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The Death (and Rebirth) of the Slush Pile

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Reading Kathrine Rosman's WSJ article about the death of the slush pile - and how it's harder than ever to get a manuscript over the transom - I was struck by yet another example of how removed Big Publishing is from day-to-day humanity.

Here's my point of view: I've been the Chelsea Green Publishing Girl Friday -handling the slush pile - for the last two years. And, much as I dread the number of unsolicited submissions that are about to flood my inbox, I might as well say it: We've stumbled upon some terrific proposals that way. On our spring list alone, we have four books that we plucked from the slush pile.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that Chelsea Green has relaxed standards. Our books have rocketed to the New York Times best-seller list and our backlist is robust. We're a recognized leader for our social networking strategy and we are publishing some of the most critical books of our time. (Do I sound proud? I am.)

So, if the big guys can't even spare the time to open their emails, how and - perhaps more importantly - why do we? (Hint: It's not because we have to.)

Well, for starters, we don't publish fiction. We publish books on sustainability. So it's probably a little quicker to spot a capable writer. Simple enough.

But the other thing is that our authors aren't really professional self-promoters (thank god) or self-appointed Big Deals (again, thank god). Here's what they are: dedicated to sustainable farming and renewable energy, passionate about food politics and social justice, and out in the field actually doing what they're writing about. If they're writing about farming, chances are they're a farmer. If they're writing about building, chances are they're a builder. They tend to be far more concerned with getting their message out than nabbing the six-figure advance. They've got dirt under their fingernails while they type. And sometimes those sorts of writers come in through the slush pile.

Obviously, we don't get everything from the slush pile or even the majority of our acquisitions. We go out and look for the authors we want. And a lot of them come in through connections with our publisher, editors, or other authors.

And yes, it can take a long time to slog through slush. And it is frustrating, to say the least, to be on the receiving end of somebody's collection of blog posts or a 200,000-word vampire novel. So don't get me wrong: I delete often and without compunction.

But I also get a thrill out of walking into an acquisitions meeting with manuscripts like The Farmstead Creamery Advisor or Adobe Homes for All Climates under my arm- both slush rescues and both excellent books that will be published this summer. And while unsolicited submissions can be time-consuming, allowing the possibility of a masterpiece amidst the slush is also -- as Caitlin Roper of the Paris Review pointed out -- democratic. Writers, more than anyone, need a sense of hope and possibility.

On that note, I have to go check my inbox because it's probably flooded with unsolicited submissions. Do not send fiction. Do not send kids books. Do not send a collection of journal entries or blog posts (please). Read our guidelines. Yes, we know that the world is in the shithole and the government corrupt, so please spare us that pitch. Please do not say you're the next Michael Pollan, unless you actually are, in which case, run don't walk - directly to me. And by the way, my doppelgänger is always tempted to reject anything that references peeling an onion or leads off with Ghandi's quote about how you must to be the change you wish to see in the world. We know, we know. Life is short so please don't waste our time. We do our best to get back quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. But we do believe in hope and democracy and the value of doing something positive and creative even when the Big Deals of the world tell you that you will never get anywhere with it.