The Business Rusch: Slush Pile Truths
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Every week, people send me links to various publishing articles/blogs I might not have seen. I cherish those links. I don’t see everything, and when I’m under severe deadline, like I have been since March, I have no time to ferret out information unrelated to the current project.
But last week, at least twenty people (maybe more if you count folks on Facebook) sent me the link to Eric Felten’s ridiculous Wall Street Journal blog titled “Cherish the Book Publishers—You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone.”
Why am I calling Felten’s piece ridiculous? Aside from the fact that he says the same thing writers from places like NPR to The Daily Beast have been saying for two years, he shows no understanding of the book business whatsoever. If he actually gave the subject some thought and did a little research, then perhaps he would have come to a different conclusion.
His premise is pretty simple: without book publishers, readers won’t be able to find the good stuff in the middle of all the crap.
Jeez, dude. Those arguments were old one hundred years ago when reading ceased to be the right of the rich and well educated, and trickled down to the masses. Anyone ever wonder why we ended up with a divide between “high-brow literature” and “low-brow crap”? It was because the cognoscenti no longer controlled what people read, therefore the cognoscenti lost a great deal of their power, so the cognoscenti had to make up words to distinguish between the “approved” books and that stinky genre stuff.
What’s happening now? The literary tastemakers—the editors, publishers, reviewers, etc—are seeing their control of what’s being read vanish, so they’re writing articles like this one.
Honestly, it’s becoming the evergreen story of the year. Don’t know what to write for your weekly blog? Let’s write about the way that electronic publishing/indie publishing/self-publishing is ruining books for the rest of us.
Felten explains what a slush pile is. (For those of you who don’t know, it’s the place where unknowns send their manuscripts to a gatekeeper, usually an assistant editor, who then filters the manuscripts and sends the good stuff up to the real editor.) He cites “a friend” who did this for two years and only found one manuscript worth recommending.
Then he adds, “The e-book era promises us all the pleasure of wading through the slush pile ourselves, even as the pile grows exponentially.”
Let me tell you, Mr. Felten, as a person who read slush for a decade, discovered lots of new writers, and won both a World Fantasy award and a Hugo award for her editing work, the slush pile isn’t some growing, breathing, horrible thing to be avoided. It’s a tower of hope, of dreams, of writers who want to do something with their lives.
Yep, there’s bad stuff in it. But the bad stuff is less common than the dull stuff, the mediocre stuff, the unoriginal stuff. The bulk of the slush pile is boring, not terrible. You start reading one of those manuscripts, your eyes glaze, and you set it down, and move onto something else.
Sound familiar, readers? Of course it does. The slush experience mimicks your own reading experience with traditionally published books. Yep, you folks do it with books that have already been published.
I’m sure if you give Mr. Felten a glass or two of wine, he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms which genres he does not read. He calls the e-books “e-pulp fiction” so you can get the whiff of genre snobbery already. (And again, it shows which side of the high-brow/low-brow divide he would have been on 100 years ago. The man would never have picked up popular entertainments. He would have preferred expensive hardback volumes that had been properly vetted by “real” editors, not pulp editors.)
But back to that genre divide: I’ll wager Mr. Felten never read a romance novel or at least, has never admitted to it. (Romance, for those of you who don’t know, sells more than any other genre.) He might read literary mystery fiction, and “sanctioned” science fiction—you know, Oprah-approved stuff like Cormac McCarthy. But he clearly doesn’t respect fantasy.
His closing lines, which are meant to be pointed and funny, are: “Who knows how many great books are just waiting to be discovered? But are we really more likely to find them once the publishing pros have been handed their hats and shown the door? I rather doubt it—even though there’s now hope for that series of novels I’ve been writing about an elf-detective who travels through time to woo Helen of Troy’s third cousin, who, it turns out, is a more-attractive-than-usual troll.”
He makes it sound like that kind of book wouldn’t be published by traditional publishers right now. Um, dude, get out of the literary section of your bookstore and walk around. Check out the bestseller table. Look at the books with the phrase “Urban Fantasy” on the spine. You’ll find a preponderance of books just like that. And guess what? Those puppies made it through a traditional slush pile just fine.
Why am I taking this guy on? Primarily because so many of you sent me this silly piece, which just goes to show how many of you read The Wall Street Journal as opposed to the more obscure bloggers on the NPR website. (They covered this issue last summer.) I think a bunch of you also sent it to me because you agree with him, because you’ve bought that piece of swampland in Florida with the sign that says “Professional Gatekeepers Necessary.”
I hate to tell y’all this. The slush pile readers in traditional publish houses like Mr. Felten’s “friend” became unemployed about a decade ago, when traditional publishing houses closed the door to unagented manuscripts. The slush pile then trundled over to the agents’ offices, and the agents, who didn’t have time to read that ever-growing pile, just ignored it.
That’s why so many beginning writers complain that they never hear back from anyone. There wasn’t anyone to read manuscripts. Those writers who managed to get read already got discovered somewhere else, through a strong short story career (in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery) or through contests (like the Golden Heart in romance). Occasionally some of these writers, the ones with money and/or chutzpah, got an introduction to an editor at a writers conference and got “the business card” which was like the magic key into a kingdom. The editor promised to read anything that came to her with the original business card (not a photocopy) attached.
Ah, but our friend Mr. Felten makes it sound like that system was marvelous. He writes, “The stodgy old gatekeepers are to be replaced with ‘social media.’ But the self-publishers are finding that getting the attention of the crowd once their e-books are out there isn’t easy. Which leads to efforts to game the judgment of the new and amorphous network of influence.”
As if people didn’t game the old system. People taught workshops in how to get some stodgy old gatekeeper to look at an unknown writer’s manuscript. Not to read it. Just look at it.
And if the wrong gatekeeper read it, then only the writer’s perseverance could get the book published. Nine “stodgy old gatekeepers” turned down the first book in the Harry Potter series (and I would have too: that first chapter had no setting, even when the book was published). Seventeen SOGs turned down The Princess Diaries, and twenty-three turned down Dune.
Oh, wait. I’m sorry. I’m using crappy genre fiction examples. Let’s move on to literature, shall we? How about the sixteen SOGs who turned down The Diary of Anne Frank or the twenty-two SOGs who turned down James Joyce’s The Dubliners?
Yep, those stodgy old gatekeepers sure as hell knew what they were doing.
That’s the problem with the old system. The writer had to continue searching until she found one stodgy old gatekeeper who believed in her work. Then that poor stodgy old gatekeeper would have had to convince the other gatekeepers in the publishing house to invest tens of thousands of dollars on publishing that book. It was a heck of a hill—and frankly, not every book that marched over that hill was any good.
I’m sure Mr. Felten will agree: traditional publishers put out a lot of crap. He and I probably disagree as to what the crap is. I, for one, not only read romance, but I write it. I like stories with time travel and elf detectives, and I (in my stodgy old gatekeeper role at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) occasionally bought some of them.
Having a stodgy old gatekeeper doesn’t stop a bad book from being published. Nor does it prevent a good book from going unnoticed. Even before the e-book revolution, there was a lot of noise, and writers were expected to promote, promote, promote their own books to rise above that noise.
And now? Has the noise gotten worse?
I don’t think so. I actually think it’s toned down. Partly because of this: the e-book revolution means that books will stay in print. The number one way to get a book noticed is via word-of-mouth. You can’t manufacture word of mouth. The movie industry has been trying to do that for years, and it backfired, especially two years ago when Twitter began its rise. Movie-goers who went to an early show of an anticipated movie would either Tweet that the movie was good or that the movie sucked. The word of mouth, spread quickly through social media, determined a movie’s weekend box office.
We’ve become used to the phenomenon now, which is why you hear that a movie will have a good one-day opening that trailed off over the weekend, but it sure was a shock in the Twitter-summer of 2009.
The same thing happens with books. People don’t care if they read the newest hottest book. They want a book they’ll like. Traditional publishers treat books like produce, taking them off the shelf as if the book will rot after a month. So it was impossible to build a slow word of mouth.
No longer. A good book will eventually rise to the top. It will take time, and no amount of gaming the system will make a book more successful than it would have been without the gaming. It might make the book move faster initially, but if that book is anything like the bulk of the stuff I saw in the slush pile, no amount of tweeting, self-promotion, peer reviews or bargain pricing will make thousands of people read that book.
So how do you get noticed these days—as an indie writer or as a traditionally published writer? Write a good book. Then be patient.
I’ve seen blog after blog from writers who put their books up on Kindle, then watch the numbers, and bemoan those two or three sales in one month. Yeah, yeah, those writers complain, the next month I had six sales, and the month after that twelve, but eighteen sales in three months won’t make me rich.
And yet…the book is on an upward trend. Which means that the three original readers probably told a friend or two who read the book, and those friends told more friends, and so on and so on. Yeah, you won’t get rich in 2011 with those numbers, but with some patience, and a willingness to write and publish more books (instead of spending all your time promoting), you might make a small living on that book in 2013. And by 2015, you might have enough to kiss your day job good-bye.
Which is better than most traditionally published writers can do four years after their first publication.
How do readers find you? They read reviews, see blog posts, or browse through their favorite genre titles. They listen to friends and they look at that little algorithm on the sales page of another book they enjoyed, the algorithm that says, People who bought this book also bought these books. You don’t think that works? Have you ever looked at books that appeared because of that algorithm? I’ll bet you have—and more than once.
Here’s one more slush-pile truth: the bulk of the slush pile is made up of recital pieces. By that, I mean the one and only short story or novel that some poor slob wrote. Maybe it was their thesis. Maybe they had to write it (and mail it) for some English class. In music, those things are called recital pieces. Everyone who ever took a music class has one—that piece of music practiced over and over again until it was the best the fledgling musician could make it. That might be the only thing the (now-grown) musician can play on her (former) instrument, but that person learned it, by gum, and will play it whenever offered the chance.
Yeah, those recital pieces will make it onto the e-book racks. And most of them will see a few sample downloads and never sell. They’ll clutter up the numbers—that figure people like Mr. Felten will point at to prove there are too many self-published titles—but most people won’t even see those books. The handful of people forced to buy them (friends, family) certainly won’t recommend the recital pieces to their reading buddies.
And those books will be easy to ignore.
But the books that won’t be easy to ignore are the ones by a heretofore unknown writer who writes a kick-ass first chapter. Some reader in Outer FarAwayFromHere downloads the free sample, and months later, reads it. Then immediately orders the rest of the book, stays up all night finishing it, and goes bleary-eyed to work the next day. What does that reader do? He tells all his friends at Outer FarAwayFromHere’s Really Big Factory that he didn’t get any sleep because he read this great book. And on their lunch break, five of those friends download the free sample. The cycle starts all over again.
Who are you going to trust to recommend books? Stodgy old gatekeepers like me who have reading prejudices (“No setting! What is that Rowling woman thinking?”) that won’t let them into a good story or your friends who loved, loved, loved that book. Imagine how different our culture would be if Stodgy Old Gatekeeper #10 had turned down Harry Potter as well.
Now imagine what would have happened if e-publishing had existed in the late 1990s when Rowling got started. She’d still be richer than the queen, but about 7 times richer than she is now, because she’d getting that much more in royalties. And we might’ve been reading about dear old Harry two years earlier.
We would have heard about him from our friends who stayed up all night, unable to set the book down.
Oh, wait! We did hear about the book that way. I don’t know about you, but it was the recommendation from friends who have some of the same reading prejudices that I have who said to me, “The opening is a bit rough, but give it a chapter or two. You’ll love this book” that got me to read Harry Potter. All of the Harry Potter books.
We are each other’s gatekeepers. We always have been. We won’t lose traditional publishing’s gatekeepers, although there will probably be fewer of them. If we want to emulate Mr. Felten and never sully our e-readers with self-published material, then we will still have the option of buying traditionally published books.
Chances are the libraries in most people’s e-readers will look like mine–a mixture of self-published books and traditionally published books. The percentage of self-published to traditionally published will change depending on the recommendations from friends and what kind of reading binges we go on, but there will probably always be a mixture.
It’s not that I’m a less snobbish reader than Mr. Felten. I’m just a different kind of snob. And so are you.
There are books enough for all of us. Rather than bemoan the fact that more books will be published, rather than worry that the good books will be overrun by crap, perhaps we should accept that the revolution is upon us and it is a good thing.
Because that’s the other totally ridiculous point in Felten’s piece—the headline. If the Wall Street Journal blog works like most newspapers, that headline might not be Felton’s fault. It might have been some other snobby editor (gatekeeper!) who slapped that title on his work:
Cherish the Book Publishers—You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone.
They’re not going anywhere. They have some struggles ahead, and new book publishers will appear. But hardcovers didn’t disappear when paperbacks came about. More books available to more people doesn’t mean that the apocalypse is coming.
It just means that some stodgy old gatekeepers might lose control of the conversation.
And seriously, what’s wrong with that?
“The Business Rusch: Slushpile Truths” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.