The Slush Formula

Writers, can you estimate the chances that your story will make it through the slush pile?

I’ve come up with a formula.

Some background: A couple of years ago, I saw a post on a forum somewhere by a writer who said their story had “zero chance” of being passed on to the Publisher.

They may have been right, unfortunately. But why?

The chance that I will recommend a story to the Publisher is directly related to the quality of the story, the clarity of the storytelling, and the appropriateness of the subject matter. Each of those is a subjective measure, yes — what I think is a great story you might think is mediocre; what’s crystal clear to you might be indecipherable to me; etc. — but all three must be present in sufficient measure for a story to make it through.

Factoring & Expansion Formulas

It’s really not as complicated as all that. (Image: “Factoring & Expansion Formulas,” by CMLorenz16, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Thus I express the probability of any given story being passed on to the Publisher as

P ≈ Q * C * A

So if a story really has a “zero chance” of being passed on, it is only because one or more of those factors approaches zero.

The good news is that’s rarely the case. (For us, “zero chance” is only when someone submits a memoir or children’s book or something else we don’t publish; then, appropriateness = 0.) So writers who have an accurate assessment of the strength of their story, how well it’s written, and if it’s appropriate should be able to estimate their chances pretty well.

But the thing to realize is that for the probability to be high (we’re talking percentages here, so it will almost never be 100%) each of those factors — story quality, writing clarity, and subject matter appropriateness — must rate very high indeed.

That’s the challenge.

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Five-and-a-half is Still Less than Nine, Isn’t It?

Authors: Here’s a lesson in how not to respond to rejection.

As the “Slushmaster General” for Baen Books, I have the unenviable task of sending out rejection letters. I don’t particularly like it — I know well how it feels to be on the receiving end — but I do it. And because we get a lot of submissions, I send out a lot of rejections.


This applies to more than just publishing! (Image: “rejection,” by Topher McCulloch, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Now, Baen Books could go the route some publishers and literary agents have gone and simply not respond at all if we’re not interested. We haven’t done that, though, and I don’t believe we ever will. As I tell people at convention panels and workshops, as an author myself I like to make sure that we treat every submission the way I hope other publishers are treating my submissions.

Which brings me to today’s lesson: keep your expectations realistic, and think twice before complaining.

Our guidelines note that we typically respond to new submissions within nine to twelve months, though we’ve gotten to the point that it’s usually six to nine. Why so long? Because in any given month we receive upwards of 120 submissions, and while there are always a few I can respond to quickly — e.g., short stories instead of novels; memoirs or poetry or children’s books or other things we just don’t publish — it takes time to look at each submission and judge it on the merits.

Anyway, last week I sent an author a rejection and the author e-mailed back,

This book has been published for months! You should try and better manage your time with submissions.


Published, you say? Meaning … not available anymore? Meaning you could have told us that, and saved us the trouble of considering it, but didn’t? Or meaning that you expected us to respond in a few weeks instead of the several months it usually takes?

And published “for months,” you say? (With an exclamation point, no less.) Publication cycles usually take many months to over a year, depending on the publisher’s editorial, art, and production schedules … so was your book already accepted somewhere else before you submitted it?

I decided this response warranted a little investigation. I know when the book was submitted to us and when I responded, and since I have this fancy tool called the “Internet” — maybe you have it, too — I could find out exactly when that book was published. Let’s check the record, shall we?

  • Submitted 3 February 2016
  • Rejected 23 July 2016 (elapsed time, 171 days — c. 5.6 months)
  • Published 1 April 2016 (58 days after submission)


So, you published (self-published, if I read the Amazon listing correctly) your book less than two months after submitting it but didn’t withdraw it from our consideration? And then when we respond in a little over half the time we advertise you decide to berate us for not responding sooner?

Oh, aspiring author out in Internetland, I trust that you, and most other people reading this post, would know not to do this. But, just in case, let me be clear: don’t do this.

Know what to expect when you submit something; specifically, bear in mind that your submission is one of many. (We will get to it. If you’re worried that we might have lost it, just ask.) Be professional and courteous enough to withdraw your submission if you decide to publish elsewhere. And when we respond, if you think it took longer than it should have, be sure your expectation was realistic before you start complaining about our time management.

Otherwise, your complaint might end up as a prompt for a blog post.

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This Weekend’s Convention: Publishers and Aliens

I’m on the road again today, this time to the ConCarolinas science fiction and fantasy convention. The Author Guest of Honor is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the Media GOH is Nana Visitor of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Artist GOH is Ursula Vernon, and many of my writing and music friends will also be there!

(Love this badge logo from the 2010 ConCarolinas, by Bob Snare.)

My schedule is busy, and heavily weighted toward the literary end of things. The only individual event I have is my “real-time story submission” workshop on Saturday afternoon; I don’t have any readings or signings or concerts or the like. Here’s how the weekend stacks up for me:


  • 7:00 p.m. — Panel, “Designing the Reasonable Alien” — It’s been said that, because sentient aliens can never be fully “knowable,” they can only be written as metaphors of human characters or conditions. But hard science fiction accepts concepts that are “true to, or reasonably postulated from, science as it is known at the time of writing.” So why not a “reasonable” alien? And how might one go about designing one? — with Paula S. Jordan, Jeanne Adams, Wendy S. Delmater, Stuart Jaffe, and Allen L. Wold — Carolina A/B
  • 9:30 p.m. — Filking the Night Away! — with whoever shows up — Harrisburg A


  • 10:00 a.m. — Baen Books Traveling Road Show — See what new releases Baen has coming out, and possibly walk away with a free book. — with Tony Daniel, David B. Coe, and Kelly Lockhart — Concord J
  • 1:00 p.m. — Panel, “What Publishers Do” — What do publishers do? Take a quick tour through the hurricane of activity surrounding each book that gets published – editing, cover art, marketing text, categorization, hype, formatting, and more – and learn what you can do to help sell your book. — with Tony Daniel, Ronald T. Garner, John G. Hartness, Rebecca Ledford, and Edmund Schubert — Carolina A/B
  • 2:00 p.m. — Panel, “What Publishers Look For” — What do publishers look for? Specific types of characters, settings, plot lines? Does length matter? Get a better understanding of what publishers look for, and how to increase your chances of getting published. — with Edmund Schubert, Ronald T. Garner, John G. Hartness, Nicole Givens Kurtz, and Rebecca Ledford — Carolina A/B
  • 4:00 p.m. — Workshop, “Face-to-Face with the Slushmaster General” — Have you been collecting rejection slips on a science fiction or fantasy novel, but haven’t been able to figure out why? Do you have thick enough skin to take direct, honest, face-to-face critique? Bring your cover letter, the first 5 pages of your story, and your 1- or 2-page synopsis and get real-time feedback. First-come, first-served, and volunteers only! If time permits, we may discuss short fiction; however, novels will have first priority. Learn what happens to manuscripts when you send them to a publisher, and how to make yours stand out … in the right way. — Piedmont


  • 9:00 a.m. — Nondenominational Praise & Prayer Service — Gazebo
  • 10:00 a.m. — Panel Moderator, “Sharp SF” — Once they called it hard SF – space ships and robots everywhere. Then came soft SF, explorations of alien social systems and cybernetic awareness. Nowadays we have sharp SF, a mixture of both. Let’s talk about the ways hard and soft SF have blended in the new millennium. — with Jim Bernheimer, Alexandra Duncan, Paula S. Jordan, and James Maxey — Carolina C
  • 11:00 a.m. — Panel, “Intersection of Faith and Science” — A less adversarial discussion of how much faith and science have in common. — with D.L. Leonine and James McDonald — Concord C
  • 1:00 p.m. — Panel, “Getting to Know Your Aliens and Other Non-Humans” — A writer’s approach to non-human personality. OK, you’ve designed your own fantasy or alien world, or you’ve selected a real one from NASA’s now-vast catalog, What aspects of that world, or any (likely varied) cultures that develop there, might be useful in providing insights for the design of the typical residents’ personalities? An atypical resident’s personality? — with Paula S. Jordan, Jake Bible, Wendy S. Delmater, Margaret S. McGraw, and Leigh Perry — Carolina A/B

I’m a little surprised that the only open filking appears to be the Friday night session, but maybe some of us will get together at some other time and take over a room — or the hallway! — and play a few tunes. Stop by and sing along!

Hope to see you there!

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Novel News!

Given that “novel” can mean “new,” that title may seem a bit redundant — but in this case it refers to the literary type of novel.

Here’s the news: I’m pleased to announce that I’ve contracted with WordFire Press of Monument, Colorado, to publish my near-future science fiction novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds!

(Image from NASA-Goddard and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.)


As you might gather from the image above, Walking on the Sea of Clouds has something to do with the Moon. Specifically, it’s about the early days of the first commercial lunar colony.

We already have lots of stories that depict successful, thriving lunar bases and colonies either as primary locations or as jumping-off places; two of the most famous, of course, are Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But before there can ever be large, sprawling bases on the Moon there first have to be small encampments with only a few people living somewhat precariously — and that’s what my novel is about. It’s a story of the struggle to survive in a harsh environment, the drive to succeed in a dangerous endeavor, and the sacrifices that we may have to make to achieve our dreams.

I’m very pleased to be working with WordFire Press, which was started by bestselling authors Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. WordFire is a small and relatively new press with an impressive list of books in its catalog, ranging from reissued midlist titles of established authors like David Farland, Alan Dean Foster, Jody Lynn Nye, and Mike Resnick, to new titles from up-and-coming authors including my friends Cat Rambo, Ken Scholes, and Brad Torgersen.

So, these are exciting times for the Gray Man! As we go through the editing and production process, I’ll post occasional updates, and of course as we get closer to completion I’ll post plans for the novel’s release and any “book launch”-type events we pursue.

And I hope we can interest you in going Walking on the Sea of Clouds!

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Blogging the New CD: B is for Baen

Second in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

Shortly after I finished up my first album I started writing a tribute song about Baen Books. I’ve been quite pleased to work as a Contributing Editor for Baen for many years now, and I’m equally pleased to include this song on my new album.

We’ve got Weber, Drake, and Ringo, and Correia and Bujold
Some of the finest stories that you’ve ever been told
Lackey, Flint and Kratman, Spencer and Van Name — look for the
Dragon and the rocket ship, on the books we call Baen

“The Books we Call Baen”

One of the tricky things about this song is that I used an existing tune, and one that Firefly fans in particular will recognize: “The Hero of Canton.” Since “Baen” is pronounced “bane,” it seemed natural to adapt the phrase “the man they call Jayne” into “the books we call Baen.”

The difficulty came when I started trying to fit the names of various authors into the chorus. If perhaps you don’t recognize all the authors’ names in the chorus, they’re David Weber, David Drake, John Ringo, Larry Correia, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, Tom Kratman, Wen Spencer, and Mark Van Name. It was a fun challenge, though, and I like the way it turned out!

Also, if you’re not sure what I mean by “the dragon and the rocket ship,” take a close look at the Baen logo:

In the negative space of the plume of that launching spaceship, you’ll see the profile of a dragon. Thus the logo itself captures both the science fiction and fantasy sides of the publishing house.

Using an existing tune caused me some additional problems. Since I hadn’t written a parody of the original song, I needed to get permission to record the new song, and that proved to be quite the adventure. “The Hero of Canton” was written by Firefly producer Ben Edlund, and I tried several different avenues of trying to get in touch with him — trying to send a message via the man who played Jayne, Adam Baldwin, for instance, and asking Sean Maher (who played Simon Tam) when I saw him at MystiCon in Roanoke. I began to despair of success, but in May I finally achieved a breakthrough in contact. Even though Mr. Edlund said he wasn’t completely sure he could grant me the right to record it, he gave his blessing to the effort — and that was enough for me.

My first version of the song included an extended ending chorus with the names of additional authors, but between the time I wrote it and the time I was recording the song we added several new authors to the Baen family — and since some of them were friends of mine, I didn’t want to leave them out! So began a quick rewrite of that extended chorus in order to shoehorn more names in.

I know I still left out some authors — I hate to think how long the song would be if I tried to include every author in our catalog — but the final chorus now mentions Chuck Gannon, Dave Freer, Michael Z. Williamson, Frank Chadwick, Ben Bova, Sarah Hoyt, Ryk Spoor, Tony Daniel, Sharon Lee, Steve Miller, Jody Lynn Nye, David B. Coe, Steve White, Brad Torgersen, Catherine Asaro, Timothy Zahn, Travis Taylor, Elizabeth Moon, Robert Buettner, Mike Resnick, Eric James Stone, Steve Stirling, John Lambshead, Les Johnson, Anne McCaffrey, Jerry Pournelle, Andre Norton, Larry Niven, Harry Turtledove, and Robert A. Heinlein. And even though I mostly only mention their last names, that’s still a lot of syllables to put together!

As you might imagine, there are a few “in jokes” in the song, but even if you have no idea who Joe Buckley is or what an eARC is, I hope you’ll smile and sing along to “The Books We Call Baen”!


Reminder: I’m playing a concert as part of the Dragon Con Filk Track, this Sunday the 6th of September at 4 p.m. in the Hyatt Regency’s Baker Room. Come out and see me!

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Want Some Insight Into Our Publishing Process?

Then we have a podcast for you!

Two weeks ago at Mysticon, Baen Books editors Tony Daniel and Laura Haywood-Cory joined Baen author Tom Kratman and me — the slimy contractor “Slushmaster General” — for an episode of the Baen Free Radio Hour entitled “A Roundtable on Making the Book.” We talked a little about the creative process, a little about the submissions-and-selection process, and a little about how a novel goes from submitted manuscript to finished book.

Here’s a direct link to the podcast episode, which also includes part 2 of the serialization of “Murder on the Hoch-flieger Ost,” by Forever Engine author Frank Chadwick.

Hope you enjoy it! And let me know if you have any questions.

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Publishing and Venture Capitalism

Sat in on a meeting this week chaired by a partner in a local consulting and venture capital firm, and at one point he made this observation: out of every 1000 business plans they receive, they read only about 100 (“because the other 900 are garbage,” he said), and of those 100, they only fund about 3.

I told him at the break that those statistics were very similar to the publishing world. Baen, for example, makes it clear to everyone who reads the guidelines that fewer than 1% of the manuscripts are accepted.

But almost more fascinating was this tidbit: of the 3 business start-ups they fund, they expect to lose money on 2 of them. If they’ve done their research well enough, though — and no doubt they’re very thorough — that last one will make a mint and cover the losses on the other two.

I don’t think any publishers would willingly take that approach. Some books don’t earn out their advances, true, but I believe most publishers won’t take a chance on a book that they don’t expect to sell through a print run.

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No More Book Advances?

My fellow writers will be interested in a report in today’s Huffington Post that a new imprint at Harper-Collins plans to try an experiment in which authors would receive lower advances (or no advances at all) in exchange for a higher back-end share of book sales. Given the way Hollywood’s creative accounting usually reduces the back-end share to nil, I’d be afraid of the publisher adopting similar techniques. Also given the fact that most authors — and especially new authors — don’t get big advances in the first place, and the further fact that many authors rely on what advances they get to pay for niceties such as food while they write the books in the first place, this doesn’t sound like a winning situation for authors.

The article is “New HarperCollins Unit To Try To Cut Author Advances.” In this experiment,

At least two planned features break from traditional practices that have been aggravated by the increasing reliance on blockbuster hits for profits: The imprint will pay lower advances, or none at all, but divide profits equally (instead of 15 percent of the retail price or lower for the author); releases will be sent to stores on a nonreturnable basis.

At the moment it’s one imprint of one publishing house; it’ll be interesting to see whether this idea works — especially in terms of the rule that “money flows toward the author” — and if it spreads.

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