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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Slushpile Survival Guide

A Manuscript's Odyssey, Part 3

Part One | Part Two

When last we checked in with our hypothetical manuscript it was sitting in the DMV Waiting Room of the Damned, a.k.a., the STUPEFYING STORIES slush pile, waiting for its number to be called and for me to find the time to continue writing this series. The latter has finally happened, so let's assume the former has as well and usher the manuscript in for its big chance: its audition with the First Reader.

Writers seem to share a lot of misconceptions about First Readers. Writing group folklore to the contrary, First Readers are not embittered failed writers who use the power of their petty positions to crush the dreams and hobble the careers of competing writers. Nor are they constipated nit-picky martinets, eagerly seizing on any excuse to disqualify a submission. ("A-hah! He used a hyphen when he should have used an em-dash! REJECT!") Dogbert's Publishing Company to the contrary, we aren't actually in this business simply because we relish the sadistic joy of rejecting stories all day long.

Rather, First Readers are an essential part of any publishing operation, ours more so than most, and they're here for the same reason as the rest of us: because they're eager to be the first one to discover some new treasure, and bring it to the world.

Some days I think of our First Readers as being like grad students working on an archaeological dig, carefully sifting through the lithic debitage to find that one fragment or fossil that's going to rewrite the history books and change the world. Other days I envision them as being more like newcomers in a mining camp, knee-deep in a cold creek, panning for gold and hoping to discover the nugget that will make their careers.

Unfortunately, to find those nuggets of pure gold, you've got to pan a lot of gravel. 

How much? Consider these numbers. When we're on-schedule (and we've been way off schedule lately, but that's another column), we publish about ten stories a month.

In December alone, we received about five hundred new story submissions.

Our submissions numbers are erratic: we're a very minor, penny-a-word, third-tier (at best) market, and the submissions ebb and flow in direct relationship to how well we stick to our publishing schedule. (And in relationship to the academic calendar, too. We always get a big gush of submissions at the end of every semester.) In December we received about 500 new submissions. In January, slightly over 300. In February slightly under 300, in March slightly over 200, in April and May slightly under 200 each, and as of June 11 we've received 77 new submissions month-to-date, so we're on-track to come in at or above 200 again.

In short, at this time, in our market, the odds against our hypothetical manuscript being accepted for publication are roughly 20-to-1.

So considering those raw numbers, what are the odds that your story will rise out of the common muck and gravel and be accepted for publication? Surprisingly good, if you just pay attention to a few small but very important details....

...to be continued...
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