What’s Your Take: Have Publishers Outsourced Their Slush Piles to Literary Agents by Shane Joseph

In this series, Northumberland artists share their views on issues related to the arts.

I spend a lot of time with the slush pile, mining for that golden egg.

Shane Joseph

It is now a given that you can’t submit work to a major publisher without going through a literary agent, for there are no more publishers’ slush piles. Publishers have also outsourced most aspects of production – editing, design, formatting, printing, distribution, proof reading, marketing and publicity – to “contractors.” What are publishers left with? Are they just the brand and deal maker, hanging on to the famous six-course lunch in the six-star hotel with their six-figure earning author, along with the frequent overseas trip to international book festivals to flog movie and foreign translation rights for their backlist? An odd business, publishing. No one knows where the money lurks in its labyrinthine world.

The publishing journey begins in the slush pile, where the golden egg may lie, the masterpiece that precipitates those lunches and foreign boondoggles. If a publisher insists that all new work must come through a literary agent, then that publisher has sacrificed his future income to the tastes of the agent, who usually looks for quantity over quality, given that their income is a percentage of what the lowly writer makes. This says to me that this publisher doesn’t really care for their content as long as it makes money. So, if money is the driver, other probabilities can also be extrapolated:

  1. The author must be of an age where a stream of future novels is a possibility and a requirement. They must live up to the brand the publisher will invest and build around them.
  2. Authors who do not produce sales will be dropped, pronto. Remember, quantity, not quality, is the driver. Dear Author, you will never get a second chance at making a first impression.
  3. The publisher is hostage to the agent, removed from their prime supplier who is the author.
  4. The publisher may try to claw back brand identity by insisting that only certain types of work be submitted via agents – e.g. YA fiction, Marginalized Voices, Chick-Lit etc., yet the nuances of quality will be lost to the publisher if deserving works within these genres are passed over by agents in favour of more popular, lower-denominator fare.

As a small publisher, I don’t outsource anything other than printing. I spend a lot of time with the slush pile, mining for that golden egg, even though my pile has started to grow in recent years. I try to respond to every submission, for, being a writer myself, I understand the hope and sweat behind each of those efforts. With the weaker ones, my response is brief, providing constructive feedback on where the work could be improved; but for the ones that are just missing the mark, I go into a detailed critique that some editors would charge fees for under the description of “manuscript evaluation.” Some in the latter group of writers have taken my feedback to heart and returned in subsequent years with a more robust submission that I have proceeded to publish; others have thanked me (or cursed me) and gone on to publish elsewhere. I know this level of “free” involvement is risky and non-remunerative in the short term, but it is also the reward for being in publishing, for with the right encouragement, good work can be salvaged and showcased.

I don’t know where the money in publishing lurks, even though I have been in this game for a dozen years, but it must begin with finding a hidden masterpiece in the slush pile. Therefore, this is the area of publishing I’m least likely to outsource, even if I am so lucky as to become a bigger name one day replete with those six-course lunches and foreign trips, even though the rest of the publishing community goes off in the opposite direction.

Shane Joseph, Photo by Ken Solilo Photography

About Shane:

Shane Joseph is a Canadian novelist, blogger, reviewer, short story writer, and publisher. He is the author of six novels and three collections of short stories. His most recent novel, Circles in the Spiral, was released in October 2020. For details visit his website at www.shanejoseph.com

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Marie Prins says:

    Who do the agents outsource their slush pile to? They seem to be always closed to queries. And when they’re open, a writer has to be lucky and catch the brief opportunity on Twitter.

  2. A compelling piece, Shane. Thanks for shining a critical light on that murky world of gatekeeping in the literary sector. You make a strong case for small publishing houses. Thanks for presenting the reasons and process behind what you publish.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful piece Shane. Perhaps the silver lining for publishers like yourself is the fact that if the gatekeepers go for the popular (quantity over quality as you suggest) there are more “golden eggs” available for you to find. As a poet, my publishing landscape is even more challenging to navigate than it is for publishers like yourself. Prose writers are lucky to have publishers like yourself.

  4. ronaldmackay says:

    It is a tribute to and a mark of quality of Blue Denim Press that you solicit manuscripts directly from authors and read/acknowledge/critique them all. Around only 10% of Canadian publishers might be considered as ‘large’ and so might receive manuscripts solely via agents, leaving aspiring authors with many options regarding where to submit their work. Presumably agents have the freedom to submit their clients’ manuscripts to any publisher, large or small. Might a small press reject a “golden egg” on the grounds it was submitted by an agent? Or might such a submission be welcomed as a windfall?

    1. Shane Joseph says:

      I’m not sure agents will bother with small publishers like me. It’s quantity, remember?

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis, Shane. As with so much in life, it seems to be all about “following the money,” sigh. And yet — some “literary” fiction does make it through the gatekeepers, doesn’t it? Otherwise we’d have no Giller Prize list, no Man Booker Prize list, etc. Still, it’s telling that many Giller Prize winners or nominees come from smaller, or medium-sized, presses such as Coach House, Dundurn, House of Anansi, etc.

  6. Christopher Cameron says:

    I applaud publishers like Shane who take the time and show the courtesy to respond constructively to submissions. As we know, any acknowledgment at all from publishers, big or small, happens almost never – an appalling display of bad manners if nothing else.

    Throughout my career as an editor, I created many manuscript evaluations for authors. If a writer – especially a first-time author – approached me with a manuscript that was not ready for editing, I tried to discourage them from paying for a full edit by offering an evaluation, which was only a fraction of the cost. I hoped this would give them some support and direction while their work was still in the draft stage.

    Yes, I charged a fee for that service; as a professional editor, it was what I was trained to do and was part of how I made my living.

  7. Allan Seymour says:

    Shane – I agree with your points. My experience is that big publishers want young authors (potential for lots of books over a lifetime) vs. older writers (with a sooner expiry date). Agents with big publisher affiliations, want referrals, so don’t bug them. (One of the rudest persons I ever encountered was the physical gatekeeper of a major agency). So where do you start when you have already had your mid life crisis? One Canadian author I know who has 17 books out there – was dumped by her agency as she now entered the 60 plus bracket. Lots of “less than stellar” books are published to keep that volume up. And as you have pointed out – the gold is in the slush pile. On a separate note, I wonder why Jeff Bezos hasn’t figured out yet, that he can control the entire publishing supply chain by creating his own e gatekeeper by forcing all manuscripts to be crawled over by algorithmic fed robots and the “ratings and recommends” sold to publishers directly.

    1. Shane Joseph says:

      Don’t give Jeff ideas – he may invent an army of algorithms to write better books with more convoluted and interesting plots than the human mind could create, thereby sewing up the publishing industry and taking over as author, publisher and distributor, and throwing us all out of work.Sort of like how Deep Blue eventually beat Gary Kasparov in 1997. That was 25 years ago – AI (and Jeff) has come a long way since.

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