In 1985, when I was still a fledgling agent, I signed a writer from Chicago named David Grafton. He'd sent an eye-popping, unsolicited letter about his relationship with the late, great composer Cole Porter, and he spun fabulous tales about his supremely wealthy Manhattan family, a fine arts degree from Columbia University, and articles he'd written about the beautiful people in magazines like Forbes, Paris Match, Interview, and Elle. He regaled me with juicy gossip gleaned from Chicago society doyennes or about his visits with his good friend, the governor of Puerto Rico. And he wrote wonderful, profitable books.
Months after his first unsolicited letter arrived, I sold his first work to Stein & Day, a full-length Cole Porter portrait. Diane Reverend at Villard acquired his next, The Sisters, a biography of three ravishing society belles, with Amy Einhorn editing the manuscript. That book read like an enthralling Dominick Dunne novel even though it was nonfiction, showcasing the Cushing sisters and how their lives intertwined with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman Capote, Brooke Astor, CBS chairman Bill Paley, Pamela Harrington, Jock Whitney. The Sisters spent three months on the Chicago Tribune bestseller list, became a Book of the Month Club selection, and generated national press in major outlets like People, Vogue, and the New York Times. In her widely syndicated column, Liz Smith called the work “delicious.”
Unsolicited, Not Unwanted
Ah, the slush pile. Often derided, frequently the butt of bad jokes, unsolicited submissions in our industry have long been presumed so unpublishable that underpaid editorial assistants have to be bribed with soda-and-pizza to check out the piles gathering dust in backstairs storage rooms. That negative image endures even after some of our great books, such as Judith Guest's bestselling novel, Ordinary People, was discovered among Viking's slush decades ago.
Today, however, with the advent of the Internet, e-mail, blogs, and other cheap self-publishing options, the very existence of slush is being re-evaluated. But unsolicited works have always been integral to the publishing business. And for me and my agency, Bleecker Street Associates, unsolicited works have played a significant role in my success. The discovery of great unknown writers has been a soul-satisfying experience as well as very profitable business.
In all, I have sold books by more than 40 writers found among the unsolicited submissions, sales made to heavy hitters at major houses: Crown, Dell, Doubleday, Holt, NAL, Putnam, Random House, S&S, Scribner, St. Martin's, Viking, Wiley, and others. Some of these deals brought in hefty six-figure advances. Several were in the high five figures—and most books earned handsome royalties.
Part of my affinity for unsolicited authors may be rooted in my own background. Born in Budapest, I came to New York City at the age of 11 utterly bereft of English. I can certainly relate to others who find themselves adrift in a strange new world, in this case the world of publishing. My publishing career began at the now-defunct Magazine Management, a gold mine of talent, including Godfather author Mario Puzo (whose son Tony later worked for me) and Marvel's Stan Lee. Eventually I became editor-in-chief of Award Books, a small paperback house that was acquired by and then folded into Berkley, and I was a senior editor at NAL, then Pocket, and editor-at-large for Grosset until, in 1984, I started this agency.
Slush Pile 2.0
Traditionally, unsolicited writers have found us through traditional guides to publishing like Literary Market Place. Even today, unsolicited manuscripts, proposals, letters, and self-published books arrive in large measure via snail mail. But increasingly, materials are sent using the Internet. I estimate an increase of about 30% in slush with the advent of technology, as more would-be writers can find us online and send off a query with the click of a mouse.
So why did the Wall Street Journal recently decree “the death of the slush pile” in a January 17, 2010, article? With due respect to the paper's business savvy, the piece was a wee bit familiar, covering the movie studios' longtime refusal to read unagented scripts for fear of lawsuits. And although some celebrated slush-pile books were included, the suggestion lingered: “everything sent unsolicited is slush, and slush is garbage.” Ouch—and not true. Even during the 2009 Christmas season, my agency sold an unsolicited client's work, documentary producer Nat Segaloff's biography of Arthur Penn (director of Bonnie & Clyde, The Miracle Worker, and Little Big Man).
My agency opts for the Partisan Review doctrine: “We take the democratic ideal represented by the slush pile seriously.” Yes, sifting through unsolicited submissions requires commitment, a passion for books, and tolerating the occasional weird stuff. But the slush pile also offers the thrill of finding unexpected gems. And with a tight economy and changing technology roiling publishing, TV, and film, I believe it is more essential than ever to develop a discerning eye for creative new voices, fresh talent that can attract new business.
This is especially true for those who now avail themselves of the proliferating self-publishing options. Kudos to all the fascinating services providing ways for slush pile writers to become “authors.” Some do-it-yourselfers—Ken Blanchard, Deepak Chopra—have hit big time. Of course, the reality is that it is often a bumpy road for self-published authors to reach the public. Getting such works into bookstores and generally into readers' hands demands much time, study, energy—and alas, may yet result in failure. Still, the self-publishing route offers a vital new opportunity to evaluate slush-pile writers. Where we once had to go only on as little as a gut feeling, self-published authors can now come with a track record of selling their own work or getting media attention, which can show us writers who are ready to benefit from our investment.
My agency has its own self-publishing Cinderella story plucked from slush. Psychologist Michael Whitley's parenting guide, Bright Minds/Poor Grades, had sold over 10,000 copies by the time we saw it and signed it up at Perigee. Its innovative 10-step program to help underachieving children generated author publicity on local TV, Fox News, PBS, newspaper writeups—just what publishers yearn to hear, as do agents. We also made several overseas sales, money just arriving from China and soon due from Portugal.
Who Was That Man?
Of course, none of my slush pile writers has been quite as colorful as David Grafton. A nonfiction writer, I would soon learn that his life was literally the stuff of fiction after one day, suddenly, shockingly, a friend from Chicago called with the news: David Grafton was dead. He had just begun research for a new Random House book when police found his badly decomposed body in bed in a tiny apartment he rented only blocks from Wrigley Field, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Poor, sweet David, disheveled, with his receding hairline, ubiquitous dark glasses, and a bemused smile—yet still arm candy for Chicago socialites who arrived in resplendent attire for his memorial service. I'll always remember the funeral parlor was filled with the scent of their flowery tributes, even the coffin heavily draped in carnations and daisies.
Shortly after his death, rumors exploded: was he murdered? A Chicago magazine expose, “Who Was David Grafton?” indicated a complex secret life and a mysterious past: three Social Security cards with three different numbers; medical records detailing plastic surgeries; bank accounts that had been emptied. In reality, David Grafton was James Kane of Rochester, N.Y. He had left home by lying about his age and joining the U.S. Navy at age 16. By 1931, he had cut all ties to his birthplace and family. The 1931 date was damning in other ways—it proved he was almost two decades older than he claimed.
Some 25 years after I first found his letter on the slush pile, I still find myself wondering about this kindly little man. He even led me to another client, Megan McKinney, then the editor of Avenue, a glossy monthly about Chicago's powerful gentry. Her unsolicited query resulted in a 2008 sale to HarperCollins's Gail Winston, a nonfiction story of a sensational newspaper dynasty.
Even today I wonder, who was he, really? A former interior decorator; a producer at NBC-TV; the manager of jazz musicians? Why not—after all, he had totally reinvented himself. Maybe he wasn't quite F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he was remarkably Jay Gatsby.