BACK the SASE with a note saying "I told you to send pages the first time ya nitwit". The others go in the start of that days's 'slushpile'.

Then I open the flats. Everything without an SASE gets junked UNLESS it's someone sending me something I asked for. Then I just get annoyed, but I will read it. I also get annoyed when the SASE is tucked carefully under page 15 and I have to search the entire bloody pile of paper to find it. I tuck the SASE envelope around the letter and pages and add it to the stack, face up.

When all the mail is opened I have a stack that is about 6-10 inches high. That's each and every day, rain or shine, six days a week.

The trick is to get the paper OFF my desk as soon as I can. Thus I have a reading system, and most agents I know do too. Here's mine:

First I scan the cover letter. If it's clearly something that's a non starter, I say no and send it back.

Everything that gets past that first cursory look gets read. 90% of that gets rejected on the next pass. That can take a week or more to work through.

The remaining pieces go in a stack that never disappears. I will sometimes read stuff three or four times at this stage. (almost no one else I know does this). I do this cause I want to make sure I only ask for more pages on things I really want to read, and a lot of stuff is ok on the first read but loses its charm later on.

That pile right now is five inches high. The earliest letters are on the bottom face down. I turn the stack over and read from the top when I work on this pile. This is the pile I work on at night, on weekends, and when I get frenzied about being disorganized. THIS is where your letter is if I email you and say "are you really the horse's ass you sound like or was the cover letter just an anomaly, cause I like your writing, but you sound like a pill to work with".

So, no piles but yes, plenty of paper.

28 comments:

Bookview said...

On the writing boards that I frequent, discussions come up now and then about comments from certain well-published authors who do not include an SASE. These authors claim it's the mark of an amateur. Newbie writers, not wanting to look like amateurs, ask if they should include an SASE, because, look, the guidlines say to include one, but Author X says not to. Experienced writers say, "If the publisher/agent asks for one, put one in. And if they don't, it's still courteous."

And someone always pipes up that sometimes the agent/editor doesn't reply at all (some magazines have even made this a policy -- "If you don't hear from us, assume we're not interested"), and asks what happens to the stamps that they've sacrificed. Somehow I can't imagine agents, huddled Scrooge-like over a teapot, busy steaming the stamps off for their own use. Tell me it ain't so.

Jen said...

I love your site! I have laughed, almost uncontrollably, at the stories you tell...

Anonymous said...

Does this mean that the wildly successful Miss Snark can't even employ a single assistant to open her envelopes or help her weed through the first round of decisions (i.e., no SASE you go into the bin). I find this a tad hard to believe, or at least, it makes me wonder if Miss Snark's clients are paying their bills...

Prestidigitator said...

I'd be curious to know how many paper queries the average paper-only agents get as opposed to email-only agents and email/paper agents. I like it when agents only accept email queries.

Somehow I can't imagine agents, huddled Scrooge-like over a teapot, busy steaming the stamps off for their own use. Tell me it ain't so.

I'm sure they don't--my WAG is they toss them in the recycle bin--but as a writer, I consider it very, very rude of them to require the letter and not at least stick the writer's own letter back in with "No thanks" scribbled across the bottom. Those agents should move to email queries or stop accepting submissions if they're that busy.

The Rentable Writer said...

I always imagined it as a towering pile of disorganized papers, with bent edges and coffee stains, that scrapes the ceiling. Hahaha. Thanks for the description, though, Miss Snark. It helps a lot.

Lexi said...

Wow! Thanks for the insight into an agent's office!

funzz said...

My dog, the snivelling anonymous poster strikes again. Still stinging at being told you're full of yourself, hmm?

Ooh, yes; sneer even more condescendingly, baby. We like it like that! You just show the world how badly you can hurt Miss Snark, darling - you're so empowered.

December Quinn said...

Bookview, check the Snarkives. MS has discussed that issue quite a few times. :-)


Miss S, do you keep a stack of pre-printed, folded rejection letters on or in your desk to stuff in the SASE's? Or do you print them up one at a time, or at the end of the day? Just curious. Thanks for the look into your system.

Anonymous said...

That's a really good question. What a great post. Thank you Miss Snark. It is very helpful to know HOW agents work. Writers have a better idea of what they need to do to be effective and make agents' lives easier.

Anonymous said...

it makes me wonder if Miss Snark's clients are paying their bills...

This must be a typo. Surely a high rolling publishing expert such as yourself realizes that an agent doesn't bill her clients directly. Or did you think whether Miss Snark's clients pay their cable bills has some impact on whether she can sell their books?

Miss Snark said...

I've addressed the question of having someone read the queries ahead of me in some earlier posts. A colleague of mine just hired an assistant to do that. It took her a while to find the right assistant and then another block of time (I think it was about two weeks) to read behind her so they could get in sync.

Fobbing the slush off onto an intern or assistant is NOT just a matter of "here Killer Yapp, read this and tell me what you like".

The slush pile is actually an important source of incoming projects. The fact I hate some of the stuff that arrives, and bitch mightily about your cover letters does NOT mean I want to stop reading the slush pile.

I've found some darn good stuff there.

Chiffonista said...

There's actually a photo kicking around somewhere of the slushpile at Tor Books... ah, here it is.

www.michellerowen.com/blog/2004/06/slush-pile-reality.html

Nobody mentioned that, did they? I didn't see it up there.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark: What's the happiest you've ever been over finding something good in the slush pile?

HawkOwl said...

Well that's too bad. I visualized it as one large room in a basement somewhere, with dim light coming from a solitary, dusty, cob-webby window high up near the ceiling, and that mostly on days the garbage truck driver doesn't put the dumpster back quite where it belongs. And on the floor, amid the spiders and the dead insect carcasses, an unstable, approximately conical pile of unopened, yellowed envelopes of manuscripts - some of them so old as to be still manuscripts, that is, hand-written.

Thanks for taking all the romance out of publication. :(

Poohba said...

it makes me wonder if Miss Snark's clients are paying their bills...

Perhaps anonymous MEANT to say that if Miss Snark can't afford to hire an assistant, her clients must not be making any money off their writing either.

I'll give him/her the benefit of the doubt... this time.

Anonymous said...

Re training a new assistant: Kristin Nelson has just yesterday blogged about exactly that.

[[Quite possible someone else will already have posted a link by the time you get to moderate, in which case, please feel free to delete this comment.]]

Bibliophile Bitch said...

I wonder why the emailer needs to visualize your slush pile? I'd like to visualize myself on a best seller list, but that doesn't happen by meditation.
I'd be worried Miss Snark. Someone is planning to steal your gin bucket or stilettos. And it's not me, damn it!
"Visualize yourself in a green field with mountains of papers on either side...oooommmm!"

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark sounds like a person with a zeal, nay a rare talent, for organization. I envy that.

I'll betcha there are plenty of agents out there who actually have those teetering piles of coffee-stained, bent-cornered papers all over the place, and who lose half of what they receive.

Authors whose material finds its way to M.S. should count themselves lucky, even if they get a 'no thanks.' At least they know their query got a fair look.

S. W. Vaughn said...

The colleage being Kristen Nelson, who has some recent entries on her blog about training her assistant. More great insight into what really happens behind closed agency doors.

Anyone who wants assurance that a "lowly literary assistant" will not screw their chances of representation should check out Kristen's latest post. After, of course, you read your daily Snark.

Rei said...

Steaming stamps isn't the only way that agents make money. They secretly run paper recycling business and use that to fund their companies.

Lets take a look for a second at profits. I've seen agents that ask for as much as 50 pages with a query (basically a partial). 10 isn't too unsual, and 5 is pretty common. Lets look at the extreme case: 50 pages per query, 50 queries per day. That's 2500 pages per day; annualized, it's almost a million pieces of paper - ignoring fulls! Now let's say that recycling nets you 1/10th of a cent (I don't have numbers on me, but that sounds right). That would bring in $10,000 per year.

Now lets add in the stamp-steaming funds. Lets say that the stamps are sold second-rate at 30 cents on the postal black market. That adds over $5,000 dollars per year to the tally.

Now, that's not a New York salary, but here's what they do: many agents are simply aliases. A single real "agent" will have ten or so agent fronts. 10% of the cash goes to bribe magazines that list sales to put in fake sales under the alias agents' names, 10% goes to real companies to list their offices in the phonebook under the fake agent's name, 15% goes to the part-time errand boy who takes care of deliveries, stamp steaming, etc, and the real "agent" gets to lay back and enjoy the almost $100k per year in stamp and recycling money. It's easy cash.

We're onto your schemes, agents. We know what's going on.

Manic Mom said...

Miss Snark, what do you mean when you say it's a "Non starter?"

Thank you for giving us a play-by-play of how you work daily. This is really interesting.

You really, really toss any queries without an SASE? I'm assuming you're an agent you specifies no email queries?

Thanks!

BuffySquirrel said...

A non-starter is a horse that's scratched from the race before it even starts. In other words, it has no hope of running, never mind winning.

Manic Mom said...

Thanks squirrel of buffy! : )

Oops, and I see the typo in my earlier comment...

Who specifies not you specifies... sorry.

litagent said...

rei -- you've clued me in on a new business. I've just been sending reams of paper to the municipal recycling center, along with all those unread newspapers and copies of The New Yorker.

crcook said...

Thanks, Ms. Snark, for mysteries revealed. Now for a follow-up question: When you request a ms, do you try to read the entire thing or can you usually tell at some arbitrary point whether you want to pursue it?

michaelgav said...

I am beginning to think of literary agents more as sales professionals (bearing in mind that books aren't prefabricated flanges and that flange makers tend to have more confidence than writers).

The best sales professionals are extrememly organized, have multiple opportunities in the pipeline, and work hard on their presentations and pitches. They are also obsessive about knowing the marketplace, and take their jobs home with them at nights and on weekends. They live or die on their most important relationships, and invest vats of gin in the "relationship-building" aspects of their careers. Managing time is their constant challenge.

A top sales professional is the second-most valuable person in most companies, right behind the president.

I can't imagine trying to navigate an industry as maddening as publishing without one.

Miss Snark, I hope you don't find this comparison insulting. For all the other things agents do, I can't help but think these fiduciary / business / sales-y ones are the most valuable.

Amy said...

Miss Snark, do you prefer queries sent in #10 envelopes or flats? Thanks!

Shannon said...

If I were a literary agent, I'd have the towering stacks and coffee stains. I'm a very hectic person, and terrible at organization. That's why I like email. It's easier to keep track of and sort into folders.

But I'm not an agent and probably never will be. I'm a college student, and will probably end up editing until I get my butt in gear and actually finish a decent novel.

Cheers to you for managing all that paper. Over my head.