ConFusion 2015, Panel 4: Staying Sane While Sluicing Through Slush

Notes from the “Staying Sane While Sluicing Through Slush” panel at ConFusion 2015.

This was a brilliant panel, and set the tone for me for what I picked through the rest of the ‘con. The panelists were delightful, and absolute founts of good information. In particular, Scott Andrews, who runs Beneath Ceaseless Skies, had several good stories about the industry (as well as a bone or two to pick). Since Caffeinated Press is up and running, and the submissions are starting to trickle in, the information in this panel was invaluable.

Panelists: Ferret Steinmetz, Christine Purcell, Justin Howe, Scott Andrews

* “Slushing” refers to the first read through the backlog of unsolicited submissions (the “slush pile“). This is a sort of gatekeeper position. If the slusher says NAY, it is quite unlikely that the submission will be seen by anyone else. Slushers need to be aware of this.

* Slushers are human beings. It must be acknowledged that the mental/emotional state of this person can influence whether or not a submission is accepted or not. It is on the Slusher to be aware of his/her internal state, and make choices accordingly.

* Slushing is hard work.

* Slushing is a definable skill. It that skill is the ability to do a quick read of the first portion of a manuscript and determine if it is a good fit for the publisher. One can become more efficient with practice. Also keep this in mind when reviewing submissions. It is okay for slushers, as bandwidth permits, to ask for a second opinion.

* Rejections should be personalized. This is helpful for the writer, and may keep doors open for better submissions as the writers’ skills improve.

* Only a small portion of a slush pile will actually be bad. The great majority will be competent, but not better than competent. But there are usually a few gems.

* It is important for EVERYONE at the publisher to occasionally read through the slush pile. This way everyone can stay current on the kind of work that is being submitted. Which leads to…

* Slush piles tend to mirror real-world events. Example: terrible snowstorm paralyzes New York. Two weeks later, a sudden flurry of submitted stories in which man-eating reindeer rampage through New York while it is paralyzed by a terrible snowstorm.

* Respect the writer, no matter their talent. They put forth the effort to write and publish the story. We owe it to them to at least consider it, no matter if this is the fiftieth awful thing this year. #51 might be magnificent.

* It’s okay for editors to talk among themselves about what they receive in the slush pile, but mention no specifics to outsiders. It’s okay to say “Why, yes! I am a first reader!”, but not what you have read. Word gets around. If writers stop trusting your editors, soon you will have no more submissions.

* Start each read optimistically. Assume that it will be an amazing story. Try not to get jaded. If you read a dozen crap stories in a row and are in a Stomp On Their Dreams mindset, take a break.

* STAND BY YOUR GUIDELINES. If you get submissions which do not fall within them, they should be rejected out of hand. Example: submitting a children’s story to Strange Aeons Press.

* Corollary to the preceding: The submission button should be at the very bottom of the guidelines page. Make authors have to read, or at least scroll through, every guideline before they can upload their stuff. Beware of query letters which start with something like “I know your guidelines say you only accept steampunk, but I have this unicorn story…”

* The cutoff for minimum standards for publish-ability varies from physical to digital. There is more leeway for digital because you don’t have to pay for shelf space. This is both and good and a bad thing. Lowers the signal-to-noise ration, but increases volume overall.

* Slushing can be a good learning tool for writers because you get to read so much bad writing. Some of those mistakes might be ones you also make, but seeing them objectively can give you tools to fix your own work.

* Slushing can give insights into upcoming trends, e.g. steampunk, urban fantasy, etc. These trends have to come from somewhere.

Here is the first ConFusion 2015 post, which links to the other articles in the series.

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