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How not to serial 10


This is the tenth excerpt from David Armstrong's wry and entertaining How not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author

10. Slush Pile

‘The uncomplimentary name given to the vast quantity of unsolicited material continually delivered to publishing offices. '

Gordon Wells

This unpleasant term is one with which you are likely to become familiar. Unfortunately, with the newspapers full of ads asking readers the rhetorical question: 'Do you want to be a writer?' and with the resounding answer to that question apparently being an almost universal, 'Yes, I most certainly do,' until quite recently, publishers were being swamped and simply could not cope with the number of submissions.

Today, therefore, many of them have been forced to adopt a policy of not even accepting manuscripts for reading unless they come on very strong recommendation from an existing client or from a literary agent.

On the other hand, just about every bestselling novel of the last God knows how many years has been sent unsolicited to either a publisher or an agent (where, of course, most of them have been returned to their authors before, eventually, going on to be massive bestsellers) .

But, given that of the hundred thousand plus books that were published in the UK in 2001, some seven thousand were new novels, there clearly is a problem of over-production here.

One literary agency speculated that the likelihood of finding something publishable in the slush pile was rather less than 0.001 per cent. One can only hope that they were exaggerating.

Fact is, it's a highly subjective business, and there’s no science involved at all. While the ads in the books pages might tell us that we’re all writers, publishers appear more sceptical about these claims.

And there's the rub. Literary agent Juri Gabriel says that he reads as much as is necessary to make a decision, but the decision is, almost always a rejection. He adds gloomily that ‘those of us who sift, do so because we're temperamentally inclined to sift through piles of rubbish'.

But not everyone is so discouraging. One agent says cheerfully, 'Why should people give up? After all, so much of what is published and successful is absolute crap. Why not them?'

The American novelist, Joseph Epstein, writing in the New York Times in September, 2002, said: 'According to a recent survey, 81 % of Americans feel they have a book in them and that they should write it. As the author of fourteen books, I'd like to do what I can to discourage them. Something of the order of 80,000 new books are published in America every year, most of them not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary... so why add to the schlock pile?'

Tips and Summary:

1) See Joseph Epstein, above. Just say No. Please, don't write that book.


The next excerpt from How not to Write a Novel will be in the February Magazine.

About How Not to Write a Novel

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt
The seventh excerpt
The eighth excerpt
The ninth excerpt
The tenth excerpt
The eleventh excerpt
The twelfth excerpt


© David Armstrong 2003

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