When I began working in publishing, one of my jobs was to read the slush pile--the stack of unsolicited book submissions that pour into the mailbox of any publishing house. In those pre-email days they poured physically through the mail slot in our office door, five days a week. As a young, optimistic eager beaver, I cheerfully tore open envelope after envelope, imagining I might find something brilliant inside.
Many publishers back then had already declared they wouldn't accept unsolicited, unagented submissions, but I thought authors shouldn't be penalized just because they had not been able to find a literary agent. Perhaps I would find a work too original, too daring for the commercial-minded book peddlers to have picked it up, or discover a rustic genius who had banged out the great American novel at her kitchen table and sent it off to publishers without even knowing what agents were. After all, the tales of bestselling authors who have been discovered in the slush pile (such as Tom Clancy and Martha Grimes) were the stuff of industry legend.
I was rapidly disillusioned. Of course, I had expected that 90 percent of what was in the slush pile would be unpublishable--and so it was. The many, many ways in which slush can be unpublishable are fodder for much editorial-department humor, but my point here is not to shoot the fish in that particular barrel. What I came to realize is that the task of approaching a publisher is a useful test of common sense and some of the basic skills required for authorship. Writing a book demands the ability to do probably some kind of research; to string a sequence of coherent paragraphs together focused around a central idea; and to have some idea of what the sort of person who's likely to read your work will be looking for in it.
This is not in the least to suggest I don't recognize how challenging it can be to find a publisher, even for a very good book. I have both respect and sympathy for anyone setting out on that quest. What I'm saying is this: If you are thoughtful and imaginative enough to write a first-rate novel, say, or a gripping historical narrative, you should be able to apply those skills to the process of putting your work in front of an editor. You should not just chuck your query letter into a mailbox addressed to "Editorial Department, Random House" or "To Whom It May Concern". Rather than just sending your stuff to every house in the Literary Market Place from Abbeville to Zebra Publishing, you should find out whether the publisher you're querying even has fiction, or children's books, or whatever, on its list. You would not believe how often my imprint, which states on its webpage it publishes NONFICTION, receives queries from novelists. If you have a little more common sense and a bit more enterprise, you can probably figure out that it makes sense to query publishers who have been successful with the sort of book you're writing; take it one step further, and you can track down the name of an editor who worked on such a book. I am always receptive to a letter from an author who says, "I'm writing a book that I think will appeal to readers of XYZ Title and I saw that you edited it."
But by definition, writers in the slush pile have not taken these elementary steps. They have not gone through the thought process, or done the legwork, necessary to put a well-targeted pitch into the mailbox of a specific person, they have trusted to luck or perhaps the dazzling quality of their work, or they simply haven't thought about it one way or the other. That doesn't mean they aren't gifted; maybe they are naive, untutored geniuses. But it does mean they're not professionals. They aren't thinking about their work or their careers in a businesslike way. And that simply means the odds that they can be successfully published are really slim.
I don't mean this snidely. Creativity being what it is, it's always the case that there are talented writers out there who are totally naive about what might be involved in getting your work published. And once I even found a pretty talented mystery writer in the slush pile, who went on to write several books. That was one author, though, out of the hundreds and hundreds I sifted through--meaning it wasn't 90 percent, but well over 99.9 percent, whose work had not been viable. Given the state of the marketplace, where it seems to take more effort than ever--by both publisher and author--to make a book work, I've had to conclude that the time I might devote to panning the slush pile for gold nuggets is that much less time that I have to spend on all my other tasks.
The 21st century cousin of the slush-pile submission is the query-by-tweet. Not only do we get "Dear Editor" letters, we see messages like this on Twitter. Hey, @BloomsburyPress, I've written a teen paranormal romance. Ppl say it's next TWILIGHT-DM me for details! After seeing one too many of those, I tweeted in response, Dear Authors: Twitter is not the way to query us. And this imprint is nonfiction only. If you want to get published, please do yr homework. Instantly--this being Twitter--I received a stream of tweets disparaging Bloomsbury Press as arrogant and ignorant of the new world where "publishers need to impress and adapt, not writers. We have other avenues."
Now, I celebrate the fact that authors have many ways of reaching readers. Yet as in any other form of writing, it's important to suit your content to the medium. Twitter, a medium of 140-character blurts, is not a good showcase for your ability to write a work of 70,000 words-plus. And since even our Twitter profile says @BloomsburyPress is a publisher of "140+char serious nonfiction," an author who queries us about his YA novel has failed to clear even a pretty minimal threshold of effort. My abovementioned tweet was not intended to disparage or discourage authors, but to offer straightforward, good-faith advice. Twitter is a great tool for authors--but so was the telephone. Neither of them are the right tool for finding a publisher.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)