Escaping the Slush Pile
The ‘slush pile’. It’s a particularly unpleasant term for the hopes and dreams of many, many authors seeking a way into traditional publishing. My debut novel, New Pompeii (Titan Books, June 2016) escaped the slush pile in 2014: I signed with an agent, Ian Drury (Sheil Land Associates), and then with Titan Books.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to stress that both publishers and agents are always keen to find new talent. This can be a difficult truth to hold onto when the rejections keep piling up: but it is undoubtedly true. In the last two years, for instance, Titan Books have published debut novels by Rhonda Mason (The Empress Game), Mark Latham (The Lazarus Gate), Marc Turner (When the Heavens Fall) and Ren Warom (Escapology).
The difficulty, however, comes with weight of numbers. I have seen tweets from agents saying they have had 6,000 submissions in a single year. SIX THOUSAND. That’s 500 per month, 115 per week, 16 per day or 3 per average working hour. Clearly, an agent’s / publisher’s first duty is to their signed authors, which means submissions reading is done after hours.
So what does the above mean? I suggest it boils down to these things:
A submission package therefore has to stand out. However, I know that lots of people providing writing advice say this, so I’m going to add a further caveat: it also has to avoid putting an agent off for spurious reasons. The link below is to a video by Piers Blofeld, another agent at Sheil Land. The key statement, I think, is made at 1 minute 21 seconds. “Something on the page allows me to say ‘no’.”
Interesting phrasing that: “Allows me to say no”.
This process is a direct result of weight of numbers. However, it does mean that not putting an agent off is at least important as having a good idea. Basically, in order to manage the weight of submissions, agents seem to look out for ‘red flags’ which hint at trouble. You can think of it like this: when you’re trying to pick a film to watch on a Friday night, the genre, description, actors and even director can all put you off. They are audience ‘red flags’. Everyone uses them, in all walks of life.
Here’s my basic list of basic submission ‘red flags’ that I’ve gathered from attending many writing events, #askagent sessions, advice guides, etc.:
I’ve heard an agent say they reject anything that contains a character being woken up by an alarm clock if it occurs in the first three chapters. With the weight of good material being submitted, getting this right does matter.
There is a massive amount of luck in gaining an agent and a publishing contract, more than most signed authors like to admit. The key thing I wanted to get over in this page is that, after spending years writing something, it’s a waste to hinder your chances with a basic mistake. So keep things professional: imagine you’re an agent who has just worked a 12 hour day and is now reading submissions.
Don’t make it easy for them to say ‘no’!