Sisyphus and the Slush Pile

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Last month marked the 100th birthday of Albert Camus, and a podcast I listened to about his life and work reminded me of how “The Myth of Sisyphus” factored into an early design concept for Pubmission.

sisyphus and the slush pileAny publisher who has one knows that the slush pile can get out of hand. Unless you close your doors to submissions, it never goes away. Each day you roll that boulder up the mountain, and the next day — with the next mail shipment — you start all over again.

When I first started my career as an editorial intern almost 20 years ago, an editor led me to the slush-pile room my first day on the job. Yes, it was an entire room the size of my bedroom at the time. Shelf after shelf stacked to the ceiling with manilla envelopes.

Each of those envelopes had to be opened, logged into a spreadsheet, read, responded to (mostly rejected), and recycled. It was a daunting prospect, and every day a new influx of mail would refill whatever dent I made in the pile the day before. The slush pile never shrank, no matter how hard we worked at it. It was an insatiable beast.

But to this day, that publisher still accepts unsolicited manuscripts. They still feed that beast.

Because they know that beast is their bread and butter. It’s an opportunity to find fresh voices and perspectives. It’s a chance to find something everyone on your team can invest in and nourish and grow.

I got into publishing because there’s nothing like getting that first copy back from the printer. There’s something crazy magical about it. As an editor you’ve looked at each of those pages dozens of times on your computer screen. But somehow it’s a whole different experience once the book is bound and printed.

And when it’s a book you originally discovered buried deep within that pile — despite all the sweat and tears and late nights it took to make that book happen — that book will always have a place closer to your heart than something that came through a referral or a conference or a chance meeting at a cocktail party. It’s almost enough to make you look forward to rolling that boulder of slush up the mountain again.

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