Slushpile – Wading thru Muck or Panning for Gold?

by D.M. Atkins

Let me tell you a true story about finding gold. Slush pile is the term usually used to refer to “unsolicited manuscripts” sent to publishers. The ratio of good stories to bad stories is usually very low and that can make reading them a difficult chore. Yet, both then and now, I always found the chance to find new authors an exciting one. To me, it has always felt like panning for gold. And yes, it can feel like dirty work as well.

My first introduction to the joys and pains of reading “slush pile” came when I was only seventeen. I started a fanzine which transitioned into a semi-pro magazine. (We actually paid for submissions by our fourth issue.) Even then, before the internet, the submissions came in waves that could be overwhelming not just in numbers but in the problematic nature of some stories.

A friend of my mother’s had a husband, Mike, who wanted to be a professional writer. He had actually been making money writing traditional pornography, but he really wanted to be a science fiction author. When his wife found out about my science fiction and fantasy magazine, she suggested that he send me a story or two.

Mike was frankly skeptical of a magazine run by “a teenage girl.” He didn’t think much would come of it, but just out of curiosity (and maybe his wife’s insistence), he sent us three stories; what he admitted later were his three worst stories. To his utter shock, I read and turned down all three stories. Because I thought his writing showed promise, I wrote up detailed evaluations of all three, praising what I liked and explaining the flaws. I did this with most of the stories that came in back then. Mike would later recount that he was impressed with the “balls” of this teenager who would turn him down and, even more important, that my evaluations were “dead accurate.”

Then Mike sent me his three best stories. I was impressed with the better quality of these. So, I sent him one contract and two requests for rewrites. We ended up publishing three of Mike’s stories in Shadows Of… Magazine. (As well as a column by and interview with, Mike.) Mike told me later that he referenced those paid publications in his submission letter to Bantam Books and was awarded his first book contract. Before he died in 1995, Mike McQuay went on to publish over a dozen science fiction novels. (Memories is still one of my favorite time travel novels.) I still have a copy of his first novel Lifekeeper, autographed to me and calling me “his best editor.”

The reason that publishers prefer vetted authors – whose work they already know or comes through an agent who has already screened it – is to save themselves time and stress. Without that, not only do they have to work through a lot of stories they absolutely wouldn’t publish, but they are likely to deal with writers who don’t know how to behave professionally.

Even when I do find a story that shows “promise,” it can be a gamble. Do I take the time to write up an evaluation, hoping the author will actually appreciate my input? Will they become angry at me for criticizing them? And even if they do appreciate the feedback and rewrite the story, will they actually bring it back to me to publish? I’ve worked hard with authors, only to have them turn around and take the story elsewhere.

At we are excited by the process of both working with authors whose work we have admired and in helping new authors develop. We have open submissions, but we are still selective. We’ll only accept works that fit our goals and work with authors with whom we can help meet their goals.

It’s hard work, but I feel it is all worth it when I find that glint in the pan — when we can help the writer polish and shape it into something beautiful.

P.S. Yeah, Mike, I know if you were still around, you’d be one of the first in the queue to be published on


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