The Business Rusch: Slush Pile Truths

Business Rusch free nonfiction On Writing

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.



103 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Slush Pile Truths

  1. Sorry I’m three years late to this discussion, but I’m glad I got to read it! Being an indie author who is now about to embark on self-publishing, it was very helpful. Thank you, Kris, for being the type of “snob” whose conceit is towards inclusiveness and tolerance. The world needs more “snobs” like that in all areas of endeavor! I’m of the firm “snobbish” belief that only honoring reading material and topics vetted by some “gatekeepers” is a form of censorship, and keeps some important and controversial subject matter that needs to be discussed by society off the shelves, and away from the public mindset. That undermines the sacred purpose of writers to the world: Not just entertaining others, but doing the latter while informing them and making people *think.*

  2. Thank you for a cracking article. Let’s just hope those who need to, heed it. B.T.W. I am one of the most fiercely ‘indie’ authors in the U.K. and made all the mistakes when I started, learning curve is still almost vertical. I don’t write my thrillers under my own name, and I’m not going to plug them here.
    Thank you again for the article.
    All the best Paul Rix [oldgeezer]

  3. Trying to decide whether to sign with my indie publisher for another book, or put it out there myself.

    For an established writer with an audience, it’s a no brainer. For those of us just starting out, the answer doesn’t seem as clear.

  4. Kris,

    Very well thought out article, and definitely appreciated. You hit all of the important points and really highlight what’s wrong with that old logic. I hate to beat the drum of “the old guard just doesn’t it,” but when you read pieces like his, it’s hard not to think that way.

    Your post, as well as others, are of great encouragement to those of us who are dipping our toes into the publishing waters after looking at traditional publishing options for years and trying to figure out, well, what to do. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

  5. Thanks ma’am. Luckily I stumbled across Stephen King’s thoughts on plot not to much later after I hit Post Comment here and discovered that plot isn’t all it’s cracked up to be- phew! (I need to remember your better half’s rules about Myths!).
    Thanks for your time.

  6. Wow. You really let them have it. Thanks. You’re encouraging. I’m publishing my memoir soon. Decided not to try for an agent before I started looking. Like you said, I’ll let the readers decide. I have all the time in the world.

  7. Thank you for presenting some important facts regarding the role of slushpiles and gatekeepers in your article. My self-published novel Angel in the Shadows, Book 1 has currently hit three top lists at It’s consistently been in the top-twenty for teen ebook fiction since its release date six weeks ago, it hit the top 100 yesterday, in occult, and even bounced as high as #74 in all Kindle books for a few days.

    Both books 1 & 2 are currently climbing the charts based on word-of- mouth and reviews alone. I think the reader/gatekeepers are working just fine. I can’t control what they post about my books on their review sites which include Amazon, Goodreads, & (to name just a few) and since they are paying money to buy my books, they have the right to judge it according to their standards. It’s only fair.
    All I wanted is the chance for readers to enjoy my stories.

    1. Lisa, congrats on all the success. Exactly! This is how it works. And I think you’ve articulated what most writers want deep down: “All I wanted is the chance for readers to enjoy my stories.” Good stuff.

  8. Totally off topic ma’am, but when you have time would you be able to explain to me what Plot is? (I know, I know. But sense I’ve been thinking of taking this writing thing seriously I’ve been researching, brushing up if you will, and I’ve found so many definition of plot and whatnot and been told that if you don’t have plot you don’t have a story and then no one will read it and then the glaciers will fall into the ocean, dogs will be living with cats and it’s the end of the world.)
    Of course it’s a “totally take your time thing” as you have so many other things to do, but if you ever do have the time I would really like to hear YOUR definition of what plot is.
    Thank you ma’am.

    1. J.P.T., Plot is too complicated to deal with in a short post. You might try Algis Budrys’ book, “Writing To The Point.” He has a great section on the 7-point plot outline. Check it out.

  9. Hey, Kris:

    I’m surprised flames didn’t come out of my mac as I read your post.

    I agree the guy has no idea what’s going on. You have to wonder if he’s ever been out of the literary section of the book store and seen what’s really selling.

    Does snobbery like this exist in the SF/fantasy genre? You bet ya! I read a post from a critic where he said he would never review an Honor Harrington novel because it wasn’t serious SF. I only wish I had series like Harrington!

    And we all know the work for hire writers are considered unworthy by many writers, but beloved by fans of those franchises, so this crap is really nothing new.

    There are lots of ridiculous opinions such as Felten’s out there offered by people who, 1) have no knowledge about what they speak of, 2) have an agenda and want publishing to remain in control of the elitists, or 3) are ignorant and refuse to learn anything about the new world of publishing

    All three of these reasons are related but publishing has changed and it’s not going back. Folks such Felton have to realize that their ship has sailed, and they better jump aboard and hang on or they’re going to be swept into the sea of irrelevance.

    Nice post.

  10. At least for me, my gatekeepers are my friends and relatives. I have found a book they have personally read, would be for me something I would finish myself. Many a #3 on the NYT bestsellers list I found a bore.

  11. This is all part of an economic move to ‘micro-businesses’. As technology advances its making it easier for ‘just-one-guy’ to reach a global market place. We saw something similar when e-bay first launched, quite a few people managed to make a living via e-bay. Also, sites like Etsy..etc..).

    If these folks are freaking out about e-publishing, they are going to really lose it when 3-D printing is perfected. And people can ‘print’ beautifully crafted goods (jewelry, dishware, etc…)from a kiosk or the comfort of their own homes. No shipping necessary….

  12. Wonderful thoughts and comments. Setting is important but if you can’t follow it with a well written story, the setting is just that a setting. As for the slush pile, several of my favorite authors were discovered hiding in the stacks. I’m not a snob about what I read if there are words in print I’ll read them. If it doesn’t hold my attention then I put it down and find something else to read. I try to remember the old saying…one persons junk….
    Enjoyed your article.


  13. The best part about all of these articles and people bemoaning the rise of indie-publishing is that we indie-publishers will be laughing all the way to the bank. 🙂

    I think that the best part of indie-publishing is that there will be more books out there in genres that aren’t hugely popular. We’ll have greater variety in our fiction, and I, for one, think that’s a very good thing!

  14. Kris – I’m late to this discussion, but great job.

    Does anybody worry about not being able to find the best blogs in the midst of all the self-published ones? Nope. And, of course, some of the self-published ones are the best.

  15. Well said, Kris.

    Although I find myself disagreeing with you a little about the need for setting in the opening. (Not arguing, though — partly it’s subjective taste, and partly I bow to your demonstrated expertise.) Myself, I like the action to get rolling enough that I’ll care about setting. But perhaps that’s because of all the Heinlein I’ve read — that man could pack more setting into five words than some other writers could into five pages. It’s been too long since I read the first Harry Potter for me to remember the details of its opening vs how the movie opened.

    That aside, Sturgeon’s Law has always held. Maybe the percentage of crud will get a little higher, maybe not. That just helps us appreciate the good stuff all the more … and maybe that makes it more likely that readers will spread the word about the good stuff when they find it.

    1. Setting is always necessary, Alastair. You need to establish where you are. You don’t need to describe it in more than 5 words, but they have to be the right five words. And since I’d never been to the part of England she had described, I had no idea what it looked like. (Except that there was a lamp post.) So back when Rowling began, she didn’t have the right five words. She sure did later on, though.

      It was just a case in point. Obviously, for one editor, the setting didn’t matter. The fact that a baby had survived a terrible magical attack that had killed his parents did. And honestly, when I tried the book (and got annoyed at the lack of setting in the opening), it was that hook about the baby that kept me going too.

  16. Thank you for debunking this terrible article. But the fact that this is being trotted out and paraded around at least lets us know that self-publishing has moved from stage 1 to stage 2 of Ghandi’s famous quote.

    First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

    It will be interesting to see what happens in stage 3.

    1. I think the fight is happening behind the scenes, Robin. Those contract terms I’ve been mentioning in previous posts? I think that’s all part of the fight. They’re trying to tie writers to terrible deals so writers can’t go indie. (By saying a writer can’t work on anything else while under contract to the publisher.) Thanks. I love the quote.

  17. Brilliantly put as usual. BTW, I was one of those slush readers for several years, and a lot of excellent books didn’t make it through just because they didn’t fit what the editors were looking for at the time.

    Also, my e-book The Birth of the Dread Remora has had steadily increasing sales every month. Every single one. So word of mouth definitely works. 🙂

    1. Exactly, Aaron. I bought different stories at F&SF than I did at Pulphouse because they were different markets. But I was still the same person, so it was just a different aspect of my tastes. Congrats on the increased sales. Yep, word of mouth works!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *