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Something Nasty in the Slush Pile

Something nasty in the slush pile

A headline in an August 2014 article in The Week predicted ‘End times for authors’, as it highlighted the challenges faced by writers in the publishing revolution accelerated by the digital age. 

Yet, whether paperback or hardback, ebook or audio, one look in any bookshop or on Amazon reveals a massive haul of books for sale (despite the miniscule chance, said to be less than 1 per cent, of an individual book being stocked in an average bookshop). 

Some 3,500 books (and rising) – not including ebooks – are published each day in the US. And the UK is no slouch on that score either, with the first decade of the new millennium showing a relentless rise in the number of new books published every year, from almost 110,000 in 2001 to 150,000 in 2010. 

But, when it comes to those who write them, there are new challenges afoot: squeezed by publishers, Amazon and falling books sales, author earnings have plummeted by 29 per cent since 2005 (according to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society). By 2013, just 11.5 per cent of UK professional authors earned their living solely from writing (compared to 40 per cent in 2005). And self-published authors fare worse, despite the few who hit the jackpot.

So, is there a way to beat a path through the publishing jungle? A new opportunity to reach out to readers, differently, in the digital age? In the spirit of publisher’s reader Sammy Looker’s Something Nasty in the Slushpile: How NOT to Get Published, here are a few suggested what- NOT-to-dos, if you would like to rise to the challenge.


Suggested topics to feed your desire NOT to get published:

My grandson is in the middle of his gap year … Would you like to publish his emails? Everyone who’s read them says they are riveting.

It’s a fictional novel – a bit like Strangers on a Train, but they know each other.

Here’s my first attempt at penning a bestseller. You will find that I have boiled it down to as few words as possible.

Management for Megalomaniacs: Manage like Hitler, Motivate like Mao A business book that means business.

Any of the above will do. Alternatively, find any niche, nebulous or nerdy topic. Or resort to insults, such as:

The working title of my new book is All Publishers Are Lying Bastards … 

Yes, dress to impress.

The enclosed isn’t a biographical book about my father …

Say what it isn’t about ...  Ideal.

It’s a fantasy novel in the tradition of L. Ron Hubbard & the Dalai Lama, similar but different from Dr Who

Hmm, really!

My story is unique …

Well, never aim for that … 


But what is your book’s unique selling point? And who will want to buy it? Learn how NOT to know your USP or target audience:

The audience I seek is no one in particular …

If you have ever wanted to just stand up and walk out on your job, this book’s for you.

My audience would mostly be middle-aged, middle-brow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road readers.

I have a massive hunch that this book will be a global hit. 

Perfect! Hunches will do it. Never be specific. Otherwise, try aiming high – or clutching at straws:

Richard & Judy would like this book. So would Cliff Richard. And The Queen would definitely love it.

The book is a crossover between Harry Potter and Bridget Jones, with a plot as fiendish as The Da Vinci Code

It’ll be a sure-fire hit with all fans of Bridget Jones

Yes, put the weight of expectation on those who have gone before, regardless …

I’d best describe my travel memoir as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love meets Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself 

Like Eat, Pray, Love, but much, much better

A funnier version of Eat, Pray, Love with a Scandi-noir edge (my mother was Finnish)


A few tips on how NOT to send and deliver:

I forgot to include my cover letter with the submission that I sent you last week. I found it after I’d been to the post office this afternoon. I must have been sitting on it … 

The ideal start to your not-getting-published journey: proving how daffy you can be. There’s nothing like getting off on the wrong foot – no second chances with first impressions, talking of which:

Send by email, even though they’ve asked you not to, with the entire book as an attachment, addressing the potential reader with a solitary Hi!

Let Google translate your novel into English, so it’s incomprehensible.


As well as forgetting to include your carefully crafted cover letter, a sine qua non, try out these for size in your submission package:

All your rejection letters to date, especially those more than two decades old.

Endorsements from your mother/uncle/wife/best friend.

Enticements, such as a holiday in your castle in Spain, or a chocolate bar that will likely melt all over your submission.

And then don’t forget to give up as soon as the first rejection letter arrives:

Forget tenacity is key. 

And lack of self-belief too:

Develop your inner critic, telling you how useless you are.


A few tips on how NOT to write, creatively or otherwise:

For Graham Greene, a splinter of ice dwells at the writer’s heart – melt that for starters.

Don’t set any goals, like Greene’s 500 words a day or Conrad’s 800. Procrastinate.

Pepper your pages with exclamation marks! The sign of a drowning writer.

Think, Elmore Leonard, the writer’s writer, then ignore all he did.

Remember, your daily jam doughnut from Greggs is more important than your deadline. 

Unfocus your creativity, so never be alone, don’t decamp to the woods like Thoreau or retreat to a tower like Montaigne..

Buy a chaise-longue and lounge on it whenever you can – writerly pretensions without the graft.

Go out; enjoy your life, and don’t sit at your computer all day & night typing, typing, typing.

Sammy Looker, the aptly named reader at Constable, joined the firm in 1923 and was still there 40 years later. It was always possible to tell when a manuscript had been read by Looker as the pages tended to stick together, given Looker's tendency to eat fishpaste sandwiches while reading. The author of Something Nasty in the Slush Pile has chosen to use Sammy's name as a nom de plume.