The Slush Pile Myth
Kids who love books sometimes find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to determining their future career. For some, the choice boils down to librarian or a publisher. Librarianship lacks the sophistication and potential glory of publishing, but feeds very well into a certain type of person’s need to work on a grounded level with members of the immediate public. We don’t make the big bucks but we have our own levels of influence, often directly, with our patrons. Publishers, in contrast, often don’t make a lot of money for a very long time, yet they have the potential to shape the hopes and fears and dreams of children through the products they produce. They get to return home on Thanksgiving and answer questions about what they do by saying, “Oh. I’m in publishing.” It just sounds cool.
But there is one aspect of publishing that I no longer envy. I did once, when I was young. Foolishly, I would dream of someday digging through one on my own. It would be like panning for gold, right? One conveniently forgets how rarely those who pan actually find said gold, of course.
I am referring of course to the infamous “slush pile”. For publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, the slush pile is where those manuscripts sit for a while. It looks a little something like this:
My librarian instincts make me think about how satisfying it would be to cut that pile down, but realistically I know that there’s a reason that the job is often given to new hires and interns.
Still and all, there is a myth that circulates about the children’s book that is plucked from the pile and subsequently reaches hitherto untold levels of success. I know of only three instances where this happened, and I wanted to just give them a quick glance today. On a percentage basis, when you compare the number of manuscripts that become hits vs. those that don’t get published at all, the likelihood of a book finding a home in the hearts and minds of children everywhere is akin to that of winning the lottery. And yet . . . and yet . . .
Here are the three successful slush pile stories:
Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site! by Sherri Duskey Rinker
This book has been on my mind a lot lately. Not just because my son absolutely adores it, but also because the sequel, Mighty Mighty Construction Site, will be coming out in 2017 (and it’s a proper sequel with lots and lots of female construction equipment characters in it too, I’ll add). I was at dinner with a friend the other day when she mentioned off-handedly that the original book had been a slush pile find. What? Really? That sounded like a lovely rumor more than anything else. So I did a tiny bit of internet digging and lo and behold found this Author Spotlight interview with Ms. Rinker. In it she says the following:
“I guess the great thing about my submission to the infamous ‘slush pile’ at that time was that I honestly didn’t know any better. I made a long (VERY long) list of publishers who accepted slush and just started working down the line.”
Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site would go on to become a hugely successful New York Times bestselling picture book. All the more impressive when you learn that she submitted the manuscript to only one publisher.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
One forgets that occasionally Newbery Award winners are slush pile finds. Yet if I’m going to be completely honest, this is the only case I know of personally. Before you go about assuming that the book was plucked from obscurity and then immediately won its author the honor that was her due (and rightly!), please remember that, as BookPage reported, it, “was plucked out of a slush pile by an assistant at Candlewick Press in 2000 and finally published seven years after the author submitted it.” Clever assistant, that. Between its discovery and its publication Ms. Schlitz would publish other books with Candlewick, like The Hero Schliemann (still one of the more delightful and underrated biographies out there for kids).
And finally, one of the most famous slush stories:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
In this case we actually know the name of the woman who found Rowling’s manuscript in the pile at the Christopher Little Literary Agency. Bryony Evens (a name that sounds like it would fit in at Hogwarts rather well) conducted an interview once where she said the manuscript originally caught her eye because it had an unusual “clamp binding”.
This actually doesn’t really fit our trends here, since Rowling was applying for an agent and not sending directly to a publisher, but that’s neither here nor there.
The thing about these stories is that often when they’re reported not much is made of the editors’ contributions prior to publication. The bones of a great book might have been there, but it was how the book was shaped by multiple hands prior to publication that’s of particular note. I think it’s safe to say that none of these books would be the classics we know today without that invaluable editorial input.
Any other slush pile stories come to mind? I’m sure there are some famous books out there I’m just not thinking of. Lay them on me!
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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