Surviving the Slush Pile

As you may know, in addition to being an author I’m also an acquisitions editor (see: slush slave) for Clean Teen Publishing and Crimson Tree Publishing. It’s a fancy title that basically means when you submit to them, I’m one of the first people to see the submission, and it has to get past me and my team before being considered by the big bosses.

Shall Not Pass

Having been on the other side of that door more times than I’d like to count, I thought I’d give you a run down of the things I’m looking for, and the things that absolutely turn me off to a submission. And I’m not going to lie, I’m PICKY. I can afford to be. Clean Teen is one of the fastest growing midlist publishers in YA right now and we have something most other small presses can’t offer, a no kidding distributor that gets books on shelf in stores like Barnes & Noble and other big chains. We get several hundred of submissions a year so we only take the top 1% of those who email us.

Those odds sound terrible, don’t they?

That’s part of why I’m doing this post. Sometimes the hardest part of submitting is just getting your foot in the door, and this will at least help you with that much! So buckle in and take notes because I’m not going to pull any punches.

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Things that I’m looking for in a submission:

1) This sounds nit picky but, personalize your submission. If you are blasting a general submission to a hundred people and I’m just another on the BCC chain, it starts you off on the wrong foot. I know time is precious, but show me that you’ve at least looked at our website, have read our guidelines and have some idea what we are looking for. I’m not talking about flattery, but you should always do your homework on a company before submitting to them. Not doing so is an indicator of laziness and laziness will not do in this business.

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2) Write a concise, short blurb. If your blurb is more than a paragraph, it’s too long. I know, boiling 60K words into 3-5 sentences is hard. You know what else is hard? Writing and selling a book. Suck it up buttercup. I don’t need every random plot string. Give me the extreme basics, your book in a nutshell. Use “hook” words. Don’t tell me your MC is a wayard, shy, solemn teenage boy who recently lost his parents in a dramatic car crash, tell me he’s an orphan.You should, as an author, be able to effectively tell someone about your book in one sentence. Can you do that? If not, learn to. Here are a few random examples:

“An young orphan discovers his magical heritage and is whisked off to a school where he will be trained to fight against the dark wizard responsible for his parent’s death.”

Can you guess the book? I bet you can. And while this example lacks the intricacy of the whole story, it is effective in giving the base plot and intriguing the reader into wanting to see more. That’s the goal.

“An agoraphobic father has to trek across the world in search of the man who kidnapped his handicapped son.”

Can you guess that one? How about Finding Nemo? Here’s another.

“A teenage girl wakes to find a recently deceased classmate in her room, and he’s desperate for her help in solving his murder.”

That’s from my book Losing Logan.

Now these are ultra short examples. But if it takes you three sprawling paragraphs to get to the meat of your plot, I’m already bored and looking for a reason to move on.

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3) Tell me what books your book is similar too, and how it is also unique. Tell me it’s like Veronica Mars meets True Blood. I want to know what your target audience is. I need to know where it will sit on the shelf of a bookstore. Comparison is great. I don’t need you to come up with something no one has ever heard of before. I don’t need you to reinvent the wheel with your genre. But you need to have a clear audience, and a unique enough presentation or voice to make it stand out against similar books. This shows me that you understand your audience and can deliver something they will want to read.

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4) Tell me about you. I don’t mean where you went to school or how many cats you have. Tell me what your social media presence is like, do you have a website, twitter, facebook page (FYI the answer to these should always be YES and you should include links)? Do you have other books or published writings? Sometimes the difference between an acceptance and a rejection is whether I can look at your online presence and see if you are engaging, relateable, and professional. If you haven’t updated your page or blogged or sent out a tweet since November of last year, that’s a big red flag to me. It’s not so much about having tons of followers or friends as it is about being actively engaged in your writing career and that means having a strong online presence. Unfortunately the days when an author could hibernate 9 months out of the year and only surface to release a book for a week then disappear again are long over.

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5) The first 15 pages must absolutely wow me. This is make it or break it. If you give me 15 pages and ten are a long, boring prologue, I will probably not read past it. If you start with a dream or in a quiet moment of reflection, I will probably stop reading. The purpose of the first 15 pages is to grab the reader by the collar and say, dude you have got to see this. Think about it this way, when someone asks you about the most interesting day of your life, do you begin with, well I woke up and ate breakfast and brushed my teeth…NO! You skip straight into the interesting stuff. You can always fill in backstory later. Also, keep in mind that the first pages of dialogue can set the tone of your main character. So if your MC is a sassy smart mouth, the first words they speak should reflect that. SHOW me who your characters are right away. The best way to do that is with strong dialogue. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Nothing will make me reject a book faster than 15 pages of meh dialogue.

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Things that will get you automatically rejected:

1) Being a diva. I mean, having questions is great and knowing what you are looking for in a publisher is wonderful, but if the first paragraph of your submission is that you aren’t interested in signing with us unless we can guarantee you at least a quarter million in sales a year and translations in all six major markets, I will dump you right there. You are obviously not the kind of person I’m looking to work with, and honestly, I can already see that your expectations are way too unrealistic which actually labels you extremely unprofessional. A publishing house is a team and everyone has to work together to achieve success. Having one dick bag in the mix can ruin the whole process for everyone.

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2) Ignoring my submission guidelines. If we aren’t taking horror and you straight up tell me, I know you aren’t taking horror but I know you will change your mind when you read this I will instantly reject you. If there is a grey area, like I know you aren’t taking horror but it’s kind of a mystery with horror elements, then go for it. If we ask for 15 pages and you send ten, I’m already mad at you. If you send it as a pdf and we’ve specifically asked for a word doc, I’m already mad at you. It might not mean an instant rejection, but you aren’t doing yourself any favors either.

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3) Mistakes. For the love of all that is holy pre-edit your work. Have a couple of beta readers look over it. If the first pages are full of errors, even minor errors, I will reject it. Some people say, isn’t that what editors are for? Well, yeah, but we have a handful of editors who are already swamped with work, so why would I overtax them by handing them a manuscript that I know will take weeks if not longer to clean up? Answer, I won’t.

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4) Being a dick. This goes back to the social media thing. If I look on your pages (and I WILL stalk you before making an offer) and see that you post lots of political, religious, or other bias content, I will probably reject you. This sounds harsh and obviously everyone is welcome to their own opinions but, if you are trying to become a professional author, you can’t be alienating readers whose beliefs might be different than your own by posting aggressive content. This is also a good indicator that you won’t be able to control yourself when bad reviews roll in (and they will, it happens to every author without exception) and we can not risk having authors who come unglued to readers or bloggers.

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5) Being too tech unsavvy will get you a rejection from me. The days of snail mail and paper submissions is dead. If you can’t figure out how to print, sign, and scan your contract back to me, if you can’t turn a word doc into a pdf, if you are determined to write your novel on grandma’s old typewriter, this is where we part ways. Publishing is a different animal than it was even ten years ago and you don’t have to work for Apple, but you do have to be comfortable with basics of internet use and word processing. It’s a digital market and being able to navigate a digital landscape is no longer optional if you want to have success in the industry. I wish I didn’t have to say this, but clearly I do since I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately. The internet is your friend. If I ask you if you have ever tried Pinterest and you give me blank puppy dog eyes I will drop you like a hot potato. Period.

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So that’s my list. Now, keep in mind that doing everything right still won’t always get you an enthusiastic YES! There are a million factors in taking or rejecting a book and 99% of them have to do with the book and the current market as a whole. But this will at least help you get that “please send us the full manuscript for consideration”. And that makes the odds of signing a book contract jump exponentially. You can’t get your book signed if you can’t get it in the door.

Good luck and happy submitting!



If you’re curious what types of books I’m currently in the market for, here’s a quick list:

-A YA Pirate story (OMG if you have this send it to me right meow!)

-Werewolves and Shifters YA or NA

-A YA Witch book (think along the lines of Kelly Armstrong’s Otherworld novels)

-YA Mysteries

-Time Travel


Surviving the Slush Pile — 4 Comments

  1. I love this. Everyone should read this. And I should blog more. I struggle with blogging. Partly, I feel I have nothing profound to add to the blogiverse. But, after reading this I’ve decided to work harder to blog on a more regular basis whether or not it’s profound. Thanks for the inspiration, humor, and encouragement in a weird- don’t be an idiot-kind of way. I’ll try not to be an idiot. No guarantees.

  2. Awesome! I better get to work on my novel then…

    By the way, I love hearing the “ins” of submission policies and such because I have friends who are trying to break out in writing and have a hard time with the idea of submitting to publishers because of time and rejections. I am interested in learning more about the “hybrid author” which I know you are. And thank you for clarifying the kind of one line synopsis as well.

    Geez…I need better Beta’s if I’m going to submit anything in my future.

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