Over the Transom
Chilling tales from the literary slush pile.
Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By JOE QUEENAN
“It’s exhausting,” she said. “It’s very hard to keep managing the emotional expectations of people you have never met. You try to be as nice to them as you can, but if they’re persistent you have to stop answering their calls and emails. Sometimes they can be scary.”
I then consulted an editorial assistant at a major publishing house who reads, perhaps, 200 manuscripts or book proposals a year, mostly culled from the slush pile. Not one has ever made it into print. Not one was even in the ballpark. So how did she approach this heartrending situation on a day-to-day basis?
“If I’m already feeling depressed and nostalgic, I don’t read anything from the slush pile because it will make me feel more depressed,” she said. “The books are massively overwritten, and it’s heartbreaking to realize that people have been working on them for 10 years. They don’t understand the business. They don’t even understand that book publishing is a business. They don’t want to be read; they just want to be validated. And they expect me to validate them. They don’t even want a career. If they could, they would bypass the publishing process altogether, just so they could have readers who love them. And that is sad.”
The agent and the editorial assistant had similar stories about overbearing phone calls, copious tears, hopelessly unpublishable writers trying to sneak past security to wangle a face-to-face meeting during which they could bring the full force of their Oprah-ready personalities to bear before the cops turned up. There were also genuine concerns that some of the writers might do themselves grievous bodily harm.
“I try to be as nice to them as I can,” said the editorial assistant. “But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes they get mad. Then they get crazy. And then they get mean.”
“The first rule is: Don’t engage,” added the agent. “You send them a note saying that this is not right for us and wish them good luck and hope that they go away. But some are very persistent. And they can be scary. Men trying to write as women are the worst. They come up with some very creepy concepts.”
That afternoon, as if on cue, my agent friend sent me a proposal from a man who asked if she would rather get rich working with him, or be like everybody else and perform a sex act on a famous Hollywood producer who had stolen all of the author’s ideas, leaving him penniless.
I told my friend that if she wanted to stop forwarding the proposals, I would be okay with that.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.