Whenever people find out that I’m a slush pile reader, they usually have one of two reactions. The first is “I would love to get paid to read books all day” while sighing wistfully. What those people really mean is “I would love to get paid to read good books all day,” which would be nice, if that’s what I did. The truth is that most of what I read is stuff I wouldn’t read under normal circumstances, and much of it isn’t very good. There’s a reason we call it “the Slush Pile,” and not “the Super Happy Terrific Pile of Wonder and Goodness.”
It’s the second reaction I get from people that I want to talk about, because it usually involves a healthy mixture of distrust, anger, and abject horror. Their smile suddenly becomes much more forced, their eyes a bit more steely, and there is an edge to their voice as they say, “Oh, that’s . . . nice,” which translates roughly to “Oh, so YOU’RE the one who rejected my manuscript and dashed my dreams forever. Hope you sleep comfortably at night, you monster!” I might as well have admitted that I like to kick puppies in my spare time. These people have met the enemy, and he is me.
I understand where this reaction comes from. In the writing world, there are two distinct camps, the writers and the publishers, and never the twain shall meet. The writers toil daily in the salt mines of storytelling, laboring to appease their individual muses with appropriate sacrifices of time, energy, and tears in exchange for the least bits of inspiration. They attend classes and conferences at their own expense to improve their craft and hone their skills. They wake up early to squeeze in a few more words before the kids wake up, and then stay up late to review and revise. They endure the slings and arrows of tough-love criticism from their writing partners and groups, and make wholesale perspective changes from third to first person because it’s what the story wants. It’s about magic and love and creativity, and most writers do it all not just because they want to, but because they need to. Because in many cases, it would kill them not to. And in the end, after months or even years of literary gestation, the writers give birth to their story. It’s a brand new life all its own, and is cared for and loved by the writer with the fierce protective sensibilities of a Kodiak grizzly for her cubs.
And then the writer hands off their precious little story to the publishers, which feels like tossing their newborn into a woodchipper. Because to many writers, publishers are seen as giant, faceless corporate entities that only care about making money, and are devoted solely to the crushing of dreams. They imagine publishers lounging like the gods of Olympus, sipping ambrosia and not giving two thoughts about the lowly writers struggling beneath them. Or they see them as rabid, salivating beasts with glistening fangs and hunger in their otherwise dead eyes. Indeed, nothing tastes better to a publisher than a fresh manuscript served medium rare with a side of the artist’s soul.
Welcome to the machine.
I sympathize with the writers, because I am one myself, and know firsthand what it takes to produce a completed book. I also have worked in the publishing world for a very long time, so I know something of what goes on behind the scenes there. With a foot firmly in both camps, I have to maintain an uneasy and delicate balance that, at times, feels like trying to navigate a no-man’s land of misconceptions.
Let’s just throw out some uncomfortable facts and stare at them for a moment, shall we? First fact: writing is a business. Publishers do, in fact, want to make money, and base many of their decisions on financial grounds. This fact upsets a lot of writers, but here’s another simple fact: writers want to make money too. The very act of submitting your story to a publisher means that you are hoping to sell your literary baby to the highest bidder. It’s okay to admit that, and it doesn’t cheapen or diminish the magic of writing one bit. (Just so we’re clear, I am not advocating the selling of actual babies to the highest bidder). Larry Correia frequently says that writers should have “get paid” as part of their personal mission statement, and I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t dream of being able to quit their day job and write full time.
Ready for some more uncomfortable facts? It’s not easy to do all that. Very, very few writers will ever reach the upper echelons of financial security. I know plenty of writers who do very well, and even a couple who can do it full time. But most can’t. It’s like playing sports—not many basketball or football players will make it to the big leagues, and it’s not just about skill or talent. There’s also a fair amount of luck (or karma, or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it) that has to break in your favor, and over which you have no control. The same is true in publishing. You can’t control what the market is doing, or what has already been submitted to a publisher before your story, or what the Next Big Thing will be. And what’s more, it’s impossible to predict what the Next Big Thing will be, because every Current Big Thing is almost always a surprise. I’ve seen books do really well that nobody expected, and I’ve seen books that were supposed to be the Next Big Thing fizzle and fade. No one can say exactly why Harry Potter, or Hunger Games, or even Twilight became the successes they did. Books like those are phenomenons, not business models. And yes, every writer wants to be the next JK Rowling, and every publisher wants to publish the next Harry Potter series, but no one knows exactly how to duplicate it. If they did, publishers would only need to put out four titles a year.
That sound I can hear are laptops being thrown across rooms everywhere in despair. Okay, so now that I’ve ruined your day, allow me to try and lift you back up again. Here’s a far more comfortable fact: I’m on your side here. I’m always hoping that every story I read will be a winner, and I’m always thrilled when I find one.
Here’s another: You should definitely keep writing. I believe that the ability to tell a good story is a divine gift, and the very worst thing we could do is to let that gift languish and die. So don’t give up. Keep at it. Try different genres and styles. Submit everywhere you can. Take no prisoners. I can’t promise you a publisher will knock down your door with the standard Rich and Famous Contract for you to sign. But I can say that publishers are always looking for everything, always. There will always be a need for a good story that is well written. And if you keep improving as a writer and artist, you can find your confidence as a person, and you can be happy.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta get back to the slush pile. I think I see a manuscript with your name on it.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.