My point today is going to sound minor at first, even nitpicky, but the more I go on, the more it’s going to sound emblematic of an institutional problem with how certain facets of the traditional publishing industry view themselves and their job.
And my point is that, when an author submits a manuscript to a publishing house (particularly if they don’t have a literary agent there to play hardball with the publishers), it goes in this thing called the ‘slushpile’. This isn’t some isolated social-media mishap by a guy who has about five seconds remaining in his career as a publisher’s social media director; it’s a commonly-accepted term for a literal, physical pile of new manuscripts. No matter which side of the equation we’re on, we all know the term and probably use it unconsciously. It is, as the kids say nowadays with their Snapchats and their Minecraft, ‘a thing’.
How many of you have actually taken a step back and really thought about how ugly a term it is?
Like, for those of you who live in the warmer climes, slush is one step away from poop on the rubric of undesirable substances: it’s that icky, gritty, goopy runoff that comes after snow, unattractive, squishy, and with no real redeeming qualities to its name. And someone, somewhere, some time long ago, has succeeded in making this the semi-official and universal name for what our manuscripts become at the door to the publisher’s office.
I’m honestly hard-pressed to think of any other industry that gets away with openly disrespecting the most important cogs in their respective machines like this – in this case, the authors themselves. Like, imagine the Twitter hellstorm if an office building was found referring to its pile of applications as the ‘vagrant stack’. Before the end of the day, you’d see hundreds of angry tweets and at least one article on Salon about how Company X is representative of businesses who have no regard for the circumstances of desperate job-seekers and no respect for [such and such].
But this is the shit we just kind of accept.
So I’ll just ask this to the writers in attendance: with the knowledge that your manuscript is being tossed into a thing that is literally called “pile of icky, gross goop with no redeeming features”, how confident are you really that your work will be read with the kind of correct mindset, care and attention that is required to appreciate any narrative?
To publishers, I’ll just say this: it’s time to let the term die. Respect cuts both ways. These people are trusting you both with their art as well as the real costs of sending this stuff out cross-country. I get that you have to read manuscript after manuscript and that not all of them can be sterling. I get that. And I’m guessing after the umpteenth typo-riddled manuscript about a rebellious sixteen-year-old with telekinesis, it can be easy to forget the human element, that each and every one of those authors took pains so that you could be reading them. I have more to say about this element of the publishing process, but that will come in another post, or else I’d start sidestepping and before you know it I’m talking about Metroid again or something. So in short, I’ll just say that I’m not entirely sympathetic to these complaints, because reading these things and giving to them the due care and attention that you would expect of your own work isn’t going above and beyond the call of duty; it is literally your actual job.
(Yes, yes, I know that in corporate terms, your actual job probably runs closer to ‘maximizing profits for the company by only accepting manuscripts which you feel have the highest marketability and revenue potential’, but I’m pointedly assuming that those who work in this field still possess some sort of love for the art of literature, so I didn’t phrase it like that.)
What’s worse, the universally-accepted use of the term Slushpile, which universally has negative connotations, might actually be prejudicing the manuscript-reader towards rejection without them even knowing it. Now I have to back up and explain.
It’s amazing how the little tics in our environment can affect our outlook and even our actions. It’s so profound, it’s almost like a form of post-hypnotic suggestion. You probably already know that stores and restaurants use a variety of psychological tricks to maneuver you towards the new and more expensive items, but things that are unintended can be just as strong.
As my example, apply this to publishing houses: the mood of the slushpiler when they get to your piece will depend on a great many things: whether you happen to get read right after lunch when they’re feeling full and content, or right before lunch when blood sugar’s dipping a bit low and they’re looking for a head to knock off its shoulders; whether the barista got their morning latte just right, or if they had to ask twice for whipped cream; whether the usual mail-person called in sick and a new guy came, thereby subconsciously instilling in the employee a feeling of unfamiliarity and disconnection. It sounds super-OCD of me to say this stuff. It’s not. It’s science. When I say that being published is in some respects a lottery, sometimes it’s just the thousand-and-one ambient variables of human psychology.
These things can all affect, however subtly, how the person reading your words feels throughout their day. And while writing is in some respects a science, with its own hard-and-fast rules and guidelines, it is first and foremost an art, and art is in large part about the feelings it evokes in you. If they’re not in the right mindset to read your work when its number comes up, and they can’t get into it for that reason, do you really think they’ll set it aside and come back to it later? No. Rejected, thanks for your submission, hope you didn’t spend too much to mail that 300-page manuscript cross country.
So what do you think it’s doing to them on a subconscious level when they work in an environment that calls your submissions a synonym for Pile Of Gross Goop?
So yes, Ian Malcolm on Jurassic Park was right, chaos theory rules your life and it’s affecting your publishing chances. That was originally going to be a second article altogether, but I saw fit to Turducken them into one.
The bottom line: yes, it’s ‘just a word’. But we in the professional writing industry should know better than anyone that words matter. Any half-decent wordsmith must understand that if you say something a specific way, you’re expected to mean what is written, both in the literal sense and in the subtext. We don’t get to simultaneously hold words in such high regard that we either create meaning through stories, or work in an industry that makes those stories widely available, and at the same time get to pretend that our misuse of those words doesn’t matter. So it worries me – it genuinely worries me – that such a nasty, condescending tone is taken, semi-officially, with one of the most important parts of the publishing process (The actual reading and approval/rejection of manuscripts).
It’s either a big deal and emblematic of a troublesome and poisonous mindset within the industry that needs to be destroyed as soon as possible, in which case we should all stop using the term Slushpile. Or, it’s not a big deal at all. In which case we should stop using the term Slushpile, because if it’s not a big deal, then surely there’s no harm in changing it.
Of course, if it is “just a silly phrase” and not in fact emblematic of a toxic mindset within the publishing community, you’d all have no problem with changing it, right?