[Worldcon] Escape from the Planet of the Slush Pile

Sunday (September 2) at 1030: Escape from the Planet of the Slush Pile
Panelists listed in program: Lynne M. Thomas, Gordon van Gelder, Ginjer Buchanan, Stanley Schmidt, Patrick Nielsen Hayden [note: Stanley Schmidt did not attend.]

Disclaimer: These are my notes from the panel and my own, later thoughts. I often was unable to attend the entire panel, and also chronically missed panelist introductions. When possible I try to note who said something, but often was unable to. Also, unless something is in double quotes it should be considered a summary and not a direct quotation.

Just so you know who these people are and why you should care about their opinions regarding the slushpile:
Lynne M. Thomas – Editor of Apex Magazine
Gordon van Gelder – Editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Ginjer Buchanan – Editor-in-chief for Ace and Roc books
Patrick Nielsen Hayden – Editor for Tor Books and Tor.com

A little bit about numbers – how many submissions do you see, what are chances like in the slush pile?

Ginjer Buchanan: The nature of the slush pile has changed in the last few years. It used to literally be piles of paper at the work station of a junior editor. Now it’s almost entirely electronic submissions. The number of submissions has not changed, but it’s definitely changed the topography. She doesn’t take on unsolicited material. But checking with people who do, the amount of submissions hasn’t changed. 50-100 manuscripts (novels) per month. The chances haven’t changed either; they still buy unagented and unsolicited material, probably 1 or 2 authors per year.

Lynne M Thomas: 500-600 stories per month. As editor in chief she sees 20-40 per month that are passed on by junior editors. Buys 1-2 per month. Reads about an additional 20 stories per month from authors she already knows. Tries to make sure there are stories from new authors every month, to go with established authors.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden: Tor books numbers are pretty similar to the ones Ginjer named. They want complete manuscripts, not query letters. About 100 subs a month, maybe 1-3 books from the slush pile per year. For Tor.com most fiction comes from longtime contacts and he doesn’t have information on the slush since someone else does that for him. They get several hundred per month. The website isn’t a money maker; it’s an advertising place. Numbers are misleading. The overwhelming amount of slush in the pile is from utterly crazy people typed in all caps. Hopes it’s better for smaller markets…

LMH: Oh no, it’s not. And we’re a horror market so we get a lot of “kill the bitch” stories.

PNH: The point is, anyone who is capable of getting out of bed, making it to Worldcon, putting on clothes, and finding the panel you want, you are WAY AHEAD of the vast majority of people in the slush pile.

GVG: Hasn’t checked statistics in years. Used to read everything himself, though not any more. Gets 500-800 subs per month, buys less than 1% of them. Agrees statistics lie. So much of that 99.9% is just execrable. e.g. there is a guy that sends him handwritten MS every month and he’s just nuts. It’s a business process of deciding what you’re going to publish or not. Has to train slush pile readers that you’re not going to publish most of this. You just can’t.

PNH: Publishers are in the business of looking for good stuff to publish. If we were only in it for the money we’d be in banking. But we’re also not in the business of administering the perfectly fair slush Olympics. They will break all their rules and jump hurdles to find cool stuff to publish.

GVG: There is not one editor ever who has stolen work off an author’s hard drive and published it. That’s why the submissions process still exists.

GB: Has a friend who contacts fanfic writers who are good to see if they write original stuff.

PNH: My wife is extremely interested in fan fiction for that reason. There is no ceiling on how good fanfic can be because it’s all unpublishable. You can find great writers.

GB: We don’t always just sit and wait for stuff to come to us. The junior staff reads magazines to see up and coming short fiction and contacts authors to see if they have novels.

LMT: Conversely I’ll contact people whose novels I like to see if they have any short fiction around they don’t mind getting a pittance for.

PNH: You can’t slush read for more than a few years because you burn out. Endless exposure to raw slush is corrosive. Will sometimes for their own amusement will give authors piles of raw slush to read – “slush drunk” laughing hysterically. At first the slush is hilarious. After that, it’s awful.

LMT: “You can’t unsee that.”

Guidelines & Pet peeves

PNH: Cover letters “I think you’ll find this is a cut above the normal crap Tor publishes.” Or the incredibly detailed outline. But worse is being addressed by the wrong name. The thing about cover letters is, the less the better. Basically just say here’s my story, it’s in this genre (don’t worry about sub genres), RELEVANT and interesting and marketable things about you connected to story. Don’t tell who has rejected it.

GB: Cover letters seem to have gotten less inappropriate since moving to e-mail. More just “here’s my attached novel it’s fantasy.” Could also be that the guidelines are more explicit about the cover letter.

PNH: Cover letters are a great way for authors to undercut themselves.

LMT: It’s like a job search thing. You have a pile of resumes and only one position. Anything you can do to kick someone out of the pile means less work for you. If you just follow the submission guidelines, you are ahead of 85% of the rest. The worst ever is getting an amazing story that’s just not appropriate to the market.

GB: You need an editor that’s passionate about the project. I see things that are good but just not for me.

PNH: Will sometimes acquire things and hand them off to someone else. Part of being an editor is also knowing what your organization will even want.

GVG: Doesn’t even read cover letters any more. Uses them to write notes on. It is important to note if the work has been published elsewhere, particularly on your website. Will sometimes read the cover letter after reading the story if he’s thinking of buying it. If you buy something after it’s been published on someone’s website, you are actually buying different rights.

Audience Q&A

Audience: In Fantasy how many cliches do you have to avoid to get to an original premise?

GB: There are 9 plots/12 plots… this is a writing class thing. There are only so many plots for all of fiction in a genre. Depends on the writing course you’re in. It’s not about the originality of the plot, it’s the originality of how you tell the story.

PNH: “Magic and Showmanship” (recommends) If you know 50 magic tricks but only have one narrative, then you only have one trick. But if you have only one trick but 50 narratives, you have 50 tricks.

LMT: We get fairytale retellings all the time. It’s about how they’re told.

PNH: Boy meets girl. Lots of blood.

GB: It’s about bringing your own voice and changes to the plot. The unnatural is just ringing a change on the natural. It’s very hard to come up with a totally original story.

Audience: I’m getting very good rejection letters from your people (to GVG) but it’s not quite right, do I tweak and resubmit?

GVG: Do not resubmit unless we ask to see them. We specifically ask if we want resubmissions.

LMT: We try not to be subtle. I try to tell people that I am not guaranteeing they will be published, but I tell them to make these changes and send it again. We say it specifically.

Let’s talk about rejection letters – the magic decoder ring for rejections!

LMT: Have 3 or 4 rejection letters I use: “Gosh no thanks” “Not this one but please send more” “I liked this please send more but here’s the list of what doesn’t work for me.” The more I say to you, the more I liked your story because I held on to it and thought about what to say to you.

GB: It’s very rare for someone to put in time and effort to making very specific suggestions for revisions. It’s not encouraged because a writer can take suggestions, use them, and sell the book elsewhere. Younger editors are encouraged to be very non-specific about changes and then a phone conversation might ensue if the author is amenable to doing changes.

PNH: It’s much better to send back the most uninformative rejection letter. Because it’s better to have a fast turnaround to give things back to the authors! It blows his mind that people complain when their stories are bounced too fast. There are editorial equivalents of writers block – editorial vapor lock. You can’t quite figure out what’s wrong with it and you want to tell them and you let it sit trying to figure out how to say it!

GVG: It happens with works/authors/agents you like because you don’t want to say no!

BG: DON’T ARGUE. I’ve had agents who argue!

LMT: Don’t argue and don’t be mean to submissions editors. They are doing this as volunteers often (when it’s s small market). If you argue or are mean, you’re on the list. We remember your name. And you don’t want us to remember your name like that.

PNH: Sometimes someone will take a relatively obscure work by a famous author and send it to people to get it rejected and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a stunt. We’re not administering the slush olympics!

Audience: How important is short fiction? Is it important to get that going to move into novels?

PNH: Common wisdom was that the way to get going is to make your name in short fiction. There aren’t really enough good short fiction venues for everyone to do that. There are different paths.

GB: Some people just can’t write short fiction. Some people who write short fiction can’t write novels. You have to write what you like and are good at.

Audience: What’s dated and what isn’t?

GVG: I know it when I see it. When something’s been done a lot we know it.

PNH: There’s a certain old pacing of exposition, introduction of characters. When you read a lot of sf/f you can start getting a feel for what decade you’re in. There are style shifts.

GB: In SF something dated is using science long since known to be inaccurate.

LMT: As a less experienced person, things feel fresher because she’s only seen them hundreds of times instead of thousands.

Audience: Cover letter formatting…

GB: People obsess about cover letters and I don’t get it! It just has to say here is my novel, this is the genre and not even necessarily the word count. An accompanying summary is good because it’s nice to know that you, well, have even written the end. Cover letters are not magical.

PNH: Formulaic genre fiction publishers might have much stricter standards.

GB: Cover letters are short and sweet. You’re not being judged on your cover letter. You’re being judged on your prose fiction.

Audience: have you been seeing too much steampunk?

GB: Urban fantasy did explode and is starting to wane. But let me say you should write what you like and not worry about trends. Steampunk outside of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest has not really been a viable long form fiction trend. But it’s very much a lifestyle, not just a fiction genre. There is a lot of short fiction, but not many wildly successful novels.

PNH: Trendspotting is a waste of time for people who are aspiring writers. Publishing moves too slowly. You move too slowly. Trends will have changed by the time you get to them! Writing what you like to read is the canny strategy for success.

GB: Turned out there were a lot of people who wanted to read a specific sort of urban fantasy, and now lots of them have it out of their system.

LMT: I tend to see surges in whatever theme anthology has just closed. I want a variety of things. When I get the wave of mermaid stories I might buy one, not ten. Sees more trends of submission patterns, and is getting more international submissions. The diversity trend is wonderful!

GVG: I want a variety of fiction. We never get enough SF and always get more fantasy than we need. It has been true since 1950.

PNH: This is also true for books. We get way more fantasy than sf. The taste for science fiction is always underserved.

GVG: You have to know the markets you’re submitting to. Read the markets before you send. Read a magazine, see what seems missing from it and write that kind of story.

Audience: Red flags. Prologs or no? First person or no?

GB: If a work calls out for a prolog, it should have one. If it calls out for first person it should be in first person.

PNH: Every choice has an advantage and a cost.

GB: Mistakes authors frequently make, talking about fantasy authors. The world build info dump in the first 500 pages. But there are stories that genuinely do need prologs. There are stories definitely better told in first person.

LMT: If you pull off a stunt and don’t land it, you’re toast. Evil Kenevil time.

Audience: Do you check and see if the author has a FB page?

None of them routinely do that kind of thing.

PNH: I don’t see anything wrong with looking, but it’s not the first thing I’m curious about.

LMT’s managing editor: If you boast a lot on the letter, we may check to see if you are lying.

Audience: Any truth if you start pro-level work in a slush pile you’re not looking for one-hit wonders.

None of them understand the question.

PNH: How do we know if you’re a one-hit wonder until you’ve had a hit to begin with?

Audience: You’re publishing stories but investing in authors. Do you start recognizing names?

PNH: Editors from different outfits do have cordial conversations about writers they see a lot as almost being there.

LMT: If I see a name in a lot of other markets, I will keep an eye out for them in my slush pile. Also if I sent you a really nice rejection letter I will tend to remember your name. I’m rooting for you guys to send me awesome stories! You have to keep working at it and it’s frustrating for me too.

Audience: Cover letters again – sub genres? What about your name if it’s kind of weird?

Everyone shakes their heads.

GB: If your credentials are pertinent to what you’re writing, that’s fine. We want to know if it’s sf/f.

LMT: Apex doesn’t care about sub genre. And all that matters is the story being the right one on the right day when I read it. Your name doesn’t matter.

Audience: Platform?

GB: That’s used a lot in the marketing of NONFICTION.

PNH: There are fiction authors that have a platform – Scalzi and his blog. The idea that we send out new authors to write blogs and join twitter is pernicious and horrible. Some people might enjoy that and should do it, but we’re not going to make you.


I really don’t have much to add on my own about this panel. It was actually very entertaining, and full of good advice – which I hope I’ve managed to capture for you.

One thing I did notice is that cover letters as an unnecessary source of authorial angst got brought up several times. Makes me think I’m definitely on the right track with my own no-frills cover letter. If you want to see the example go here.

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