| KAREN MACLEOD is a freelance editor, who has also worked with electronic publishers.
On occasion, an editor on staff with a publishing house is called upon to read incoming submissions for the publisher's needs. This is called SLUSH PILE reading. My responsibility is to read the query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters. I am to recommend to either the acquisitions editor, or senior editor, whether I think the book has salable qualities, and should be added to the publisher's "line" of titles.
When I first was asked to read the SLUSH PILE, I wasn't certain what my duties were. I turned to Jacqueline Lichtenberg and
Sharon Jarvis for advice. This is what they told me:
A workable story idea and the evidence that the writer actually can execute the outline as written is what you look for.
b) likeable protagonist
c) a villain or antagonist at least as formidable as the protagonist (i.e. no paper tigers)
d) A beginning where the conflict starts (and the opening is set at that exact point, where the protagonist and antagonist first come into conflict)
e) a theme in keeping with the "line's" main objectives
f) a middle that doesn't sag -- if the ending is "happy" the middle is the lowest, most miserable, most threatening and demoralizing point in the protagonist's whole existence. If the ending is sad, the middle is nirvana squared.
g) an ending that actually resolves the conflict set forth on the first page -- whatever loose ends are left over for sequels, the reader is left satisfied that they finished the book they started out to read.
h) an avoidance of passive voice verbs when describing the protagonist's story.
i) an avoidance of telling you the background or backstory. The ability to code the background into the fabric of the plot.
Then you look at the format to see if the writer can follow industry standards for how to present material, at the cover letter to see if they're really a writer or just a wannabee who'll never make it because they don't know what to put into a query letter, and at the writer's bio and previous works to see if what they're offering is something they know how to write. If not, you look for evidence that they really can do it. Spelling, punctuation and grammar count.
Any query that meets those criteria is good enough to pass on to the editor who will make the decision.
I'd bet they won't get more than 1% of their submissions that fit all those criteria. If you've got that much, you can sell to bigger markets than your publisher.
So I'd say anything that meets 4 of the criteria above may be something they would want to look at.
I also suggest you read an interview I had with Sharon Jarvis who was acquisitions editor for DOUBLEDAY, and PLAYBOY BOOKS. She now has her own publishing firm,Toad Hall Company.
Sharon Jarvis' advice included:
This is good editorial practice and also good for the resume. It sounds like you're being asked to read the slush pile to find worthwhile material, and probably to write a brief description of the project. All you need to do is write a one-page description which synopsizes the story line and characters, and then your reaction to the material. Is it well written? Does it hold your attention? Is the plot logical, etc. Plus your recommendation to pursue it or reject it. A standard synopsis is 6-12 pages and you still have to condense it into a few paragraphs for your report. Think of what you write as a book report that gets right to the point of is it publishable and why.
So now we're down to personal opinion, which is what you're giving the publisher anyway. I don't know how picky this publisher is, but I assume she wants the most commercial stories.
We already know that the majority of book buyers are women (and that's for all genres) with the exception of men's action/adventure and possibly Westerns. Mysteries are read by more women. So will this plot appeal to them? I don't think so, despite the professional writing. So that's what you'd put in your note to her. That's counterbalanced by his claim of doing well on Amazon. So it's up to her to make the final decision.
The only way to sharpen your skills is to read tons of queries and excerpts. You'll soon learn to cut out the bad stuff right away and then to choose more carefully from the better proposals.
Further advice from Sharon: (after I sent her one of the submissions)
What you received was a cover letter plus the opening paragraphs of the first chapter. (Thank goodness the writer at least sent the opening page.)
The cover letter doesn't have enough info as to the writer's background and you'd need to know all about the previous 3 books. His synopsis is fine, though.
As for the writing, I didn't like the opening chapters. There's more exposition than dialog and what's happening is too ambiguous. It may improve in later paragraphs, but you wouldn't know unless you read more.
Now, if you're being asked to make a decision on such brief material, you will have a problem. There's not enough material to make an informed judgment. (And most people have no idea how to write a cover letter that gives you the info you need.) But it can be done. You'll really have to sharpen your skills.
The question is: is this material what the publisher specifically requests or are you just seeing the slush pile in all its shortcomings and you have no choice? In any case, maybe you can make the publisher see the wisdom of instituting guidelines for queries.
RELATED ARTICLE: Anne Phyllis Pinzow, widely experienced publishing professional, gives us a glimpse of what a slush pile reader does, how and why. Playing With The Big Boys -- Slush Pile Reading For Publishers' Row