One of the first terms I learned in editing and publishing was “slush pile.” This is standardly how the industry refers to their collections of unread manuscripts that they acquire through open and often unsolicited and unagented submissions. Despite being a large part of the acquisitions process of publishing, the slush pile has a rather poor reputation.
To begin with, the name is rather disparaging. Slush isn’t typically glamorous. It’s mushy and gray. The term may have originated from something quite similar. According to the only source I could find on the history of the slush pile, The Awl, manuscripts were manually submitted, often delivered through office transoms when the press was closed, creating a literal pile in their doorway very similar to mounds of snow.
Another possibility is how it is synonymous with “slush funds” in that there is money stashed away and used when needed, similar to these manuscripts waiting to be used. Slush fund also derives from another version of slush that refers to the extra money sailors made from ships selling their leftover cooking fat and oil. Similarly, these are extra manuscripts that presses can use to bring in extra funds as well.
Finally, the third possibility of slush pile origins comes from a 1907 Washington Post article accusing J. H. Seward & Co. of fraudulently obtaining higher refunds for their waste fruit or slush by adding water and sawdust so that the pile would weigh more and they would be further compensated. With the way the article used slush to infer sifting and mining, it’s a strong possibility this is where the term originated.
Because it is expected that one will find so many pieces to reject, the slush pile is seen as tedious and time consuming. So, this job is commonly tasked to interns and editorial assistants—those on the lower rungs of the ladder. Between the name, the seemingly monotonous work itself, and the lower ranking of those expected to work on the slush pile, this step in the acquisitions process is easily looked down upon. It holds little to no glimmers of admiration.
But that’s not true at all. In my experience, everyone in the press works on the slush pile, and as a manuscript is accepted, other editors will read it to confirm this piece fits the press well. It’s an important process in which managing editors and the editor-in-chief get involved for the sake of not only the press but the authors as well.
Acceptances and rejections are taken very seriously, and oftentimes rejections come for numerous other reasons. It may not fit that specific publisher’s focus, theme, genres, length, or timeline for publishing and is passed on, but that doesn’t reflect the author or their work. Slush piles are full of fascinating, creative, quality work.
Editors take submissions seriously because we understand the importance of this piece to the writer. Time, energy, care, tears, and sometimes the author’s own personal money have gone into these pieces. We understand that in sharing your work with us you are being vulnerable and trusting us with your piece. And as a publisher, we would be nowhere without you taking that risk to be open with us and sharing something so personal so that we may find it, admire it, and help you send it out into the world for others to enjoy as well.
The slush pile is an exchange and one that is very sensitive and private. Blind reads (reading the manuscript with no information about the name, age, sex, race, gender, etc. of the author unless directly relevant) are often done on submissions to deter bias in the editors and keep reading as fair as possible because everyone deserves a chance at being published. We let your hard work speak for itself.
With all the caution and consideration editors put into going through their slush pile, it shouldn’t have the reputation of being lesser in comparison to the other work done within a press. It is an imperative step that begins a book’s lifecycle and puts authors in vulnerable positions. There’s so much weight held in the slush pile, and for me personally, it is my favorite step for all these reasons. To see the vastness of creativity from so many and then to see their courage in sharing it with us specifically is beautiful. I hope going forward more people can admire the slush pile the same way I do.