‘Slush pile’ is publishing shorthand for the unsolicited manuscripts received by a publisher or literary agent. Some very famous books indeed have been discovered in the slush pile by an eagle-eyed editor or agent: Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, Anne Frank’s Diary and Philip Roth’s Conversion of the Jews are famous examples.
Today however, fewer and fewer publishers will look at unsolicited manuscripts. It seems that the death of the slush pile has been hastened by a number of legal actions against US film and television companies, alleging plagiarism of unsolicited material. But the main reason for the clampdown is straightened times, with publishers increasingly unwilling or unable to dedicate resources to the time-consuming task of sifting through the slush in the hope of finding the occasional gem.
Barrington Stoke has never had a slush pile. We have no ‘acquisitions’ button on our website, and our Contact us page reads, ‘Please note that we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.’ Despite this we receive a flood of submissions and pitches, regular tweets of the “Hey, @barringtonstoke, look at my novel here” variety, the occasional Youtube video (“Hey, Barrington Stoke, watch me read my novel here”) and even the occasional shouty visitor to the office. Leaving aside the latter three categories as self-evidently bad ideas, and since it’s book fair season – when many authors and agents are pitching ideas – we thought it might be useful to explain why we don’t accept unsolicited material.
Barrington Stoke’s remit is quite specialised, in that all of our books are published in a format accessible to dyslexic and less confident readers. Our maximum word length is 17,000 for an older teen novel – standard teen fiction weighs in at around 40,000 to 60,000 and the trend is to the upper end of the scale thanks to Mses. Meyer, Collins et al. So we’re not the home for an epic eight-book cycle set in the fictional continent of Snorthodonia or the latest YA dystopian saga.
That said, length is really our only restriction and it’s unlikely that anything conceived as ‘a story for reluctant readers’ will find a home with us either. As far as we’re concerned, a good story is a good story and if its own author doesn’t rate it as interesting enough for a wide readership, we’re not going to offer it to ours. After all, our readers need to be sold the idea that fiction is a good thing.
So far, this rationale has focused on us and on our readers, but we also have an eye to the writer’s experience. We know we’re not a good home for a new author. Our edit process of necessity focuses on the particular needs of our readers and involves compromise and co-working with authors; it wouldn’t be fair to pretend we have the capacity to nurture a new voice at the same time. We have a tiny team and much of our sales and marketing capacity is already committed to selling the concept afresh to every new customer or market. A mainstream house is selling the simpler concept of a brilliant book, without qualification, and that’s why a mainstream house is a better home than a specialist for a debut. We understand very well just how much work mainstream houses put into their authors because we benefit from this activity – and our aim is always to repay that debt by helping to unlock a new readership for our author’s full-length books.
And that brings us back to our readers – or to those of our readers who are not really readers yet. There is stigma attached to reading problems, and this informs our decision to focus on well-established author names.
We often recount the story of an event we attended in Edinburgh involving a group of children from one of the city’s less privileged areas. When asked about their favourite authors, they stuck their hands up enthusiastically: “Bali Rai; he’s amazing, you really believe the characters in his books are real”; “Michael Morpurgo; his books are really realistic and sometimes really sad but good”; “Anthony McGowan; he’s, like, just really good.” We were very impressed with the range and quality of their reading. Then their teacher sidled over and told us that they were actually extremely reluctant readers and the Michael Morpurgo, Bali Rai and Anthony McGowan books they were reading were our titles from these authors. But without that teacher, we’d have been none the wiser and nor was anyone else. Result!
Happily, there are fantastic children’s publishers here in the UK actively seeking new voices – the brilliant Nosy Crow and Hot Key Books immediately spring to mind. So if you’re a debut author, best of luck from all of us here. We look forward to reading your books in print from one of those brilliant mainstream houses – and we hope you look kindly on us when you’re the toast of the town, the boot is on the other foot and we come knocking at your door.