Apr

19

2012

The Mystery of the Slush Pile

by Tamela Hancock Murray

When you submit a manuscript or query to an agent, you may wonder what happens to it, and what our thought processes are regarding the properties we offer to represent versus those we must respectfully decline. Every agent is different, but you may find learning about my process helpful.

I have a very smart assistant. When she reviews my slush pile submissions, she goes through a winnowing process.

The first submissions she rejects are those that are obviously not a fit for me. These include:

1.) Stream of consciousness submissions. If she can’t figure out what you are talking about, she sends it back. By this we don’t mean that we don’t understand systematic theology. It means that the query letter is incoherent.

2.) Error-ridden letters. Even the best of us can type “here” when we meant to type “hear” but more than one error in a final letter is a red flag that either the author is not well-versed in basic grammar or will turn in careless, sloppy work.

3.) We rarely acknowledge queries sent as an email blast in the cc line to the entire industry. It is a form of spam. Target a select few and then personalize your proposal to each.

4.) Books that aren’t in categories we represent.

Submissions that bypass these four problems, among others, and otherwise show promise are passed on to a reader. The reader looks for factors such as:

1.) Excellent writing.

2.) For fiction, coherent plot.

3.) For nonfiction, whether the intended audience is likely to connect with the topic.

4.) Overall message of book, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Our reviewer’s opinion carries weight. If the manuscript doesn’t pass muster, the reviewer reports as to why it doesn’t. Based on the evaluation, unless my assistant has an extremely good reason to disagree, a rejection is sent. But if it survives that initial read, then the submission is sent to me for final evaluation. At that time, I must consider many factors as I make my final decision. The factors differ, depending on the author’s publishing history, type of manuscript in question, and my belief in its marketability. The main point to remember is that rejections from my office are never a reflection of a writer as a person, and I think most agents would make the same statement. I wrote books and articles for many years, so I know what receiving a rejection letter feels like. Since so much of yourself is put into your work, rejection does feel personal. One of the most difficult parts of my job is sending a rejection notice to an author I know and like. But if I waste her time, mine, and the editor’s, then attempts to market out of a sense of friendship won’t help any of us.

On the flip side, when I do offer representation, you can be confident that in my representation, you will have the full support of The Steve Laube Agency.

Your Turn:

What is the longest you’ve had to wait for an agent to reject or accept your work?

Did you earn an offer of representation for your first manuscript, or did you write several books before finding success?

42 Responses to “The Mystery of the Slush Pile”

  1. Kara I April 19, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    An agent, from memory about six months.

    However, I am pretty sure I’m gunning for a record for a proposal with a publisher – almost two and half years! And yes, I do know it hasn’t fallen down the back of someone’s desk :)

    I decided sometime in 2011 that I’m just taking an unusually scenic route to rejection ;)

    The good news is it’s a great illustration to friends who aren’t writers as to how long things can take in publishing when I tell them that in the time I’ve had a proposal with a publisher I’ve (1) gotten married (2) bought a house (3) changed jobs and (4) had a baby.

    • Sybil Bates McCormack April 19, 2012 at 5:19 am #

      Hi, Kara… Your post is both hysterically funny :-)and profoundly sad :-( at the same time. I think it’s terrific that you have such a great attitude about it, though… LOL!

    • Jeanne April 19, 2012 at 9:19 am #

      Wow, Kara. Perseverance on your part. :) Hope you hear something before any more babies come alog. :)

  2. Nathan April 19, 2012 at 3:30 am #

    Tamela, you are always helpful in your posts. The waiting is the hardest. I’m in the wait for a science fiction novel and for a marriage enrichment non-fiction. While I wait I’m writing another exciting general fiction novel. I know it won’t be mutch longer, if I keep pressing on.

  3. JennyM April 19, 2012 at 4:01 am #

    So far? It’s been roughly….20 hours. And yes, I am going ever so slightly insane.

    ;)

  4. Adam Blumer April 19, 2012 at 5:16 am #

    The longest I’ve had to wait? I’m still waiting, and that was summer 2009. By now I’ve learned that the no response was a no. One agent I met at a conference (who shall remain nameless) listened to my pitch with interest, invited me to send a proposal (which I did), and even accepted a free copy of my last novel. He/she agreed to get back to me on my proposal and never has. I call that rudeness to the fullest degree (and this is a well-known agent). Thankfully, I’ve moved on, and I did find a publishing home for that project. But perhaps you can understand why I regard literary agents overall with some suspicion and distrust. Important lesson to pass on: do what you say you’re going to do, especially if you’ve attached the word “Christian” to the word “agent.”

  5. Joshua Richardson April 19, 2012 at 5:41 am #

    The longest wait can be described as “Forever” because some agents have a policy of replying only if the query sounds good to them. They ignore the query if it doesn’t. (I’ve even heard this bluntly stated in workshops at conferences.) Yes, I understand that even copying and pasting a form rejection takes a few seconds for each one. However, when an author has studied a host of agents, narrowed down the list to the one person he most would like to rep a project, and offers that individual an exclusive pitch… Well, it sure would be nice to know for sure whether you’ve been rejected 30 days later or 6 months later, or longer. Even a standardized rejection saves the writer from wasting time by waiting in vain. I suppose this is the best argument against offering any agent an exclusive proposal.

  6. Adam Blumer April 19, 2012 at 5:56 am #

    Tamela, I appreciate what you said about sensitivity when rejection must be communicated. I should have added that my bad experience didn’t involve anyone at your agency. Quite the contrary actually. Steve replied within a month or so after I sent him the proposal for my first novel, and though he declined to represent me, his two-page letter of suggestions was just what I needed to take the novel to the next level. And Kregel later accepted the project, thanks to his advice. So I have only the highest regard for you and your agency (and I do trust Steve). I just wanted to make this clear. Thank you.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray April 19, 2012 at 10:09 am #

      I appreciate the clarification, Adam. I’m so sorry you had a bad experience. Glad to hear it wasn’t with us! In fact, I’ve heard many accounts about how, through rejection letters, Steve Laube has helped authors take their writing to the next level, often resulting in eventual publication. I know he’ll appreciate seeing your story when he stops by to read today’s comments. Thanks for sharing! :)

    • Steve Laube April 19, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

      Thank you for the compliment. It especially gratifying to know that the advice actually helped!

      • Adam Blumer April 20, 2012 at 4:54 am #

        Steve, the advice was apparently spot on because after I made the changes, Kregel wanted my book. Thanks again!

  7. Cindy R. Wilson April 19, 2012 at 6:52 am #

    This sounds like a really great process, and I appreciate when agents and their agencies are so thorough. The longest I’ve waited for a rejection from an agent was about a year, from sending the proposal to getting the final rejection. There were a lot of e-mails in the process, and editing and such, and though it was tough getting a rejection after so long, I learned a lot about writing and what I truly love to write in the process. Thanks for this post!

    • Lindsay Harrel April 19, 2012 at 8:06 am #

      It sounds like you’ve learned a lot through the waiting process. And hey, congrats on semi-finaling in the Genesis! :)

      • Cindy R. Wilson April 19, 2012 at 8:20 am #

        Oh, Lindsay, you’re a sweetheart :) Thank you so much!

  8. Sally Bradley April 19, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    I guess since I never heard back from two agents when I queried back in ’05, I’m in the lead with a seven year wait! But two others did offer representation so that made it all okay. :)

    I’ve worked for a small publisher and was lucky enough to get to read the slush pile. I mean that sincerely. It was eye-opening. That was well over a decade ago, but only ten to twenty percent of all that came in even fit what our house published. From that amount, maybe half was done professionally. And that really stood out.

    Tamela, do you find the slush pile is still mostly stuff that doesn’t fit, or are people doing a better job with their submissions?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray April 19, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      Sally, in the twelve years I’ve been an agent, I’d say the slush pile hasn’t improved. Too many people seem to take my name from a big list of literary agents — and there are lots and lots of those lists — and send their proposals with very little thought. However, the slush pile is still valuable because sometimes it yields amazing gems!

      • JennyM April 19, 2012 at 10:49 am #

        Keep an eye out ….coughhintcough. Do you take bribes? I funded two mission trips on cheesecakes, cinnamon buns(avec cream cheese frosting) and chocolate pate. My buns are legendary ’round these parts. ;)

  9. TC Avey April 19, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    I’m still waiting.

    Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the selection process.

  10. L.Marshall April 19, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    Your process sounds markedly better than this quote:

    “From Martin Eden on submitting manuscripts: “There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. It was like the slot machines wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing-gum or a tablet of chocolate. It depended upon which slot one dropped the penny in, whether he got chocolate or gum. And so with the editorial machine. One slot brought checks and the other brought rejection slips. So far he had found only the latter slot.”
    ― Jack London

  11. Kathryn April 19, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    Thank you Tamela for shedding some light into the secret world of the “slush pile.”

    What is a “reader?” I know… but, I’m new in this realm. I understand the concept of an assistant, but I’m curious about a reader. I might have been absent the day it was discussed. :)

    I waited seven months to hear from an agent. I’m close to finishing my next novel though! I don’t usually choose patience as a virtue to practice, but the wonderful by-products of cheerfulness and faith have enriched my life!

    I posted this verse on my storyboard…”Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1 NIV

    • Cindy R. Wilson April 19, 2012 at 7:41 am #

      Kathryn, I love your comment :) If we could we patient, productive, and prayerful while waiting to hear from agents (or publishers, even contest judges)…now THAT is a good use of time.

      • Kathryn April 19, 2012 at 9:32 am #

        Thanks Cindy. I guess we all have to practice, practice, practice! Have a delightful day. :)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray April 19, 2012 at 10:42 am #

      Kathryn: In my office, the reader is the person who receives submissions that have promise, and that person vets those promising submissions for me before I read them. This saves me a lot of time, because my reader will tell me whether or not the submission actually lives up to the promise of the premise of the book. Hope this helps!

      • Iola April 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

        Interesting to see that a submission actually goes through at least two other people before you see it – and how easy it should be to at least get to that second stage of appraisal by the reader.

        Any jobs going as reader? And how many applications would you typically get for one? I’m guessing hundreds!

  12. Lindsay Harrel April 19, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    I’m still in the waiting process, but it’s very helpful to see what it’s like from your perspective. I think it would be interesting to know what the process is like from the editor’s side. Why does it sometimes take months and years before an editor gets back to you? (I’m not saying the waiting is unreasonable; I’m just curious about the “why” behind it.)

    Thanks, as always, for your honesty and encouragement. :)

  13. Sundi Jo April 19, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    I put all my eggs in one basket and sent my proposal to one publisher, then waited. And waited.. And waited.. Almost a year before they declined.

    I learned not to put all my eggs in one basket. It wasn’t until I started submitting to various publishers and agents that I got the book deal.

  14. Ruth Douthitt April 19, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Thanks for your encouragement! It can be tough waiting for that response. I have received the rejections letters and I also have received responses of encouragement from an agent to keep writing.

    And so I am!

    Blessings!

  15. Cecelia Dowdy April 19, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    The longest I’ve had to wait for acceptance or rejection? FOREVER! LOL! I’ve submitted proposals, years ago, to a few editors and/or agents that never accepted or rejected, at all! I’m assuming if it takes more than a few years, the answer is no!

  16. Melissa Jagears April 19, 2012 at 8:47 am #

    I sent two agents my requested full 2 years ago (I’m going on the assumption that fulls wouldn’t get the “no answer is a no”), and haven’t heard from either – one I’ve talked to and she admits to not having gotten to it though she remembered it. In the meantime, I’ve rewritten the entire book (so maybe the long wait will have worked in my favor), so once it gets through my last beta reader this week hopefully (Beta reader has had it for three months now because of life problems–everything is slow!) Then I figure I’d resend it to them in the new form and maybe they’ll take less time to reject it. :)

    The third agent I contacted was nice enough to tell me within the week she was considering it and to give her some time. She rejected with some suggestions within the month. That was very nice, let’s you know where you stand.

    • Sybil Bates McCormack April 19, 2012 at 8:57 am #

      Hi, Melissa… I guess I must be in a really weird mood right now, because this…

      “Then I figure I’d resend it to them in the new form and maybe they’ll take less time to reject it.”

      made my day!!! :-D :-D :-D

  17. Jeanne April 19, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Tamela, I appreciate hearing your process in dealing with the slush pile. I haven’t sent anything out, yet, but it’s good to know how the process works for you. It sounds thoughtful and thorough.

  18. Michelle Lim April 19, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    Thanks for the thoughts on the slush pile! We all wait to hear back from agents and editors at some point if we are serious writers. It helps to learn more about the process!

  19. JennyM April 19, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    I had to help my husband weed through 56 resumes for ONE job. It was rough, because these were (freakishly) highly educated people applying for jobs for which most of them were over-qualified. Ph.D’s. Masters, you name it, all wanting an entry level science job. The stipulation was “no Ph.D’s”. There must have been 20 of them. And they had to be residents of my country. Another 15 gone. It was hard, emotional and very sad, because these were nice people who just wanted a chance. All of them would have been brilliant at the job, but the job was not suited to most of them.

    I am learning the extreme importance of finding the exact parameters and working within them, just to get noticed. Each agent has different views from inside their box of how a writer should do things. I have begun a file of my top picks and have made detailed notes and observations on who even likes Word files.

    It does not good to push the boundaries from the outside looking in.

    • JennyM April 19, 2012 at 11:08 am #

      *no good…

      Perhaps a course in “speling fer Dumnies” would be good?

  20. Susanne Dietze April 19, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the slush-pile, Tamela. It helps to better understand the process.

    I’m still a bit of a newbie, but an editor’s rejection on my first manuscript actually helped me a lot. She took the time to make notes and explain why she had to say no, and while I was sad, I also felt blessed by her constructive help.

  21. Heather Day Gilbert April 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    Yes, my first MS did get picked up by an agent, but I let the contract run out after six months for a variety of reasons (poor communication being high on the list). And I’d say that two-three months was the max I had to wait for rejections on queries, for the most part.

    I’m thankful every day for the agent who plucked my current MS out of the slush pile and is now one of my biggest champions. A good agent is worth his/her weight in GOLD, so keep looking till you find one on board with your mission!

  22. Sharyn Kopf April 19, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    What a relief to hear I’m not the only one who never heard back from an agent/editor on a submission! I have attended numerous writers conferences where I’ve had the privilege of meeting with editors and agents, several of which have requested my book proposal. Unfortunately, most haven’t responded at all.

    Without a doubt, it’s been tough. But, as Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” My past successes have encouraged me as a writer and I believe God called me to this, so what else is there to do but keep going and seek His guidance? Though I would have loved actual feedback instead of silence, I know it must not have been the right fit.

  23. Pat Trainum April 20, 2012 at 6:18 am #

    Great post, Tamela. When I first started writing, I’d get rejections by return mail. But now that my writing has improved (working with Susan May Warren at Deep Thinker retreats),the wait is much longer. ;>)

    Seriously, I’ve had some really helpful and encouraging rejection letters lately. Bottom line, it’s not my timing that’s important. It’s His, and when He thinks I’m ready, He’ll bring it to pass. After all, I am the apple of His eye! His favorite! (So are you)

  24. Deb Kinnard April 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    These infinite waits (on the part of publishers, this time — a fact of life with which I’m more familiar) are part of what’s making authors go direct-to-reader. If “no answer means no” becomes industry standard, how many writers will have the patience or pluck to simply sit there and take it? My guess is that it might be a decreasing number, as time goes on. We’ll see.

    ‘Course, I’ve been known to get rejections on manuscripts I never even sent to that particular house…

  25. Deb Kinnard April 20, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    P.S., I’d love to challenge editors not to ask for submissions at conferences if they know from the pitch that there’s no chance they will ever seriously consider that project. This is meant to be “nice”, but in my view it’s disingenuous.

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  1. What Is the Agent Doing While I Wait? | The Steve Laube Agency - May 4, 2012

    [...] jumped most of the hurdles and is near the top of the slush pile. (See the previous post on the Mystery of the Slush Pile) Why can’t the agent make up her mind? Might I offer a few [...]

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