The 2023 Women in Publishing Summit featured what's known as a slush fest. The word slush refers to the slush pile of submitted manuscripts on an editor or agent's desk, usually sorted through by an assistant, with the most promising ones forwarded for further consideration.
What is a slush fest, anyway? It’s an opportunity to have a first page read and critiqued by agents! Slush Fest at the 2023 Women in Publishing Summit was a rare gift for writers in attendance.
When an editor looks at a manuscript to critique, the focus is on the positive aspects of it with suggestions for improvement. It’s a work in progress.
When a literary agent looks at a manuscript to decide if a traditional publishing house will take up the book, the criteria is different. This is important for a writer to know. The standard process is to submit to a literary agent and either receive interest or a standard rejection, similar to “This book is not something I can represent.” Most times there’s no feedback beyond that, leaving the writer to try again pitching to someone else.
In a perfect world with unlimited time, feedback on the writing from the literary agent would be golden. The writer would learn what improvement their writing needs for it to be a better fit with what publishers want. This is what the Slush Fest gave to those whose pages were read, but all of us learned from the feedback given to others, and by witnessing each agent’s process while listening to their advice.
Prior to the session those who wanted to take part sent the first page of a manuscript they intend to pitch to an agent or publisher without identification on it to allow for a blind read.
At the Slush Fest, Women in Publishing Summit founder Alexa Bigwarfe read aloud as many first page submissions as time permitted to the four agents.
Kelly Thomas, Serendipity Literary Agency; Amy Collins, Talcott Notch Literary Services; Michelle Lazurek, WordWise Media Services; and Quantrilla Ard, Embolden Media Group would raise their hand to stop reading if not interested. Once all four hands were raised, Alexa would stop reading, regardless of whether she was finished with the page.
What a valuable insight into the reality of the writing profession!
If a writer loses an agent’s interest after a few lines, the agent won’t represent that manuscript. It’s not nasty. It’s the nature of the business with so little time, and so many manuscripts.
What was so spectacular about this slush fest was the honesty each agent shared about each page! Sometimes they all agreed. Sometimes they didn’t. That’s what happens when sending to agents, and why one rejection doesn’t stop us from writing. We submit to different agents until the author, manuscript, and agent connect to find that perfect fit.
Yes, it’s subjective, however, the feedback at the slush fest was exceptional and served to help us better understand the publishing industry. One agent asking to connect later with one author gave confirmation that literary agents do not reject everyone, providing a testament to the need for persistence.
An important point I learned early in my writing career is that a rejection of my writing is not a rejection of me as a writer. We need to keep our ego out of it, learn what needs improvement, and work on our craft to incorporate any feedback we’re fortunate to get. We keep on writing.
Too much gatekeeping? Probably, but that’s the reality of traditional publishing.
The option to do it on your own, hiring the professionals you need to self-publish a quality book, is always there to choose to reach your audience. It took years of my taking part at conferences in their “speed dating” version of meeting with literary agents to help me decide. One-on-one with enough of them giving me the same feedback confirmed to me that my book idea wasn’t big enough from its regional perspective to generate the amount of sales traditional publishing expected.
No one even looked at the writing, dismissing it on concept alone. With a local audience asking for the book, a passion project of mine, I determined it would never happen if I continued on the traditional route, so I self-published. I believed it could go beyond a local history audience with its conversational approach to the history tied to what was going on in the world that interacted with Tottenville.
Two reviews on Amazon from sales in the United Kingdom that showed interest in looking at the 17th Century from an American point of view confirmed that for me.
So much for only people living in Tottenville being able to find value in my book!
Thank you, Alexa Bigwarfe, for giving us this valuable peek inside the making of these gatekeeping decisions not easily accessible to writers, and to the participating agents for giving of their time to share such valuable feedback.