Slush Pile: Interview With a First Reader

You’ve finished your novel, done no fewer than a hundred proof-reads and thirty revisions. Now you are ready to submit. But what happens between the moment you hit that ‘Send’ button and finally get a response can be a bit of a mystery to many writers. Who reads your manuscript? What’s the process? What gets my manuscript past a first reader and into the inner sanctum?

Sherry Ficklin is a YA author and also wades through the slush pile for Clean Teen Publishing. She was kind enough to answer some questions from the perspective of a first reader about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of so many hopeful queries.

How did you become the “Slush Slave” for Clean Teen Publishing?
Dumb luck. Really. I was at Book Expo with my publishers and they had brought a bunch of subs with them to go over, and me being me, I was being nosy and putting my two cents in. I found out later I’d flagged the same ones they had. So they decided I had a pretty good eye and wanted to bring me in as part of the acquisitions team.

How many unsolicited submissions do you read in a month?
20+ on average. More during certain times (post Nano and post Pitmad). Never less than 2-3 a week. But nearly ALL our submissions are unsolicited. It’s beyond rare that we will reach out to an author and request they send us something. It has happened, but it’s the 0.1%.

What is the process for a manuscript going from the point at which it’s received until a decision is made?
The team is made of three readers, myself included. When a sub comes in it comes to all of us. It only takes one of us to request a full. Once we have a full, we all read the first 50 or so pages, more if we like it. Once we all reach the end, we discuss it together as a committee. The biggest question, even if we love a submission, is always, can we sell this book? It takes a unanimous vote on a full submission to make an offer. And there have been books that we all loved, but didn’t accept because we felt that, for whatever reason, we wouldn’t be the best place for it. If we can’t do a book justice, we won’t take it. And that’s to the author’s benefit.

Is that process different if a writer has an agent?
For most houses, it is. But for us, not really. We look at agented and un-agented submissions just the same. They get no special treatment here (much to their chagrin).

What is the difference in the number of books that you select that are submitted by new authors as opposed to established or previously published writers?
We look at previously published authors much more closely, in fact. We full on stalk them, we look at how much/how well they interact on social media, what their other sales/reviews look like, and we look for professional web presence. Because of this, we seem to take more first time authors. We can help grow an author’s career, but an author who has already had several books out and still isn’t where they should be in any area, well it makes us question why. A successful, experienced author, however, bringing us new material, make us extremely happy. The ratio of new to established authors is probably 3-1 or very close to that. We love launching new authors and helping them build their brands and careers.

What is it about a query or first pages that best grabs your attention?
I look for a book that hooks me immediately. Something that intrigues me from the first paragraph. My biggest turn offs are:
1) When the first chapter begins with a dream or a character waking up
2) A lot of immediate and unnecessary backstory
3) Flat dialogue

Any of those in the first few paragraphs will immediately turn me away. There are RARE exceptions to that. But yeah, mostly those are red flags to me. And a tip, if you only get 15 pages to make a first impression, don’t waste 9 of them on a prologue that I don’t really need to see. Jump me right into the meat of the story. If your first 15 pages are boring set-up, then you need to scrap them and start your story later in.

What are some mistakes you see over & over when reading submissions?
The two biggest mistakes I see are, firstly, books that genre jump. For example, if I’m reading tour contemporary romance and then on page 50, out of nowhere, a paranormal element comes into play, I will immediately quit reading. You can’t set your story up to be one thing, then throw a genre curveball in later. We should know, fairly early on, what the genre is just by reading.
The second mistake I see often is the overuse of tropes. Now, tropes can absolutely work, and I’m not looking for people to reinvent the wheel, but there should be something about your book that sets it apart from others. Often it’s just the voice or the world, but if it feels too similar to something else we’ve read, that’s a bad sign.

Hooks are important. How far will you read into a query letter if your attention hasn’t been piqued right away?
I often skim the query looking for 3 things, the age range of the characters, the genre, and the page count. I don’t put too much weight on a query because, to be frank, I know how hard they are to write. I’ve done it. And I suck at it. So I let the first few pages speak for the work instead. That said, if the query is REALLY heavy in poetic or sci-fi language (ie, oddball names for planets and systems, etc) that is a turnoff for me. But those are super rare.
One thing I see, and I would heavily avoid, is being demanding in your query. I’ve seen queries come in saying things like, ‘don’t show this to anyone else at your house without my express permission’ or ‘I only accept serious offers that come with big advances’ etc. Because it earns you a big red flag and a one way ticket to the trash can.

If a query letter isn’t strong–but doesn’t contain any major errors–are you likely to read the first pages?
I read the first pages no matter what, unless the query is in a genre we don’t represent, or is rude, you get your pages read.

We hear so often about tastes being subjective. That leads a lot of aspiring authors to wonder, does the fate of each submission lie with just one person or is it a consensus to accept/pass on a submission?
As I said, it takes only one to request a full, but all three to make an offer. Each reader on the team has wildly different tastes and opinions, which works to our benefit. We had a sub come in once that I was on the fence on, but one of the other readers argued passionately for it, and once she gave me some examples of similar titles and how they were done, it was a big yes from me. I’m happy to say that book is now one of our best sellers. At the end of the day, regardless of personal preference in genre or POV or tense, we all know what has the hallmarks of a good read, and that’s all we need.

What things are on your Wish List for submissions?
I’d love to see some spicy NA, we have very few on our list, and my personal favorites are paranormal of any flavor, humorous contemporary, and of course, I’m a sucker for a good YA romance. Also historical, or fantasy with historical elements.
Our ideal submission is a book that is part of a series or that has series potential. Standalones are wonderful, but harder to sell. And I love cliffhangers. Give me those all day long. Also,keep in mind that we have an adult imprint, Crimson Tree Publishing, so you do not have to be YA to submit.

Are there any subjects that you are just “over”?
No. I really believe that there’s no such thing as a ‘dead’ genre. A great book will always find an audience, trends be dammed.

There was some recent controversy about a publisher with a similar name to Clean Teen Publishing. Also the company name might cause some writers to wonder if their work is appropriate to submit to Clean Teen. Is there anything you’d like to clarify about your books or the rating system?
Yes, what a nightmare! It is hard, sometimes, for people to understand what we are trying to do at CTP. It’s not about all our books being ‘clean’ but it’s about being able to judge for yourself what level of content you want to read. Our disclosures are done on a four point system detailing the language, sensuality, drug and alcohol use, and violence. What one person considers ‘clean’ might horribly offend someone else. So rather than trying to judge, we simply let you know, right on the cover, how much of those things you can expect in any given book. I will say, out mature titles tend to sell just as well if not better than our less mature books. We love all books, with all content levels. We just like people being able to judge for themselves before they buy a book, whether it will be right for them.

If you are curious about Clean Teen Publishing (or the adult imprint, Crimson Tree Publishing) you can follow this link the their website. You can also review their list and check the submission guidelines.

You can also find information about Sherry Ficklin and her books on her website (I totally recommend the Stolen Empire series!)

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