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The Quick and Dirty on Demystifying the Slush Pile by Chelene Knight

By Chelene Knight, managing editor at Room magazine, CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials, author of Dear Current Occupant

The Mystery of the Slush Pile

Photograph of Chelene Knight
Chelene Knight

What is a slush pile? The definition changes from person to person, from magazine to magazine, and from publisher to publisher. To most, the slush pile is the towering stack of submissions that were not selected to be published at first read-through. The emergence of online submission managers such as Submittable, has turned this tangible tower into an out of sight, out of mind virtual filing cabinet.

To others, slush can mean “any unsolicited submission,” but for literary magazines, (aside from the commissioned pieces) wouldn’t that mean that all submissions are unsolicited? Now that so many literary magazines have shifted to online submission managers, there is no real slush pile; instead there are a series of processes in place to sort where a submission “lives” while it’s not currently being read, edited or considered. Although having the option to submit your work online has it conveniences, the influx of submissions has increased substantially.

The practices and procedures for reading submissions will differ depending on the magazine, their staffing and volunteer levels and a few other key factors, but the idea is the same: to log and track all incoming submissions and to have readers read and rank EVERYTHING (this is what takes so long).

So then…your gorgeous short story, essay or poem is already labelled slush, before you even hit send. So yes, let’s demystify the slush pile because slush piles can harbour gold, too.

Timing & Submission Deadlines

If a call opens on November 1 and closes on January 31, is there a best time to submit? The truth is, it does not matter. As long as your submission falls within those deadlines, you are fine. What so many folks do not know (and this is especially true for quarterly magazines) is that when the call is open, the submissions generally aren’t read until the call closes. What does this mean? If you submit your piece on November 1, chances are it will not be looked at until at least the end of January. The reason for this is that with quarterly magazines, editors and editorial teams are working on four issues at once, with all of them at different stages of production.

Production

Second editor forwards:
If your piece makes it to the editor and that editor likes your piece but cannot use it, they will usually forward it to another editor for a subsequent issue (it’s nice when magazines send you an email letting you know, because this basically means your wait time doubles, and it’s important to keep writers updated). Note: this is a process some magazines use, not all.

What you need to remember:

  • Most magazines will have first readers and your submission needs to make it past the reader before it gets to the editor. This is the tricky part because even though you may have researched the editor and have a good understanding in terms of what they like and what they usually publish, your submission might not even make it to them. I know that sounds disheartening, but rest assured, if your work shines, it will get published one way or another.
  • Production time is long. There’s no way around this. A lot goes into putting the issue together and a lot of this work goes above and beyond just reading and selecting pieces. Most issues take one full year with four issues in production at once but all at different stages (this is true for quarterly mags). If anyone has questions about production, please post in slack and I will do my best to include simplified answers.

To Check In or Not to Check In

I think it’s totally acceptable to reach out to a magazine about your submission if you haven’t heard back in six months or longer. But in doing this, be careful with what you are asking for.

Unpaid labour is real. Most literary magazine editorial teams are volunteers or paid small honorariums and do this work before and after their day jobs. Asking a magazine editor to provide you with substantive feedback is not something you should consider doing. You can, however, ask if the rejection was an issue of not having enough space in that specific issue (which is a real thing). Another acceptable ask is if you get an email directly from the editor, you can ask if there were any notes left on your piece that can be passed on. But note, this is rare. Just be polite in your ask and realistic with your expectations and acknowledge the added labour you are asking for.

Summary of Best Practices and Key Takeaways

  • Nowadays the slush pile is a virtual filing cabinet of submissions marked “to be read.”
  • Due to the shift to online submissions, the number of submissions magazines receive has increased substantially.
  • Editorial teams are usually working on more than one issue at once in various phases of production.
  • If one editor does not have space for your piece for whatever reason, they might forward it to the editor of the next issue (or if there’s only one editor, they may hold it for the next issue).
  • There are usually readers who take a first read before deciding to pass it on to the editor.
  • Production can be a long process. There are a lot of steps involved in putting the magazine together:
    • Interviews
    • Organizing art
    • Reading submissions
    • Formatting and graphic design
    • Soliciting ads
    • Backend admin
    • Copyediting
    • Proofreading
    • Theme tie-ins
  • You can check in on your submission, but be sure not to ask for substantive feedback as most editors are volunteers and unpaid labour is always something they are battling.
  • Always send your best. Chances are, if it sings, it will find a home.

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