22 December 2020

All We Want for Christmas is a Fair Shot

Earlier this year, Alex Acks, in “Slush v Solicitations: Just tell us where we stand,” wrote about magazines’ and anthologies’ “complete lack of transparency regarding just how much of their content they actually take from the slush pile versus how much is solicited.” Though writing primarily about SF/F markets, Acks’s comments apply equally to other genres.


Before I react to Acks’s blog post, perhaps I should provide some transparency about my editorial work.

I edited my first five anthologies more than a decade ago. So, while I’m pretty sure every story in them was selected from slush piles, I don’t honestly remember. I can, however, discuss more recent editorial work.

The Eyes of Texas
: Almost every story came from the slush pile. The one that didn’t was an anomaly. At the Toronto Bouchercon, I discussed the anthology with another writer and mentioned that I was surprised I had seen no stories involving a certain historical event. He asked several questions and later submitted a story in which that event played a role. I accepted the story.

Mickey Finn, volumes 1 and 2: I invited four writers to submit to the first Mickey Finn because I felt they would deliver solid stories around which I could shape the anthology. Three of the writers submitted stories, and I accepted all three. Other than my own contributions, the rest of the stories in MF 1 and all of the stories in MF 2 came from the slush pile.

Guns + Tacos, seasons 1, 2, and 3 (coming July-December 2021): All of the stories included in the first three seasons of G+T were solicited.

Jukes & Tonks (coming April 2021): All of the stories in J&T were solicited.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine
: I suspect several stories in the first issue were solicited (mine wasn’t; I invited myself). I wasn’t involved with the editorial side for the first few issues, but every issue since I joined the staff has been filled from slush pile submissions.


In “Slush v Solicitations: Just tell us where we stand,” Acks describes four types of submissions—slush, solicited, backdoor, and select/private—all of which can or do serve as barriers to new writers.

Unsolicited submission via the slush pile is the primary way new writers break into publishing short fiction. However, the slush pile may offer false hope at publications that acquire only a small percentage of their stories from the slush.

So, is it fair to dangle hope in front of new writers by having a slush pile without acknowledging the other three types of submissions and how they impact story acquisition? Acks doesn’t think so and advocates for transparency. If editors are transparent about how they acquire stories and how many stories are actually plucked from the slush pile (as a percentage of total published stories, not as a percentage of total submitted stories), then writers will “know not to waste [...] time or emotional energy on a useless want” where slush piles are more for show, and writers can therefore target submissions to where they feel their stories have the best chance of acceptance.


Granted, the more information available to writers, the better their odds of success, but in addition to Acks’s desire for transparency, there’s an equally important question that new writers should be asking: How does one rise from the slush pile to become a writer whose work is solicited, whose work will be considered by publications that say they’re closed or that allow submissions via a “submissions portal” with a URL that is “not public”?

The answer is simple: Hard work, good writing, and professional attitude.

Every single magazine with which I have or have had a working relationship began when the editor plucked one of my stories from a slush pile. Almost every working relationship I have with anthology editors began when those editors plucked my stories from the slush piles of open-call anthologies.

I began writing professionally in the 1970s, so much of the information available to new writers today either was not then available or was much harder to acquire. What I knew about publishing came from the pages of Writer’s Digest and The Writer. What I knew about open markets came from the back pages of those same magazines and from the annual Writer’s Market. Later, I discovered newsletters such as Janet Fox’s Scavenger’s Newsletter and Kathryn Ptacek’s The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets.

Even so, I had little or no information about how many published stories were discovered in slush piles, nor how many in a given issue of any magazine were slush pile finds vs. stories that were acquired through some form of “insider” submission (solicited, backdoor, and select/private). What I did know was that the only way out of the slush pile was to submit a well-written story that met the publication’s guidelines.

So I did it. Again. And again. And again.

And now, though I’m a writer whose work is sometimes solicited, I’ve yet to encounter any publication with formal or informal backdoor or select/private submission policies. That may be the difference between SF/F markets and mystery markets, or it might just mean I haven’t yet reached that level of success.


You may have noticed that some writers appear in several of my projects, regardless of whether the projects are open-call or invitation-only. If there isn’t some secret handshake, how does this happen?

The reason is simple: these authors provide good stories, well-told, delivered on time and on theme, and they have proven themselves easy to work with throughout the editing process.


So, yes, there may be publications and anthology editors with backdoor submission policies and secret/private submission portals, and there certainly are many invitation-only projects, but one’s goal as a writer should be to reach the point where one no longer has to battle through the slush pile on a regular basis.

So, should editors be transparent about their processes? I’m with Acks on this: Yes.

Will complete transparency create a level playing field for new writers? Alas, no.

But, really, all a writer wants is a fair shot.

So, for Christmas this year, let’s ensure that every writer has a fair shot.


  1. Referring to Steve's article from yesterday, congratulations on that battle front. Ya gotta keep the blood pumping.

    Someone once commented that Playboy published the lesser stories of old established writers and the best stories of new writers. If so, I wouldn't consider The Sound of Thunder to be a minor story.

    As a reader, I want the best stories possible wherever they originate. A good comparison can be made with favorite television series where on-staff screenwriters have run out of ideas (or the VP producer didn't like them) and start using what I call SOS… soap opera shit. Why not offer a slush-pile path for aspiring screenwriters? A thousand starving authors would love to see their ideas considered.

    As a writer, I plug away the best I can. Yes, I've been shocked when a story here or there was rejected, but I trust my editors that they know what they're doing. Perhaps someone from the slush pile wrote a better piece and if so, they deserve induction.

    Michael, thanks for the window into the other side.

  2. I would add just one thing to your informative piece and that is the importance of networking and personal contacts. I rarely went to conferences but I have been pleasantly surprised at the opportunities that have arrived thanks to the contacts provided by Sleuthsayers.

  3. I would add just one thing to your informative piece and that is the importance of networking and personal contacts. I rarely went to conferences but I have been pleasantly surprised at the opportunities that have arrived thanks to the contacts provided by Sleuthsayers.

  4. Another great teaching post, Michael. Thank you. I've never thought much beyond the general "Slush versus solicited" categories, but you add lots of insight.

    I used to attend Crime Bake more for the meeting and connecting than the writing help, although that was stellar, too. I made my first sales because of introductions to people I met there.

    As for the professionalism, my favorite advice comes from Harlan Coban, who said, "Nobody who's an asshole lasts very long in this business."

  5. Janice and Steve: Networking and personal contacts can play an important role in advancing one's career. My recent editing opportunities happened, in part, because I was able to spend time with publishers at Bouchercon and Malice Domestic.

    On the flip side, if I receive a submission to one of my anthologies and the cover letter indicates that the writer and I have a connection ("We shared a table at the Agatha Awards banquet," "I attended your editing panel at ArmadilloCon," "Mutual Writer Friend introduced us at the bar at Bouchercon," "We shared space in Recent Anthology," and so forth), I'm likely to give the submission a little extra attention.

    So, it pays to network, but being a top-notch networker won't overcome bad writing or inappropriate submissions.

    And, Leigh, some editors do know what they're doing. The rest of us are doing the best we can and trying to get better.

  6. Valuable insight as always, Michael!

    (I think I might be the “another writer” referenced in the EYES OF TEXAS paragraph. If so, the idea you shared with me in Toronto opened the door into a new series for me. Since Helmut Erhard’s first appearance in EOT, I’ve written four more stories about him. So not just thanks but many thanks!)

  7. Dearest Michael, you gave me my first break years ago when you plucked my submission from the open call slush pile for the Fedora II anthology. I've had novels and short stories published since, but it all started with you. And I've been doing the "submit again and again and again" as well, sometimes with success, sometimes with rejection. But we plow on, right?

  8. Yeah, Josh, you're the writer. Better for you to out yourself than for me to do it!

  9. Ann, One of the greatest joys I have as an editor is publishing a writer's first story, and the joy is only magnified when the writer goes on to have a long and successful career. May you "plow on" to publish many more novels and short stories!

  10. A former editor at a major magazine once described her slush pile as broken into three piles. She got about a thousand submissions a month for a magazine that published eight-to-ten stories.

    The first of the three piles was the mountain of submissions by writers with unrecognizable names and virtually no credits. By necessity, that mountain had to be knocked down fast. Stories had to impress right away.

    The middle pile was far smaller, perhaps by an order of magnitude. This pile contained stories by writers with some level of credits, but were not names that would actually help sell the magazine. Alternatively, the story could be from a writer with no credits, but who had "come close" with previous submissions. These stories were read much more carefully.

    The final pile was tiny, from writers with recognizable names that would help sell copies. Some of these still got rejected, but they were considered with care.

    How do you progress from one pile to the next? Hard work at improving your craft, and submitting to the best markets possible and keeping the stories in circulation.

    Twenty years ago, I couldn't give my stories away. I was in that first mountain of slush for good reason. I hadn't mastered my craft to the point where anyone was interested in buying my stories. Not because the writers in the other two piles were getting preferential treatment. (They were but they deserved it.) My stories were getting rejected because they deserved exactly that.

    Eventually, I got better and then better still. My stories sold from the slush, and then I even began to get private invites.

    Io be blunt, I think transparency is either overrated or perhaps even irrelevant (unless a magazine ties up a story for for an unreasonably long time). If you can't be bothered to give a top magazine a few months to consider your story because the odds are too stiff, why? Isn't the possible sale (and free advertising to those who read it) worth a couple months? Are you on your deathbed? If not, shoot for the difficult-to-impossible markets, then work your way down your list. By the time a story gets rejected by a market that "should have" bought it, the rejection will hurt less because you will have written all those newer stories in the meantime.

  11. David, I suspect many new writers believe the deck is stacked against them, and it is. Talent and experience will almost always win out over untalented and/or inexperienced. That is, in part, how the editor you describe divided her slush pile.

    The difference between this kind of slush pile differentiation and what concerns Acks—and I hope I'm not misinterpreting Acks's comments—are publications that profess to having an open slush pile but which actually fill a significant portion of their pages with solicited material.

    For example, knowing that Magazine A publishes ten stories each issue and that all ten come from the slush pile and that Magazine B publishes ten stories each issue but only one comes from the slush pile might impact how one targets submissions.

    It's unlikely that having that information would change how I target my submissions, but I can envision situations where it might. It becomes one more piece of information—just like knowing a publication's preferred genres, story length requirements, average response times, and so on—we consider before hitting the send button on a submission.

    Anyhow, thanks, David, for expanding the conversation.

    1. For a major magazine that offers pro payment and free advertising to a large audience (and responds in two-to-three months, not a year), the benefits of hitting the long shot are so significant that a writer should submit whether the odds are 1000-to-8 (all eight stories each month come from the slush) or 1000-to-1 (only one of the eight come from the slush). The difference in the two odds is really irrelevant. In my opinion, writers should spend zero time on transparency and all of it on improving their craft.

      Thanks for another excellent article.

  12. Thank you, Michael, for this post, but especially for introducing me to the terms "slush pile" and "solicited."

    As I get into the fourth annual edition of The BOULD Awards Anthology, I'm moving into the sole editor slot and getting a lot more experience under my belt.

    In early 2018, I wondered if other writers had or could write weird, off-the-wall stories, and I put out calls (on SMFS and some reader/author groups on Facebook), recruited some other authors to be judges), and got about 50 submissions, of which the judges chose 21 (I disagreed with six of their choices/rejections).

    So for 2019, I took on veto power, but only had to use it three or four times, and we wound up with 40 stories out of about 70 entries. For 2020, kept that going, and we accepted 53 stories out of nearly 90 entries.

    Now, for the 2021 edition, the judges and I have amicably parted ways (in part, but only in part, due to the virus), and I've added full editorial power/duty, so I'm working with authors to punch up and improve their stories.

    In full transparency, after self-publishing five novels, a play and several of my own weird short stories, this has been a whole new experience, at times frustrating and at times surprisingly fun.

  13. Thanks for your comments, Jake, and I'm glad you learned a little something from my post.

  14. I got my big break when Cathleen Jordan picked my story, "Grown-Ups are All Alike", out of the slushpile. There is always hope!

  15. Great post, Michael! As a new writer, I thought I'd contribute my insights on the dreaded slush pile. I first "met" Michael Bracken at a sci-fi/fantasy convention called ArmadilloCon, where he was a panelist. I sat in my seat with my wife, Dawn, and listened intently as Michael talked about an upcoming private eye anthology called Eyes of Texas. Something clicked. I thought, "I can write a story for this." I should have introduced myself then, but my shyness got the better of me. As an unpublished writer, who was I to speak to these folks? I had also received a crushing critique several days before, from a professional at a writing workshop. In short, I was having a crisis of confidence.

    Regardless, I left the convention with a desire to write a story for Michael's anthology. About a week later, "Trip Among the Bluebonnets" was finished, a cover email was crafted (referencing our one-sided encounter), and off my story went to the slush pile. Some months later, I had my first acceptance!

    If I had listened to my doubts and allowed them to grow, I would never have written that story (or any others, for that matter). I would have gone back to my "normal" life of eat/sleep/work and the struggles to find creative fulfillment.

    To me, that's what the slush pile is: doubt. It says, "Look how big I am. Look how fierce the competition is." The size of the slush, the transparency of how a market handles the slush, and the quality of the competition are all beyond my control. As Michael wrote, the only thing I can do is submit well-written stories that meet the publication’s guidelines.

    As my father used to say, "Son, the cream rises to the top." Of the slush.

  16. Eve, my first professional sale was to Young World, a young adult magazine. My big break didn't come until five years later when Ted Newsom, then editor of Gentleman's Companion, after rejecting my previous submission with a nice note, purchased a story. The $300 I received (a princely sum in 1983, and more than many publications pay today) convinced me I had a shot at becoming a writer. Then he purchased my next story and I was on my way.

  17. One never knows when opportunities will come our way, James, and it's important—as you noted—not to let them slip by. It's impossible to know when we're going to draft the right story and put it in the hands of the right editor at the right time. But we you do, it will rise to the top of the slush and make all the hard work (and the frustration of all previous rejections) worth the effort.


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