The Slush Pile, or The Truth About Interning

“Books, like friends, should be few and well chosen.”

–Charles Caleb Colton

Writers, you have worked your butts off to pen a story, a character, a world, unlike any other. In the midst of all of life’s other duties, you have made time to write for yourself. Where many have given up, you have persevered. Now, after agonizing over word choice, writer’s block, and revisions, you are ready to submit your piece to lucky agents and editors. You’ve done your research, put together a proper query, included sample pages if requested, and have submitted your work in the hopes of being published.

You’ve done all you can do for the time being; everything is in the hands of those editors and literary agents—or, speaking from experience, their interns. Some writers may be outraged to hear that the editors or agents themselves are not reading every submission; to explain better why this happens, I’ll direct you to the Google image search results for “slush pile,” the industry term for the stack of queries submitted to editorial departments and lit agencies every day. Those pictures are not exaggerations. Here’s some inside info on what the recipient’s experience of querying is like.

 

While interning with editorial departments, I read through my fair share of manuscripts. Mail coming from trusted literary agents would go directly to the editors; lit agents themselves filter out a number of manuscripts from their own slush piles. Also, they often have relationships with editors at different houses and can recommend projects they know will suit the editors’ tastes. My territory was unsolicited manuscripts, works sent directly from writer to publishing house, and I was to set aside more promising proposals with feedback on why I thought they would work.

Over the course of one particular summer internship—three or so months—I read over 1200 queries and sample pages. Twelve. Hundred. Mere weeks into my internship, I could detect common plots and pitfalls from a query letter alone. I read hundreds of pitches for picture books about family pets on slice-of-life adventures, stay-at-home dads, and nice monsters under the bed. For every dozen picture books about the neighborhood’s favorite dog, I’d find a rhyming board book about how mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa all give their own special hug, or how the compassion of a country in wartime can be sparked by the actions of one child filled with hope. The awesome push for diversity in children’s lit led to excellent picture books about culture and inclusion, but also to preachy books more concerned with the author’s personal agenda than the quality of the story.

Another internship with a publisher that focused on books for adults gave me time to sit down with a lot of memoirs. Many of the Backpacking Through Europe stories blend into one in my memory, but there were times when I enjoyed being welcomed into these writers’ lives. A collection of essays from educators teaching abroad made me wish I had the full manuscript to read and not just sample chapters. One man’s struggle to learn a foreign language for the beautiful woman he fell in love with at first sight was so touching that I thought we might have mistakenly received the plot of a Hallmark movie.

Now, I was able to find quite a few proposals that I enjoyed and could forward along to the editors. Interns save their bosses a lot of time. Editors don’t just look at proposals, after all. When they take on projects, they work one-on-one with their writers from start to finish and brainstorm new ideas; they work with the design team to help ensure that the covers and layouts suit the books’ content; they give marketing and publicity the tools they need to promote new publications; etc., etc.

Interns are chosen because of their passion for writing and reading. These students and young professionals hope to edit books themselves one day and are learning all they can from their bosses and mentors. Books are an important part of their lives, as is the success of authors old and new. Rest assured, they read queries with care. The function of interns in the editorial setting is to assist editors in making the best use of their time and resources. Their ultimate goal is to share new stories and voices with the world.

Having a manuscript rejected is difficult. When writers have spent time and energy on a project that matters to us, not being accepted right away is a harsh blow. Knowing that publishers and literary agencies receive thousands of submissions a year doesn’t ease the sting as much as we might hope. Still, there are many editors, agents, and interns out there–stick with it, and you are sure to find an industry professional rooting for you!

Tell me about your experiences submitting manuscripts–or maybe even reading them!–in the comments. I love writing stories, and everyone appreciates tips from personal experience!

xo P

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