Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ISHTAR II and the Slush Pile

Almost from the beginning of words chiseled in stone, there has been a slush pile—literally the mountain of unsolicited manuscripts that accumulate in the offices of publishers. And for decades, it was the hope and dream of unknown writers to have their hidden gem plucked from the pile and go on to be a bestseller. Despite the ishtar odds, which are slightly worse than Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty remaking ISHTAR, there have been a few slush-pile hits, or at least career starts. My friend Kris Montee tells me that she got her first break in 1984 when her manuscript THE DANCER was plucked from the Ballantine slush pile. Kris and her sister Kelly went on to become NYT bestselling authors as P.J. Parrish.

In a recent WSJ article by Katherine Rosman, she noted that CARPOOL by Mary Cahill was the last book published by Random House that originated from their slush pile. That was back in 1991. Today, most major publishers have a strict policy of not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

There are a number of reasons for the death of the slush pile, the biggest being shrinking budgets. Now you’d think that having an unending supply of material at your disposal without even asking for it would be a plus, right? No. First of all, the publisher has to pay employees to weed through the slush. They simply can’t afford it anymore. The rare chance of finding a winner is greatly exceeded by the waste of time reviewing unpublishable work. Let’s face it, there’s usually a good reason why unsolicited work goes unpublished.

Another reason for the demise of the slush pile is the fear of being accused of and having to defend against allegations of stealing someone’s work. Again, it’s all about money. Why even take the chance.

And believe it or not, the anthrax scare after 9/11 became a major reason no one wants tons of unsolicited mail sitting around their offices. Even with no shrinking budgets, money can’t defend you against toxic death.

So how can a new writer hope to get their toe in the door? Get an agent. Next to writing the best book you can, it’s crucial that you find a literary agent. With few exceptions, publishers will only consider material sent to them by an agent. The agent is the primary filter and first line of defense for the publisher. And in some cases, it not only has to be an agent, but one they already know and have an established relationship. Today, there’s much more responsibility placed on the writer/agent than ever before.

A bit of good news: despite all the drawbacks to the slush pile, publishers are of a belief that a diamond might still be hidden among the mountain of coal. As long as there’s even a slight chance, there needs to be a way to find it. So some publishers are creating virtual slush piles. For instance, HarperCollins introduced a website called Authonomy that allows writers to upload a manuscript. Visitors can read the work and vote on their favorites. The HC editors will then review the five highest scoring submissions each month with an eye for publication. How are your chances? Over 10,000 manuscripts have been uploaded so far with 4 bought.

We should be seeing more of these virtual slush piles popping up as time go on, especially with the public doing all the work and only the overhead of the site being the primary cost.

So how did you get your start? Did you submit cold or acquire an agent first. If you aren’t published yet, have you ever sent in an unsolicited manuscript? What was the result?

BTW, anyone know when ISHTAR II will be released?

6 comments:

  1. I got an agent first - I think that's always a wise move to protect your interests as well as get a foot in the door.

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  2. I'm not yet published, so I can't really speak to your question. I just wrote in to say I liked ISHTAR.

    Maybe that explains something about why I'm not published yet. Hmmm...

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  3. That Authonomy site is really interesting--first I've heard of it...

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  4. I'm still waiting for PASSAGE TO INDIA 2: GANDHI'S REVENGE.

    Also, I've heard James Cameron is reviewing a script called AVATAR MEETS ABBOTT AND COSTELLO.

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  5. Oooh! Mike I saw that one. The big blue girl falls in love with Lou cuz he's so cute and chubby, but her bigger blue boyfriend comes after him a this big lightening but larvae thingy...

    ABBOTT!!! AAAABBUUUUUUT!!!!

    Seriously though, the Authonomy thing? I don't know about it. Checked it out when it was new, put a part of a mss on it, but noticed a particular strain to how the "reviewers" leaned. Of course that may be how it is in the slush pile too. I also some early stuff I wrote on a site called Gather, same kind of thing. Was neat until I decided I wanted to actually sell something.

    What has helped me get a real audience, and even a bit of real albeit small, money was podcasting my audio books on Podiobooks.com and iTunes. In addition to getting stuff out and learning the trade I've managed to build an audience of about 10k regular listeners that the statistics catch. Probably twice that many through file replication sites that I can't count. Not huge, but for virtually no marketing, not bad. In the podcast novel world, there are about 300 free audiobooks, and of that a dozen or so authors have been published through traditional presses, and half of those with big contracts and/or movie deals. Statistically much better than Authonomy I think.

    It is another way to get out of the slush pile and try to pop your head above the surface.

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  6. Oh...and I did get an agent too. That's a major step.

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