Traversing the Thorny Thicket

One of the most typical intern jobs around is being assigned to the slush pile, as both I and Brendan have been at different times.

In layman’s terms, the slush pile is the collection of all the new submissions a publisher receives. Part of my job is to sift through the hopeful cover letters and (often) ambitious manuscripts, and divide them into two groups, the ‘Don’t Bother’ and the ‘Worth Consideration’. It’s a job commonly assigned to interns and newbies because it’s intensive, with often little to no reward. However, ploughing through the slush pile is an important step in any intern’s journey for a number of reasons. It allows you to hone your critical thinking skills, as you learn to look for certain signs that a book may have what it takes.

It’s prompted me to think more deeply about why I approve or reject a certain manuscript. Not only do I suggest certain manuscripts for our publisher’s consideration, but for every manuscript I read, I’m required to do up a summary document, where I provide a short synopsis, pick out the elements that are good and/or bad about the manuscript, and justify why I would or would not publish it. It’s quite a lot of power, which has the potential to easily swell this small intern’s head!

Before I even read the manuscript, I’m looking at the cover letter, the biography, the marketing plan, and the way the author sells their work. And so, before we’ve even made it to your manuscript, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. One of the most important, and often overlooked is: can you follow our submission instructions? Someone who hasn’t bothered to add in their pitch, or whose cover letter leaves out relevant details automatically needs their manuscript to work harder for them.

The process of turning manuscript into finished product sees an editor and author working very closely. So when we consider your book, we’re also considering what you will be like to work with. These things come out very easily in cover letters, and will definitely make us reconsider you, even if your manuscript is out of this world. The relationship between a publisher and an author is very much a partnership. The work doesn’t stop once we agree to publish. So, ideally, you want to come across as interesting, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us, to be in the best possible position for us to accept your manuscript.

Now on to the fun part: reading the actual text! At Odyssey, we usually ask for the first four chapters, to give us a sense of the work. When I’m reviewing the slush pile, rarely will I read all four of those chapters. From discussions with various editors and slush pile enthusiasts I’ve met through my work, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own rule of thumb. For me, it’s the first twenty pages. What I’m looking for, first and foremost, is a text that can capture me in those first twenty pages. Even better than that, if I end up wanting to read more than the four chapters an author has sent, that’s usually when I send excitable emails to the publisher, demanding that we request a full manuscript, just so I can know what happens!

How does an author capture my attention and keep it? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to quantify, and is different for every book. Readers today are more spoiled for choice than ever. A novel that can make readers connected to their characters, absorbed in the action and excited to see what comes next, just in the first twenty pages, is going to be one that has a much better chance of succeeding in the market. So I can’t highlight what I want. But I can give you some ideas of what I don’t want.

  • Poor Editing – Oh wow! As editors, we know that typos slip through all the time. We do it too! (only sometimes) But a manuscript that’s full of typos just seems lazy. If an author can’t be bothered to edit their manuscript properly before submission, how are we supposed to think they are at all dedicated to making sure their book does as well as possible?
  • Over-Detailed Introductory Material – This is guaranteed to make me stop reading a manuscript very quickly. The best novels catapult you right into the world you have created. Backstory comes later! It trickles out and keeps you hanging on for more. If you load it all in at the beginning, no one will be hanging around for the middle, let alone the end.

As I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it there. My adventures in the slush pile have made me one of the pickiest readers around. Every manuscript I work with allows me to better understand what it is that makes a novel stand out as publishable amongst the mountain of slush that never will be.

Diamonds in the Slush

I’m going to tell you the story of a story. Not of how the story began, because that is the domain of the author. I want to talk about how the story becomes a book; an object and so much more than that. It all starts with the slush pile, or the submissions list.

The small press submissions list is a place of new beginnings, where first time authors might find themselves picked up and finally offered publication. It’s a wondrous place, filled with both incredible stories and also a lot of passionate writers. They don’t always hit their mark or their words aren’t always for us, but when we find those stories that are “it”, there’s nothing better. It’s an affirmation of what we do, as people bound to the publishing trade. After all, we are passionate readers and writers, and passionate publishers (even if only budding) too. The distinction between a manuscript and a book is an important one, but there are those manuscripts that break the line; that appear as if already bound and printed.

On my first day in the intern job, I was deep in the submissions list. I want to tell you about a manuscript I found that day. I was expecting to find some flaws or a reason why I shouldn’t suggest it for publication. Honestly, I was new at this and I thought that I might come across as naïve if I recommended anything. Half an hour later, I was raving mad. I sent off for the rest of the manuscript. I needed more. There had to be some way in which the first four chapters had overpromised, I thought. The new intern could not have found such a gem on the first day.

But I had.

The whole manuscript arrived. Sure, it had a few things that needed tightening. I scribbled a few notes in places where changes were needed. But it was good. I wanted to write up an acquisitions proposal immediately. But I waited. I again feared that I was being naïve. That there was no way this book was as good as I thought. I re-read bits here and there over a week and my conviction grew: I’d found a brilliant book, not in a book store, but earlier than that. It was like when Harry received a Weasley jumper for his first Christmas at Hogwarts.

I went on to lay out a tentative publishing strategy, mock up a few ideas for the cover and then, finally, I got to edit the book. Yep, me. Editing. A real book. As an intern, this was a big thing for me. This was the first full manuscript edit I ever got to do and this will always be an important book to me, because it was the first that I believed in before I saw it in a bookstore.

We’re publishing it this September, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. For those curious, it’s Hero by Belinda Crawford and thoughts of publication day are giving me butterflies.