When I was just starting out, we didn’t have fancy websites and email and stuff like that. We had a post office box to which people would mail the craziest things. Apocalyptic prophecies involving aliens. Diatribes against popular preachers. Secret codes to unlock the true meaning of the Scriptures, the true path to salvation. And occasionally, a modest if mildly desperate proposal of actual interest, shipped to our address because the writer had no idea how to get started on their journey to become an author, and they wondered whether we could help them find their way.
In such an analog era, the costs of submissions were high. You had to print each proposal you put in the mail. You had to buy the ink, the paper, the postage, the packaging. Alongside the weird book proposals that came this way (we called it the slush pile) were letters requesting the return of materials we had declined to publish. They would come three months, six months, a year after first submission, a vain attempt to recoup some of their losses. We held onto proposals for three years in case such a request morphed into a demand, even a threat.
Slush piles are the stuff of legend. Some publishing houses had fake names for the “editor” who signed the rejection letters to protect the identity of the poor slob who had to slosh through the slush. Every editor had a story from the slush pile, and for every crazy appeal, there was the tale of a salvaged classic, a Hemingway to offset all the hubris. We’d tell our slush pile story to whoever would listen for the rest of our lives.
My own clearest slush pile memory is of a large package that felt weightless. It arrived at roughly the same time my little suburb had learned of its historic connection to the Unabomber, who was terrorizing the country by sending unsolicited explosives through the US Postal Service. That dude was a writer at the same time I was a slush pile editor, and the stuff he submitted could kill you. I held that box as far away from my face as I could and opened it up. Out floated a helium balloon with a note tied to the string. “Publish my book!” the note read. I sent a gently written rejection letter.
These days the slush pile is kind of quaint. Mail is so last millennium, and even publishers themselves are considered by many to be more vestigial than essential. People have Facebook. Twitter. Tik Tok. They can take their crazy directly to the people.
The work of publishing hasn’t changed all that much in this respect. We still get a lot to look at, and we still go through the rituals of review, separating the nonviable proposals in search of as-yet-undiscovered brilliance. We still say no to most of what we’re sent—even a lot of truly promising projects—because no publishing house can do everything and not everything fits everywhere. We still very occasionally stumble on something roughly resembling a diamond in the rough. We still come up with stories to tell. It’s the possibility, even the inevitability, of those stories that keep many of us going.
Bear with me here, because I have a kind of crazy proposal: The birth of Jesus is something like a slush pile submission. A weary traveler seeking shelter. No room at the inn, no place to lay his head. Word made manifest and lain in a lowly, provisional place. An audacious claim not unlike many audacious claims that have come before it, but this one has something intriguing, promising, compelling to it.
A life- and world-changing message, rejected by many but good news to those with ears to hear.
I know, it’s crazy. The sort of thing I should have just taken to Twitter and been done with. But the improbability of the Christmas story is part of its appeal. For God so loved the world that he went to great trouble to submit his only son at just the right time, to be scrutinized and scorned and discarded, and yet to nevertheless transform the world for the good. The writer in us knows it’s so crazy it must be true. The editor in us knows this is a story we could keep telling forever.
Merry Christmas from your friends at NavPress. May you have eyes to see the good news every time it lands in your inbox.