For The Love of God, People, The Slush Pile Isn’t Dead


On Friday, The Wall Street Journal published an article by Katherine Rosman lamenting the end of the slush pile. Choosing what to publish is now just as much about marketing, she says, as it is about discovering new writers.

“A primary aim of the slush pile used to be to discover unpublished voices. But today, writing talent isn’t necessarily enough. It helps to have a big-media affiliation, or be effective on TV. … From a publisher’s standpoint, the marketing considerations, especially on non-fiction, now often outweigh the editorial ones.”

M.A. Orthofer at The Literary Saloon thinks big publishers lose the slush pile at their own peril.

“The death of the slush pile (suicidal for the publishers, in my opinion …) will just accelerate the move to self-publishing (and, indeed, self-published books already form a new sort of slush pile, from which conventional publishers occasionally pluck out something), and leave great opportunities for nimbler small publishers who actually care what they put their imprint-name on…”

I agree entirely with Orthofer. And as a little-published writer who’s sending work to slush piles the world over right now, I can only ask, “Wait. Where’s the problem?”

Here’s where I take issue with Rosman: I don’t see how anyone who is paying attention at all can say no one reads through slush piles anymore. The real problem is with the maddeningly small scope at which Rosman and many of the people she interviewed look at the creative world. There are hundreds of new sites that thrive on slush piles. There are countless small journals that do so, too. Does nothing count unless it’s Random House or The Paris Review?  (note: the latter is a great magazine, but I’m not sure I like the low numbers of slush publications cited in the WSJ article.)

HTMLGIANT just posted a hilarious and accurate “five steps to publishing” that compares the steps writers take to get published to the steps you go through when grieving. In the final step, acceptance, the writer says, “You know, it’s actually surprisingly easy for me to just do this myself. Maybe I’ll just start my own small press.”

And though they’re (kind of) kidding, that impulse, I think, is the best reaction we new writers could have to the total disaster that is the big publishing houses and the staggering odds we’re told by everyone, from our mothers to the WSJ, that we face. Because when we branch off, when we create or become a part of a literary (as opposed to profit-driven) institution, we help to build the community, and we also learn to be better writers, and we’re both sending to and reading from slush piles, and on top of all that we gain supporters, and all of the sudden, our odds aren’t so low anymore, and when and if the big publishing houses totally destroy themselves, we’ll be there to take over.

Or maybe our odds are still crap, but in that case, at least we won’t be alone when we fail.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →