From the slush pile: an unsolicited admission

15 April 2008

The phrase 'slush pile', wherever it occurs, puts literary people on edge. It makes publishers or agents nervous, wary of attack, and used by a writer (published or not), always seems to mean a landslide of manuscripts glinting with nuggets of gold. But out of tact, no-one ever admits that the gold-glinting slush pile is a sentimental literary cliché to go alongside the idea of the lonely writer sitting in their garret.

Of course good and great authors always have and will come from slush piles, and the greater the writer and the longer their work has remained obscure, the louder this is heralded as a measure of the imbecility of the publishing world. And fair enough.

But for every great book from the unsolicited submissions pile, there has necessarily to be a huge amount in there that simply isn't up to scratch. Whenever I hear the phrase 'slush pile' now, used by someone who doesn't or hasn't worked on one, I always want to explain what the other stuff is like: the bulk and substance of the paper landslides which the (mostly junior) publishing and agency staff have to deal with. So here goes.

Although I don't work on 'slush' or unsolicited submissions any more, I did spend one summer doing so - doing nothing else, in fact - at a major London publisher. As a graduate trainee, I spent three months working my way through the editorial departments with the sole exception of reference books. When I turned up I would introduce myself, be thanked in advance for my efforts, asked if I might have a look through the slush pile, and, giving simpering thanks for the opportunity, back away with an armload of manuscripts towards a spare desk, and begin working through them. I should say here that, like most trade publishers, this one did not officially accept unsolicited submissions, but still received them almost every day.

Quite soon (by, say, my third slush pile of ten), I had identified the main groups into which the authors of slush fell:

1. Nice, normal people

Probably the largest proportion of slush manuscripts came from this group. They were usually people who had recently retired and had more time on their hands, and had taken to looking back on their lives and the times they had lived through. I doubt anyone reaches retirement age without accumulating an amount of experience which they find astonishing, and worth telling people about. But this in itself does not equate to an ability to write with insight. Nor is time on one's hands a reason, in itself, to write a book, and these books were always straight retellings of the events of their lives and nothing else. I used to tie myself in knots trying to phrase the letters as kindly as possible, partly because I knew that every one of the lives could be turned into a good book in the hands of a talented writer. One particularly dispiriting moment came on the contents page of one such autobiography, where chapter 17 was headed something like, '17: Shirley and I move BACK to Hemel Hempstead!' Two types of poetry also fell into this category: adolescent and humorous (mostly limericks). 

2. Non-Fluent English Language Writers

A really (to me) astonishingly large number of submissions came from people whose first language, it was immediately obvious, was not English, yet who sought employment from the publisher exclusively on the grounds of their ability to write English. And they came from incredibly far away: the letters would be postmarked from Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Nairobi or Caracas. They were mostly self-help books, biblical/non-denominational-spiritual/morally proscriptive tracts and unexpected combos such as a beginner's DIY & cookery guide which ran in its entirety to six pages. I wrote letters back to all of them and wondered if they'd get there. 

3. Out-and-out freaks

There were enough of these - quite often they were writing letters just to express themselves and made only passing reference, or no reference at all, to a potential book project. My two most memorable were a (calm, lucid, well written) letter from Ian Ball, who had attempted to kidnap Princess Anne in 1974, shooting four people in the process, claiming that, although he did shoot four people, and try to kidnap Princess Anne, that the whole thing had really happened in 1975, and that therefore his incarceration was illegal. He wanted to publish his autobiography. The second, and much the most offensive thing I've ever read, was a submission written by a paedophile. I could explain how this became evident, but I'll spare you that. It managed to be even more appalling in that it had been sent to the Children's Books department.

By the end of my time there I thought I knew why there was so much slush, and why the majority of it was so poor. Most people who are well-read, or consider themselves book lovers, I thought, have a deep respect for the hard-won accomplishment of the finished book. Therefore relatively few of them have a go themselves, or if they do, submit their efforts to publishers, because they can see how hard it is to do well. What I suspected by the end was that the authors of the majority of slush - and you may hate me for this, but then you've probably never sat down to feast your way through a whole slush pile - don't read very much.