There’s a hashtag used among the publishing Twitterati to denote the laughable efforts of would-be authors whose approach to agents and/or publishers is not up to snuff. #Queryfail appears regularly in the tweets of one Major Publishing Player in particular, signalling the sins of yet another supplicant who failed to contact her in the preferred manner, didn’t read her submission guidelines, or asked her to be friends on Facebook and then sent her a publishing pitch. The nerve.
She also details – exhaustively – how exhausted she is from her many travails: manuscripts to read; rights fairs to prepare for; dinner parties and literary festivals to attend; administrative work that takes up her weekends. #Queryfail, though, is what seems to send her over the edge, scrabbling for the smelling salts to ward off the vapours.
This publisher is not alone – there are any number of publishing blogs and Twitterfeeds about #queryfail and that other terrible burden – the slush pile. A New York agent tweets ‘NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month]: Agents: Get Ready for a December Slush Pile Avalanche!’ Or the blog SlushPile Hell – ‘One grumpy literary agent, a sea of query fails, and other publishing nonsense.’ (Which isn’t to say I’ve never tweeted about a silly query, e.g. ‘To The Mary Cunnane Agency. Dear Sir’.)
The tone of exasperation, irritation, and sometimes even downright anger is telling. Someone is trying to get the attention of a publishing professional and is breaching the rules and/or being unrealistic and/or totally clueless. Those folks are the outsiders, the others are the insiders. God help the first if they annoy the second. And if they manage to submit a manuscript, it is consigned (if they are lucky; many publishers no longer read unsolicited work) to the limbo if not the purgatory or indeed the hell (see above) of the slush pile, a term whose first use is thought to date back to the 1930s.
Its derivation is obscure. Does it come from the term for muddy, half-melted ice, for ‘excessive sentiment’, or for paper pulp in water suspension? I don’t believe so. Instead, I would suggest – as someone who started her publishing career in 1976 as an editorial assistant – that perhaps it is a corruption of the word ‘sluice’, one of whose meanings is, in relation to gold mining, ‘a channel or trough with grooves into which a current of water is directed in order to separate gold from the ore containing it’. Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – there is indeed gold among the ore. Even when there’s not, editorial sluicing is valuable for both publishing tyros and veterans.
At W.W. Norton in my early days, unsolicited manuscripts were also referred to as ‘over-the-transoms’ (the transom being the window above the doors in office buildings) and it was the editorial assistants’ job to read them. I relished this task because it was an important way to hone one’s publishing skills and judgement. The slush pile revealed the Zeitgeist – what preoccupied the nation was contained therein. In the 1970s and 1980s it included Vietnam War memoirs; ruminations on Watergate; and the early stirrings of the fitness/nutrition movement as the baby boomers donned running shoes. Later on in the 1980s and into the 1990s it was alien abductions, missing children, and recovered memories. More recently, as an agent in Australia, I found the Zeitgeist to be made up of, among other things, family history (especially lost World War I diaries), tales of child abuse, the so-called misery memoir, and, as the boomers face retirement, manuscripts about ageing and death. As for fiction, the gamut has included chick lit, hard-core erotica, novels featuring vampires or Harry Potterish characters, thrillers involving people smuggling, and rural romance.
I never felt I was wasting my time dealing with unsolicited manuscripts and queries. Sometimes I found gold and always I learned something about what people were anxious to communicate and what, therefore, others might want to read about. And there was, as well, for me a sense of anticipation – what would the next large envelope or email attachment bring?
Of course, most unsolicited manuscripts (or the queries that precede them) are unsuitable for one reason or another. People may be earnest and well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean they write well or knowledgeably, or that they bother to read submission guidelines. But whether they’ve produced gold or not, all writers deserve to be treated courteously. Which is why I shied away from rejecting work and preferred instead to offer thanks for the submission while declining to publish or represent it.
SlushPile Hell, rejection, #queryfail – all signal an air of entitlement and a sense of besiegement, the last perhaps a sign of the anxious, proverbial-over-tea-kettle state publishing has been in since 2008. But without writers, publishers are nowhere: should they therefore be made to feel they must storm the battlements in order to get even a look-in?