Lessons from the Slush Pile

Rosamund Murdoch reflects on reading the agency’s slush pile.

As the abundance of manuscripts and book proposals came whizzing through my metaphorical letter box (inbox), a surge of excitement overcame me. Being a lover of books and reading, the prospect of acting as a literary agent (of sorts) for a fortnight was an enticing one; and I couldn’t wait to get started. Pen poised and glasses on, I began. Having never done something like this before, I didn’t know what to expect.  But one thing I did know was that to sift through a selection of proposals from the slush pile, commenting on the good, the bad and the ugly, was going to be no easy feat.  

My first thought as my eyes flickered over the vast array of proposals was: be objective. For someone who has a relatively clear idea about the sort of books I like: the ones that make the rest of the world disappear once delved into their pages, I had to keep reminding myself to steer clear of a subjective opinion. I had to keep asking myself the question: Does this have publishing potential?, as opposed to: Would I read this? I chose ten titles to focus my remarks on, all ranging in genre. Whilst most followed the agency’s book proposal format, some wavered from the norm presenting whole manuscripts and somewhat drab chapter outlines, which automatically hindered their appeal to me. For the authors that had taken the time to structure their proposals coherently, I was far more willing to give more of my time and consideration. With a detailed synopsis, a selection of sample chapters, a list of comparable books on the market, plus research done into marketing strategies and target audience, I was able to comment more effectively on said proposal.

Whilst reading a selection of sample chapters, I took much into consideration. The originality of the stories, the use of language, the varying styles adopted and the tones conveyed. Then I asked myself two questions: Who is going to read this? Is there a market for it? By throwing some research into that mix, of what is hot and what is not so hot at the moment, I was then able to make some relevant comments on what I thought each proposal both offered and lacked. On reflection, I was perhaps far too generous in my feedback, no doubt stemming from my inexperience in such a role. With fierce competition out there, it comes as no surprise that literary agents have to give quick, concise and often cutting feedback to authors, especially given that they are inundated with thousands of submissions every year. 

A literary agency looks to launch new writers as well as push established writers into the spotlight, therefore how an author presents itself to the agent is key. First of all, the author needs to have done their research into that particular agency and see whether they cater for the type of novel the author is proposing. Otherwise, everyones’ time is simply wasted. Secondly, the author needs to follow the instructions on proposal format for the agency they are approaching. I found, on the whole, if the proposal was properly structured, I was more encouraged to consider it. It was clear from the offset, if time and research had gone into the proposal, and vice versa. Thirdly, I found my more positive thoughts hovered over those proposals which clearly conveyed the concept of the book very early on. In comparison, there were others which conjured up some questions in my mind: Where is this going? What is it’s point? And the unfortunate: Is this it? So, from what I have learnt, perhaps authors might better present themselves to agents by doing three things. Do your homework on the agency, pitch your idea effectively by creating a clear, informative and well researched proposal in the desired format of said agency, and lastly: stand out. To be successful, an author must show the agent why their idea, above all of the others ideas waiting in the wings, is a keeper.

Aside from going through the slush pile, I have learnt agents are up to all sorts on a day to day basis. It is certainly far from reading manuscripts all day. Indeed I imagine most of the reading to be done anywhere but the office. I have learnt that an agent acts as a middle man, or buffer, between author and publisher. The agent has the knowledge of who is looking for what in the publishing world, and has the expertise to effectively place manuscripts. Looking at it from the other direction, the publishers know what genres the agents are likely to be submitting, so it works both ways. With a huge amount of back and forth communication between the author, agent and publisher, the agent must cater for both. Acting as a mediator, top negotiation skills are clearly required. I have learnt that an agent’s day is rarely monotonous. From getting authors to rework their proposals, editing their material, negotiating contracts and overseeing publication, as well as doing marketing and publicity; the role is an incredibly varied one. An agent guides an author throughout the whole process, seeking out every opportunity to push them center stage.

To gain a small insight into the world of a literary agent has been a fascinating experience for me, and something I would love to learn more about and become involved with.  As the first step in the publishing process, the role’s importance is crucial.  In the rapidly growing digital age, the avenues opening up for self publishing, e-books and blogs are changing the landscape for literary agents. This is such an interesting and important time to be coming into the publishing sphere, one that is developing in response to current trends, and moving with the times.