The Bookseller refers to a recent debut as ‘salvaged from agent […] ‘s slushpile.’
Every trade paper develops a slang, a jocular shorthand. But to refer to the process of getting an agent as being ‘salvaged’ is a little harsh. I am worried it might confuse people who want to get a traditional publishing deal.
An agent works for you. They try to secure a deal with a publisher (or a series of deals regarding overseas, film, etc.) They get paid only if you get paid, so they obviously have to be picky who they represent.
Most people who try to get an agent don’t succeed, certainly not on the first book they submit. But when an agent does sign a debut author, the ‘slushpile’ – unsolicited contributions from people the agent doesn’t know – is a major way they find talent++. JK Rowling was ‘salvaged from the slushpile’.
An agent usually advertises as being open for business, or not. Therefore, if you send them your novel as a submission, when they are open, and if they represent that type of book, you are literally doing something they have asked for.
Since the arrival of The Internet, what an agent wants and who else they represent is usually findable online.
Typically, British agents ask for a short letter, a synopsis, and three chapters. Anecdotally the majority of submissions to agents are doomed to fail. They fall into one or all of the following errors: the agent is not currently taking submissions, the agent does not represent this type of book at the moment (or ever), or the submission is not what they ask for on their website. And many of the books that are left are somewhere between dreadful and not at all bad but not quite there.
Given this, I understand why agents call submissions slush, but it might be better called the crude ore from which the agent will find their next nugget of pure gold.
So, in my case I sent my first novel to a dozen agents and got nothing back but a little useful feedback. Rather than revise that book to the degree it clearly required, I finished the second, Our Child of the Stars. I sent to a dozen or so agents, one of whom, Rob Dinsdale, told me he was closed. (His website was down so I’m not apologising.) Now, living in London, I had been to events and talked to a few live agents, but there are events outside London. I participated in #askagent on twitter. One agent advertises that she takes questions via email, so I asked her a question. This was all mostly to make sure I understood the process.
Wow, a well-known agent, who I had met socially, asked for the entire manuscript. I chased everyone who hadn’t actually said no, including Rob, who also asked for the full, loved it, and offered me representation. We talked through what his vision was for the book, which matters. I shook hands, and he got me a two-book deal with Jo Fletcher Books. (There’s quite a lot of work hidden in that last sentence.)
You can get an agent through ‘the slushpile’, aged over fifty with sum previous publications experience, three short stories in US SFF mags, and no high profile social media presence.
I hadn’t met Rob, and I hadn’t sent him the first novel.
How the industry works is probably more obvious now than it ever has been. Meeting agents helps understand the process, but they will make the decision based on the book – and whether you share a vision for it. That’s code for, if they have editorial suggestions, will you work with them on it?
Being polite, researching the process and having a great book mattered.
There are all sorts of things that are unfair, and that’s for another post. But the point about submissions to the slushpile – one can hope this is the process LEAST open to favouritism, old boy networks, etc.
There are also alternatives to traditional publishing deals secured through an agent. Some publishers take direct submissions. Self-publishing is a viable and honorable route. There are crowd-funding options etc.
Edited to add. Some weeks later I saw two agents talking on Twitter. One said all but two of her fiction clients came through the slushpile. The other said 80%. Of course, mileage can vary.