Unsolicited Proposals: aka “The Slush Pile”

All literary agents receive dozens of proposal each week. Some in the mail and some via email. Last week was a slow week, only 30 unsolicited proposals arrived. (Unsolicited means proposals that are not from our existing clients. We get a number of those each week too.)  The variety can be rather astounding. We don’t mean to be mean about it, but sometimes you have to find the humor in these situations.

There are myriad of email submissions that simply ignore our posted guidelines regarding email submissions such as “Please do not copy and paste your entire manuscript into the body of your email.” Yes it has happened.

Despite saying we don’t represent poetry I once received a PDF attachment with 900 pages of poetry in it. The author felt it was so good I would ignore my stated preferences and make an exception.

Or the poor soul that failed to proofread their email before sending this sentence, “I would like to send you my quarry letter….”

Or this opening sentence, “I found your name on the inner net.”

Nor does it include those that find our name in a directory somewhere and just pick up the phone and call without doing their research. I once received a call that went something  like this:

Agency: This is the Steve Laube Agency…
Caller: What kind of agency are you?
Agency: We are a literary agency.
Caller: What does that mean?
Agency: It means we represent books to publishers on behalf of our clients and manage our client’s careers.
Caller: Oh good. I do comic strips…and they are really unique…  [caller’s voice gets faster and louder as they talk]
Agency: Well, we don’t represent artists or comic strip artists.
Caller: But I’m a philosopher too! ….. [further explanation followed]
Agency: Well, we [caller interrupts]
Caller: And I’m also a musician with over 500 songs to my credit.
Agency: Unfortunately we do not represent musicians at this time.
Caller: But I was named Rock musician of the year…
Agency: We’re sorry but it does not appear that our agency would be a good fit for you.
Caller: You want to listen to my stuff for free on Myspace?
Agency: I don’t see how that would be a good use of our time.
Caller: Someday someone will discover it and make millions.
Agency: We wish you the best in all your endeavors…

Or the time we received a call from an aspiring author who was a psychic who had an “amazing” personal story to tell…oh, and by the way, they also have two novels done and five children’s books ready and waiting.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not complaining. What I’m trying to say is that the simple act of reading our blog and following an agency’s guidelines can make you like so much better than those who do not take that time. We’ve written about rejection many times and no agent takes the process lightly. But a little understanding and self education would make every writer’s experience while approaching an agent a little more tolerable.


(an earlier version of this post ran on January 6, 2010. The new picture above is not from my office!)

28 Responses to Unsolicited Proposals: aka “The Slush Pile”

  1. Avatar
    Ellie Kay January 6, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Great blog, Steve! I think it’s important for potential clients to know what to expect when they send you a proposal. If they realize the process, follow it carefully, and wait patiently, then they’ll get an answer. Hopefully, it’s the answer they want. I remember that I had 23 rejections before getting a thumbs up from two different publishers–and that’s how I met YOU at Bethany House! If I had stopped at 20 rejections, I would not be the much published yet surprisingly mediocre author that I am!

  2. Avatar
    Cindy Woodsmall January 6, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    You’ve been my agent for over four years, and I still don’t know how you manage to do the amazing job you do. I just know whenever I have a “brilliant” story idea, a silly concern, or I’m in need of serious advice you’re always there . . . and sometimes while there you even pick up the phone and answer my call.

    🙂 I couldn’t resist teasing, but I am totally serious concerning everything I wrote BEFORE the ellipsis!!

  3. Avatar
    Karen Watson January 7, 2010 at 4:55 am #

    Great blog. It is sometimes difficult to convey the sense of avalanche that can characterize publishing. Thanks for your work in the industry, your dedication to speaking the truth (even when it hurts) and your work for your clients.

    Looking forward to continuing to work with you this year. Hope 2010 is one of your best!

  4. Avatar
    Cindy Schmalz January 7, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    Must say, I really enjoy reading your blogs!I see what looks like my express-mail box for my manuscript you asked to review. So I guess I am a little disappointed that it’s not in that pile near your desk staring at you 🙂 Or maybe, (I can only hope) its still waiting to be reviewed.
    Either way, I think you are the best agent out there and I’m sure those you represent would agree!

  5. Avatar
    A J Hawke January 7, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    “There, right there, toward the top…see it? My query/proposal waits in the stack. ‘Sigh of satisfaction’ I made it. The first goal of the New Year reached: Send query to Steve Laube (and follow his guidelines.)

    Thanks for a very helpful blog post on the reality of the journey of a proposal. What I read didn’t discourage me, as the respect you conveyed toward those sending in a query came through. Will I be happy with a rejection, if that is my results? Of course not, no one wants to be told no. The reality is that I have no chance for the desired ‘yes’ without the exposure to a ‘no’. I just appreciate the opportunity to submit.

    Blessings on a successful year of helping others reach their dreams,

    A J Hawke

  6. Avatar
    Jim Rubart January 8, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    There’s something about seeing that stack instead of hearing about it that drives your point home.

    By the way, Steve’s talk “Redeeming Rejection” is the best I’ve heard on pushing through the wall on your way to finishing that marathon. Well worth listening to.

  7. Avatar
    Cindy R. Wilson January 10, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    It sounds like an exciting but intense time for your agency. I just have to say I’m incredibly grateful for blogs like yous and the others that were mentioned in this post. Without your advice and insight into the industry, some of us writers would still be struggling to write the best query we can or submit the right kind of proposal. It surprises me that with all the advice out there, writers are still not following guidelines. I hope this post reaches some of them because there are some great stories out there to be found.

  8. Avatar
    Sharon Ball January 12, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    My goodness, Steve, that stack of proposals and the workload you average daily is absolutely staggering. Wow!!! My head is spinning just thinking about it.

  9. Avatar
    Sarah Anne Sumpolec January 12, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    Wow. Love the visual. Quite sobering. And the phone call cracked me up. I have to say, I have a lot more sympathy and understanding now that I have to wade through submissions and decisions and e-mails, too:-)

    It’s a good thing you love to do it!

  10. Avatar
    Stephanie January 12, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    I decided to stop by your blog after Rachelle tweeted about today’s post. Thanks for sharing your “day in the life…” — it’s always informative to see the business from an agent’s perspective.

  11. Avatar
    Richard Mabry January 12, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Wow. If you were looking to garner sympathy from the people who wonder “Why hasn’t he responded already?” I think you’ve succeeded. Now I’m more appreciative than ever of the responsiveness of my own agent.
    Thanks for what all of you do to further the careers of writers at every stage of development. You’re an indispensable part of the process.

  12. Avatar
    Brandilyn Collins January 12, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Dear Mr. Lobby:

    I am contacting you because someone said you’re not doing much write now and can give me the time I deserve. I have writtun a novel that is:

    1. Better than anything John Grishum has done
    2. Is exactly what God TOLD me to write
    3. Loved by all my friends
    4. Like nothing else out there

    It’s about a philosopher rock musician who decides he wants to do comic strips, then he falls down a gopher hole and ends up in another world–just like one of his comics! And he can’t get out but he so wants to because he realizes it’s a terrible comic strip and an even terribler world.

    The manuscript is atached to this email. My mom (an avid reader) says it’s worth at least a $50,000 advance. Please call when you get offers. I’m home all week.

    • Avatar
      Chris June 23, 2014 at 5:48 am #

      haaaaaaa Ahhhhhh ah! You got me laughing. I enjoyed the blog, but your comment was the cherry on the top…thanks

  13. Avatar
    Michael Joshua January 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Ok, that makes me feel better – that my manuscript is languishing on an agent’s floor with many others. Back to the novel in progress……

  14. Avatar
    Jim Rubart January 12, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    Eye wont to reed Brandalin’s book!!!!!!! Sounds GRATE!!!!!!

  15. Avatar
    Alisa Hope Wagner January 18, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    Very informative post. These last 2 comments crack me up!

    -Alisa Hope

  16. Avatar
    Lenore Buth January 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    Great post, Steve, as always. Your photo makes your point so much better than words could. Still, I look at that pile and feel oddly encouraged. That must put me in the company of your comic strip/philosopher/rock musician caller.

    After reading your post for some time, one thing I’m sure of. Each of those proposals in that stack will get a fair hearing. Even though mine is not in the pile, God bless you for that.

  17. Avatar
    Alisa Hope Wagner January 19, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    Just sent my proposal to you. Mine should be in that pile in 2 – 3 business days. Happy reading!

  18. Avatar
    Neal Hayes January 31, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    Mr Laube, I do appreciate your visual dose of reality that hit me somewhere on the level of electro-shock therapy. For those of us who are budding new authors, the clarity of winning approval for our writing(s) can be a daunting revelation. Since I have successfully accomplished a half marathon in the grueling Florida heat, and did not end up having to ride the golf cart back to the finish line; I do appreciate your illustration of the importance of patience and perseverance. Your blog is a great reminder of “one step at a time”, and “line upon line”. Just like crossing that finish line a year ago, I hope to catch a glimpse of my priority envelope in your “stack” someday. Could you please include a “current stack” pic in your Blog each month for tracking purposes? 🙂 Thank you for what you do!

  19. Avatar
    Georgiana Daniels March 10, 2010 at 6:41 pm #

    Oh, my. What a stack! I do hope you have a great helper–or several–to assist you in paring this down. Your postman also deserves bonus points 😀

  20. Avatar
    Nikole Hahn March 12, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    I’ve seen google photos of slush piles. This is quite daunting for an aspiring writer.

  21. Avatar
    Steve March 12, 2010 at 3:08 pm #

    That is the point of the exercise. It is better to know what you are up against than to get ambushed later. The analogy would be going to a pickup basketball game at the park and not know that the other team is made up of former NBA players. Better that you know in advance so can plan your strategy and maybe practice a little more before playing the game. All analogies break down, but I think the point is made.

    We post these photos and write these blogs in an effort to educate as well as inspire writers, both veterans and aspiring.

  22. Avatar
    Bethany April 5, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    Very much enjoyed the transcript. 🙂

  23. Avatar
    MJ Scott May 4, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    Great visual, Steve! My appreciation for the work you and other agents do has increased exponentially (though that box on the very bottom looks suspiciously familiar…).

    Love the transcript, too. I appreciate your restraint, especially when I think of how it steals time from those who actually follow the guidelines. Personally, I’d be tempted to set up an endless voice mail loop narrated by a Pakistani named Bob who’d promise to get back to them after making them press every number on their phone to get through (not that I have anything against Pakistanis!)

  24. Avatar
    Chrsi June 23, 2014 at 5:56 am #

    Steve. Thank you for letting us know what we’re up against. Everyone has a story and some want to write. The real writers, like marathon runners, take one step at a time. It took me 15 years of honing my skills before someone took an interest in me. I thought the other day: “God, why did it take so long?” Answer: “Well, girl, you just weren’t ready yet.”
    When we start seeing time as our friend and not enemy then it helps. When we understand the Sovereign is not subject to time because He created it then we’re provided a strong level of encouragement. Prayer before submission might help level the playing ground in the slush pile…..maybe…just maybe. Again, thank you Steve for giving us a window into your world.

  25. Avatar
    Peter Missing June 23, 2014 at 6:52 am #

    That is why I am so wary of Amazon books and the like, because it lumps the legitimate works of potentially worthy writers onto the biggest slush pile of all. I suppose my greater sympathy lies with the risks of publishing a new work. Every business negotiates risk, its one of the fundamentals of business, but with risk comes opportunity cost i.e. what could we be doing to progress if we weren’t working this pile. The gold-diggers of the Yukon rarely made it big on the kind of hit and miss that a slush pile alludes to. However, those who added science and method to prospecting found value where no one else expected to find it. Part of a writer’s job is to stick out from the background and help to bring their own discovery halfway to the prospector, but the work of any marketer, which a literary agent is, is to find smarter ways to reduce rocks, to stone, to pebbles and then to gold.

  26. Avatar
    Linda Chontos June 23, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    This makes all the hours I’ve been slaving away over a proposal worth it. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  27. Avatar
    Karen Ball June 25, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    Steve, yew are sew smart! And I think yew shud take on that Brandeelyn Collins right now!

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