A slush pile used to be just that: a huge pile of unsolicited paper submissions, creating a literal mountain of work for editors, agents, and their teams. They filled boxes, they crowded corners, and they never fell off of a publication’s to-do list. The vast majority of the submissions wouldn’t meet your needs, didn’t follow guidelines, and didn’t meet quality requirements—but there were likely a few wonderful pieces buried in there, created with love by next big name, just begging to be discovered.
These days, the vast majority of slush piles have moved online—some to submission management platforms, but others to email inboxes and digital file folders. But the problem of managing these behemoths efficiently still remains: how do you quickly but thoroughly sift through you submissions to find the hidden gems? How do you balance giving everyone a fair shot with not wasting too much of your publication’s precious time and resources?
In this post, we’ll dive into how to manage a slush pile.
The struggles of slush pile management
One defining characteristic of the slush pile is that it’s usually big. Anyone, with any credentials, can send a piece to you—and the more popular your publication, or the more well-known your publishing house or agency, the faster your pile grows.
The beauty and magic of the slush pile is that you don’t have to pull strings or know someone or have a killer resumé to get heard. But the problem of the slush pile is that it’s a beast to keep under control.
Let’s face it: due to time restraints, it’s undeniably impossible to read every word of every submission you receive to determine which manuscripts are indeed worthy. It’s also virtually impossible to appropriately respond to everyone without an efficient system and templates. Especially in our digital age, publishers are now not only pummeled with submissions, but by emails and social media messages from anxious writers wanting to know that their submission was received and read.
This problem is exacerbated by the number of submissions that are inappropriate, bad fits, or ill-timed. When writers don’t do their research to understand the type of work an publication or agency is looking for, you will end up with mountains of material that doesn’t fit in your repertory.
In other words, what makes slush piles amazing (they are open and democratic!) is the same thing that makes them a challenge (they are open and democratic!).
Delegate the easy work
Like so many problems, the problem of the tall-as-the-clouds, gently swaying slush pile can be solved by team work. In most cases, this is not the work of the editor or the literary agent alone. To manage a slush pile, you need an army.
Assembling your team will look different for different organizations. But in many cases, assistants, volunteers, or interns should make a first swipe through the list to take out the most obviously bad fits. Even if these team members don’t have a ton of experience in recognizing genius, they can thin the herd for you by eliminating certain types of pieces:
- Pieces that don’t fit the needs or goals.
- Pieces that are of the the wrong genre or subject matter.
- Pieces that are much too long or short.
- Pieces that do not meet quality requirements.
- Pieces that do not follow your guidelines.
In addition, your primary combing team can also make another pile of manuscripts that seem especially promising. Editors can go through the list of promising pieces first, then go through the remaining pile at a slower, more convenient pace.
Delegation is easier when the system is online and clear. Have a process for putting the manuscripts in different piles—such as digital labeling—and a process for what happens when pieces are rejected at each phase.
Utilize your guidelines as a filter
Your guidelines for submissions are the first defense against a slush pile filled with bad fits. If you aren’t clear about what you’re looking for, you won’t get what you’re looking for.
- Write your guidelines in your publication’s tone and voice.
- Clearly define the subject matter you are looking for.
- Clearly outline word count or other limitations.
- Link to examples of your favorite pieces.
- List dealbreakers (“We do not accept pieces that are not about gardening”).
- Include answers to frequently asked questions.
- Be concise.
Tailor your guidelines, and your website, to communicate the “personality” of your agency or organization and what kind of work you publish. Giving writers a clear idea of whether or not their work lines up with yours will help them determine whether you are the best publisher to represent their work. If the writer is not a good fit for your publishing company, it will save you both time and energy for the writer to come to that conclusion before submitting. Think of your online presence as a filter for writers that might be talented, but not a good candidate for your organization.
Give yourself a firm deadline
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is ignoring the 800-manuscript elephant in the room. Slush piles consistently get bigger, so you have to consistently manage them.
Giving yourself a firm deadline—for example, by stating in your guidelines that you will respond within three months—ensures that you will not let your pile languish.
How can you stick with that deadline? Put aside time each week expressly to read submissions. If you fall behind, consider a reading party with your other team members so that you can plow through a large volume in a short window of time. Make it fun by ordering pizzas or bringing your laptops to a cafe.
Offer short submission windows
While offering a slush pile is the best way to find new, fantastic work that would otherwise pass you by, having a year-round open door can lead to a very large haystack and very few needles. Consider opening your submission window for a few weeks or months at a time, or closing submissions for a season—for example, many literary magazines don’t read during the summer months.
Perfect your submission form
Having a thoughtfully assembled submission for can block poor entries and encourage high-quality entries.
- Ask for mandatory information that makes it easy to organize your review process (like asking for what genre the piece is).
- Ask questions that help screen submissions (for example, asking if the piece is previously published if you do not publish previously published pieces).
- Don’t ask for so much information that it discourages submissions.
- Make sure your form is accessible for all.
Advertise in the right places
How do people find out about your slush pile? If you’re marketing it in the wrong places, you’ll get the wrong kind of submissions. If you stick to communities of people who are right for you—for example, professional writers, grad students, or freelancers—you’ll see the quality of your pile go up.
Don’t read the whole piece
Yes, you want to give each piece that comes in a fighting chance. But no, you do not have to read every single page of the personal memoir that someone sent you your poetry review. Don’t be shy about axing pieces as soon as you know that they aren’t right for your needs, and don’t feel guilty if you don’t read all the way through a piece that doesn’t hit the craftsmanship mark you have for your pub. Abandoning a piece after a page might mean missing some great submissions, but finishing everything that comes in is simply not a good use of your time.
Provide writers with tips and tools to stand out in the slush pile
Ultimately, as a publisher or agent, you hope for top quality writing to come across your desk. To this end, any work you can do on the front end to increase the caliber of writing in your slush pile will help your agency or press get more out of the hours spent going through it.
- Provide resources to help writers make their manuscripts the best they can be.
- Utilize your blog and social media presence to give writers insight into what you are looking for.
- Give tips in your guidelines to improve their manuscripts and stand out from the rest.
- Suggest that they read back issues of your publication.
Getting published should not be tricky. It should be based on the quality of the work, not the writer’s ability to read minds.
Make reply templates
Sending personalized responses is a nice thought, but it’s not practical or possible for many publications or organizations that have a substantial pile. Consider making a batch of tiered email template to send to submitters that you can send to larger groups quickly:
- An email that lets them know you received their submission.
- An rejection email for submitters that you do not wish to hear from again.
- A rejection email that encourages future submissions.
- An acceptance email for a piece that needs substantial edits.
- An acceptance email for a piece that is mostly set to publish.
Just because you have email templates doesn’t mean you can’t still send out personalized notes to some submitters. If you have something to say about their piece, or want to encourage them personally, take the time to do so.
Use software to keep the slush pile organized
Like a literal pile of papers, the digital slush in your inbox and scattered across your hard drive must be organized for you to reap any benefit from it. You want to be able to quickly review manuscripts and track their potential.
A digital tool designed specifically for reviewing and feedback can save time and frustration. With software like Submittable, you can keep track of every submission you receive, assign it to team members for editing, and make a collaborative decision about each piece in the slush pile. Effective software helps you accomplish all this without the chaos of forwarding emails, downloading manuscripts, or losing files.
Submission management software can also make sending group emails and individual communications much easier, while allowing you to create reports so that you can further hone your process.
One of the biggest challenges (and potential gold mines) in publishing is the slush pile. You can manage it well and minimize extra work in lots of ways that allow you to find the hidden treasures within.