Is the slush pile dead? (Plus weekend prompt)

Just read a great article in The Wall Street Journal, Katherine Rosman’s “The Death of the Slush Pile.” While the piece recaps what most writers know—you need an agent to get your work published by big presses, breaking out of the pile can take a miracle—it spotlights slush piles across a variety of writing outlets, and some intriguing stories from within them (such as that fluke that prevented Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight manuscript from being immediately canned).

It also has some solid sound bites—as Jim Levine (Levine Greenberg Agency) says, “These days, you need to deliver not just the manuscript but the audience. More and more, the mantra in publishing is ‘Ask not what your publisher can do for you, ask what you can do for your publisher.’ ”

And then there’s the recap of the Paris Review’s slush pile policy: Interns and grad students sort through some 1,000 subs, and two people review every piece. Stories receiving two thumbs up are moved on to an editor, and ultimately, a single piece makes the cut each year.

(Check the full WSJ article out here.)

For the curious, at WD, our slush pile tends to run behind because of the size of our staff and the amount of work that goes into each issue. But we do  sometimes buy stories from it. (I bought a lede piece for InkWell a few weeks back, and every so often we’ll nab a solid feature query.)

My advice for surviving the slush pile, at least in the world of magazines: Break out of it. In the absence of an actual contact for a submissions/acquisitions editor (few and far between), track down the managing editor in the magazine’s masthead, and then search for that person’s contact information by Googling their name with an “@” symbol. Even if you can’t find the editor’s e-mail address, label the subject line of your slush pile query with ‘Attn: the (appropriate) editor’s name,’ which makes your piece harder to ignore, shows you’ve done your homework, and can cut down on response times. Or use market books like Writer’s Market that have contact breakdowns often delving beyond slush inbox addresses. Be easy to work with, and once the assignment is complete, stay in touch. At the end of the day, nurturing solid relationships can be the key to becoming a go-to writer for assignments, and ensuring that you stay out of that particular slush pile—for good.

*(And, as always, read the submission guidelines and the publication before pitching to make sure your idea is indeed an ideal fit, and search for your subject on the magazine’s website to make sure the topic hasn’t recently been covered.)

WRITING PROMPT: Your 15 Minutes
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

You’re watching a daytime talk show. A familiar face walks onto the stage, you drop what you’re holding and she utters your name on national television.

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3 thoughts on “Is the slush pile dead? (Plus weekend prompt)

  1. Vincent Chandler

    Hello Zachary. The slush pile is indeed not dead and many believe so…I hope.

    I work for Slush Pile Reader, Press a publisher in San Francisco. And much like Authonomy, we allow authors to upload their manuscript so members can read and vote for their favorites; however, we go a step further with a promise-to-publish for the highest ranked manuscripts across all genres. All of this, with no charge to the author – ever.

    As online writer/author forums and social networks abound, so do the level and breadth of support and significance for writers and their craft. For example, Fictionaut is a great online resource, for short-story writers, with an elite group of writing communities embedded within the site to hone and sharpen one’s craft. The stereotype of what one expects to find online and in the slush pile, online and off, is vastly changing.

    Many have been rescued from the slush pile, and many, many more have been lost within it. Just makes me wonder who we’re missing.

    Thank you Zachary, Vincent Chandler

  2. Mark James

    I could say something about Stephanie Meyer and a "mistake", but I won’t. Great article from the Wall Street Journal, Zac, and good tips about the slush pile.

    Martha – nice one.

    I tried to tell her that she didn’t need the duct tape, that I’d watch the show. Didn’t work. Just made her wrap me up tighter. I would have asked my wife where she learned to use duct tape that good, but even without a gag in my mouth, I would have been speechless when I saw my mother-in-law walk onto the set of Cooking Live With Gabbie.

    My wife Beth, she doesn’t know how to cook anything that doesn’t come in a box. I mean nothing. Not even eggs. Okay. A carton is technically a box, but it doesn’t come with instructions. If Nan (her mom), so much as walks by a stove, it’s a downright four alarm fire praying to happen.

    I tried to talk—alright—it was more like begging, but Beth was even better at gags than duct tape.

    “Doesn’t mom look great?” she said. “Out of three hundred auditions, they chose her.”

    Who were the other two hundred ninety nine? Trained chimps? Maybe it was better for me that I couldn’t talk.

    The applause from the audience was just dying down when Nan said, “I got this recipe from my son-in-law – -”

    If she says my name, I thought, I’ll never work again.

    “- – Bryan Charles. He’s a wonderful chef.”

    “Is that who taught you to cook?” Gabbbie said.

    I looked at my wife, shook the chair so hard, I nearly fell over. Make her stop, I tried to shout.

    Beth kept the chair from tipping over, smoothed my hair back, kissed my smoking red cheek. “Careful sweetheart, you’ll choke.”

    “Yes.” Nan looked right into the camera, and oh God, she said my name. Again. “Bryan taught me everything I know.”

    I threw my head back. It was bad enough my career was ending. I didn’t have to watch the pieces fall out of the sky.

    “It’s a live show,” Beth said. “Isn’t that exciting? Mom cooking live?”

    Riding a rollercoaster around that last big curve, the one that loops and turns you upside down, makes you feel like you should risk your life everyday on tons of steel, just for the rush—that’s exciting. This was a nightmare, a disaster, the Four Horsemen breathing down your neck.

    Gabbie turned to the audience. “Today, Nan will be showing us her son-in-law’s recipe for Roadhouse Special Chili. Stay with us.”

    A commercial with dancing bubbles came on. At the end, a guy in pink tights wearing a matching pink ball danced across the screen with a toilet brush, told me to “keep those bubbles coming”. Suddenly I could see my future, flushed down a sewer, rushing out to a dark, jobless ocean.

    I closed my eyes.

    “It’s mom. Look. She has the hand written recipe you gave her.”

    I proposed to Beth over a bowl of chili. I wrote down the recipe so Nan could have it for our wedding scrapbook.

    “We’re all ready when you are, Nan. Go ahead and light us up.”

    When she wrote her happy hostess script, I don’t think that Gabbie woman had a real fire in mind.

    Too bad.

  3. Martha W

    Great post, Zac. Have a good weekend!

    Mark, wow. I think this is the first time all month that I got here first… *grin*


    Todd hated Tuesdays. Laundry day. Every damn Tuesday for as long as he could remember. The one habit that lingered from college. The only thing that made them worthwhile were the talk shows on channel two. Dropping another load of whites on the couch, he sank down next to them and turned the volume up.

    "Today we’re talking about men who walk out on their pregnant women."

    Ugh. Losers.

    "Today we’re going to talk to…" The rest of her speech faded off as the brunette being introduced walked on the stage. It couldn’t be.

    Her face was softer, rounder. But those blue eyes still carried the same old punch to his gut. Still brought the same burn to his heart.

    He sucked in a breath and tried to silence the thunder of blood rushing in his ears so he could listen. Why was she on a talk show about losers? Who would leave her? God, if he had his choice–

    He shook his head. He didn’t so there was no point.

    "Why don’t you tell me who brought you to this show?"

    He grabbed his drink off the side table as he waited for her answer. Taking a slug, he watched her chest heave with a deep breath as she answered. "Todd Myers."

    He never really believed it when he heard a person could drown on a tablespoon of water until just that moment. As he gasped for air, pounding his chest with his fist, trying to reach his back, he listened as she described a skewed version of their breakup.


    Their last fight still haunted him. The final words of their relationship were over a ring that she would never accept. Her career was too important to shackle herself to a common engineer like him.

    Outrage began a steady ascent, turning his pale skin flaming red. How could she do this? Damn it. He had spent the last four years waiting for a call that never came from her. How dare she do this!

    He lunged to his feet, intent on calling the show to find out how to locate her. To vindicate himself. There was nothing so important to warrant her stooping so low. Dragging him into the mire with her. Nothing.

    "I just want him to meet his daughter."

    And then he saw her.

    Pigtails. Strawberry blonde hair. Button nose. Impish green eyes. Like his.

    Okay. Maybe there was one thing.