The Business Rusch: Slush Pile Truths

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 responses to “The Business Rusch: Slush Pile Truths”

  1. It warms the cockles of my heart that J.K. Rowling could have also heard Kris say at a workshop, “A little setting would be nice!” 🙂

    • Kris says:

      LOL, Dave. And yes, she would have back in the 1990s. She eventually put the setting she had in her head down on paper–and what an inventive setting it was! But yes, Dave, you’re in good company. 🙂

  2. Nice one, Ms. Rusch. What a great post, what a pleasure to read. Eric Felton makes the same mistake that so many others do: “Popular Culture” is an oxymoron so you can only findsomething worthwile in the highbrow quarter; “it doesn’t compute” as Mr. Spock used to say.

    Thanks for the article.
    David Coles

  3. Nathan Pennington says:

    I don’t have anything insightful to say. Just, “Hey Kris, in my humble opinion, this was the best blog post you’ve written yet.”

    Very well done. Thanks!

  4. Saul Garnell says:

    Kris, I think your the points you raise are quite important. The market for both publishers and authors is in the middle of terrible upheaval. Terrible for publishers that is. Your post really makes me think it’s time to give up on traditional methods. That said, I believe there still needs to be some mechanism to get new authors professional feedback on their work. That I believe is still to come. But playing the submission merry-go-round game? That’s DOA.

    • Kris says:

      I think it’s essential, Saul, for writers to constantly try to stretch themselves and improve their craft. I think that’s always been important for traditionally published writers. I think it’s even more important now for self-pubbed writers. The important thing isn’t sentence by sentence work (although having those skills down is necessary). The truly important thing is learning how to tell a good story in an interesting manner.

  5. Paul Sadler says:

    Hidey ho,

    Love the post, but I find it interesting that you use the example of someone getting their w-of-m the old-fashioned way still when it comes to books. For me, it isn’t the friend who told me about this great book that got five other people to download it; it’s the friend who posted it on their FB page, or Twitter feed, or MySpace — not telling just the 10 people they work with day-to-day but the 500+ friends they have on FB.

    To my mind, though, the real value over the slush pile is we now have real reviews in the cloud … the slush pile, so to speak, is indeed almost all potentially available now, but with the recital pieces you mentioned, someone can read it and say “Not very good” or “Good for someone looking for x type of story”. Before, the real gatekeeper outcome was whether that story was GOOD enough to fit some pre-planned expectation of that publisher’s marketing niche. Just as lots of people said no to Rowling, it didn’t mean those first 9 made a mistake — they may indeed have been the wrong publisher for that book.

    Now, we have the cloud filled with Amazonian Surfers of the Tsunami of Crap, strangers who post reviews. What interests me the most is what duty / role do those strangers have when they share their info? They have inherited both the gatekeeper role somewhat as well as the “wet thumb in the wind” to gauge wind strength…what is their “job”?

    I’m biased as I do my own reviews, and I’m trying to make them a bit more “formal”/”professional” I guess, so I asked around, and cobbled together a “book-reading manifesto” … a number of authors were quite, umm, perturbed that I might post a review on Amazon of a book I read if the review was less than 4 or 5 stars (their view was if it wasn’t 4 or 5, I shouldn’t say anything at all, which isn’t really a critique, in my view). At any rate, I’m digressing — my “manifesto” is on my own blog at…I share it in part because I did a review of Vectors ( way back in 2001.

    What’s your view — how should reviewers in the new millennial world wield their magic swords?


    • Kris says:

      I think reviewers have an important role to play, Paul, just like they always have. Only now they can review things older as well as things newer. However, the reviewer should be aware that some readers will use them the way I used Gene Siskel of Siskel & Ebert fame. I figured if he liked a movie, I’d hate it and vice versa.

      Personally, I also feel that it’s really easy to eviscerate a novel, but harder to find one to like. Reviewers often get caught in the trap of being negative, because negative is easy. I find myself going to reviewers/book bloggers who point out good stuff, rather than those who trash things. Some books deserve a middle-of-the-road treatment, which I don’t mind, but generally, I want the reviewer to enjoy reading rather than thinking critically every single sentence of the way.

      That’s just my opinion, however. Other people’s mileage will vary.

  6. […] order of business is to give a little more link love to Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  She wrote a brilliant essay today demolishing the silly meme that […]

  7. Steve Lewis says:

    I totally agree with Lyn here Kris and obviously with you as well. I also think the people who talk about the Tsunami of Crap® underestimate the power of word of mouth. For instance, I work for the Cheesecake Factory which is the most successful casual dining restaurant chain in America. We were the first casual dining chain to ever do over a billion dollars in sales in one year. Even in this recession we’ve been expanding rather than closing down resturants.**

    And all of our success comes through word of mouth because we’ve NEVER advertised.

    (**All of the above is readily available public information.)

  8. Kris says:

    Lyn Perry has been trying all day to comment on the site. I just tried to do it in her stead, and couldn’t post the comment either. She makes a good point, worth reading. So I figure y’all should see it. Here’s what she said:

    “Thanks for the post – I agree that word of mouth is crucial. My dad owned a busy coffee shop in the 60s & 70s and as his peers grew in affluence (as did he) they moved on to eat at “higher brow” restaurants. But our cafe’s quality reputation was established. Word of mouth simply brought in more people who were looking for what we served – short order menu items. So while tastes (read snobbery) may change from person to person and even season to season, if word of mouth is set in motion, consumers will find you.

    Regards, Lyn Perry from”

  9. Love it! Great one, Kris. I always enjoy your stuff.

  10. Annie Reed says:

    Kris, the next Diz & Dee will have more of a general summer theme… kinda. 😉 And yes, without self-pubbing, Diz & Dee wouldn’t have seen print… er, digital pixel thingies, eventually to be print. Although I got very nice rejections, Diz and Dee didn’t sell to either the traditional fantasy or mystery markets.

  11. Thanks for the mention Kris.

    And I’ll second the shout out for Angry Robot. I have no links with them myself, other than having a very high opinion of them. They are one of the best small publishers out there. Very author friendly contracts, a sleek e-bookstore with no DRM, no territory restrictions, and very competitive prices. Plus, they know their way around social media, and they know how to publish a beautiful book. Their subscription plan is innovative, and I think it will work.

  12. Martin Lake says:

    What a great article.

    The arbiters of ‘good taste’ always try to decry any party they haven’t been invited to but secretly long to attend.

    Martin Lake

  13. Steven Mohan says:

    Closely reasoned and brilliant as always, Kris! I liked the microbrew comment, too. It goes along with something I was thinking. This guy is arguing against consumer choice. His argument completely dissolves when applied to any other industry. Should people only be allowed to eat at restaurants approved of by the NY Times’ fine dining section, for example? How many great ethnic places or wonderful holes-in-the-wall would we miss out on if this were the case? Occasionally there are valid justifications for having gate-keepers (FDA approval of drugs, for example.) But for most industries it’s just as well to let consumers choose. It works for everything else. Why wouldn’t it work for books?

    • Kris says:

      Thanks for the comment, Steve, and great point. I hadn’t even thought of restaurants, but when I traveled, I always found it better to ask the locals than to go with the stuff in the tour guides or the “recommended” website. I got a better meal–at least for my tastes. And often found a funky nifty neighborhood as well.

  14. Tori Minard says:

    As an example of bad yet traditionally published writing — I recently read a historical romance that I didn’t sample first (my bad, I know) and while reading kept wondering if it was self-published because it wasn’t very good. Nope. It was put out by (insert Big trad pub name here). One of my gripes with it was the author’s use of modern language like “updo,” which I know lots of readers don’t care about. But the thing that really got me, almost kept me from finishing, was she kept stopping the action dead to drone on about the POV character’s feelings or life philosophy or something. She just killed the momentum and tension of scene after scene. I mean, really, I was surprised it got published. Of course, in Mr. Felton’s opinion, the genre of the book would have made it unreadable from the start.

    • Kris says:

      I’ve been doing something similar with covers, Tori. I look at them, think “Who designed that?” and realized it was someone getting the big bucks at a publishing house, someone who shouldn’t get those big bucks. A recent NYT bestselling historical romance author whose work I love has the ugliest cover I’ve ever seen, and you can’t even see it on the black-and-white Kindle screen. Nice work there (not).

  15. E. Hunter says:

    Thanks for the excellent post, Kris. Already linked to it on my blog. You really offer some great perspective.

  16. Bridget McKenna says:

    I’ve been a reader, a writer, and also an editor and publisher.

    As a writer, I sold a mystery series to a Very Large Publisher who dumped the first book as the third was being released–a can’t-fail formula for killing a series. Then they jacked me up and put an even hungrier writer under me. This publisher was famous for doing this if a book didn’t hit their mark, then offering an even lower advance on any future books, citing “losing money” on previous ones, though of course the publisher has made costs and even profits long before the author has paid off her advance at pennies a copy sold. They’re still doing it.

    As an editor / publisher (Aeon Speculative Fiction, an ebook magazine long dead by the time people were reading ebooks in any numbers), I was proud of our role as gatekeeper, knowing we were committed to publishing good fiction. But I had also been aware for years that most publishing companies were more interested in books that make money.

    There’s a story about a well-known publisher who slammed a thick ms down on a desk and demanded of his editors, “Who acquired this steaming pile of shit?” When one editor timidly raised a hand, he said “Sell it hard!” And this was one of the good guys–an ethical publisher who loved quality when he could afford to publish it, but also knew there’d be plenty of readers ready to spend money on the steaming pile. So even the best of the gatekeepers know that it’s not wise to bar the gate from crap if crap will sell.

    As a reader, I know that back when ebooks were still a gleam in Fritz Leiber’s eye, there were still plenty of books being published that weren’t–to me–worth the cover price. That’s still the case. When I could only buy print books, I had the opportunity to read a few pages in the bookstore before ponying up my cash. Now when I choose to buy an ebook, I can download a free sample and judge the quality of the writing. I probably download seven or eight samples for every book I buy, and I choose those from among books whose covers and sell copy show some attention to quality. Plenty of crap filters in place, and I’m happy to be my own gatekeeper. As I move into re-publishing my old books and taking responsibility for new ones, I’m even more excited to be part of what’s going on now and in the future of publishing, whatever that turns out to be.

    • Kris says:

      Bridget! Great news that your books will be back in print. I loved that series, and hope you’ll continue it or start writing new stuff. Yeah, your former publisher–and mine–did that with a series of mine as well. No fun. And I too love free samples. I order way too many books now, because there are so many great writers having a chance at getting their work out in the marketplace.

  17. […] Kathryn Rusch wrote up a terrific article discussing the slush pile, “stodgy old gatekeepers,” and the future of publishing. The […]

  18. Nancy Beck says:

    @Steve Lewis,

    Agree with everything you said.

    And when is Doctor Who coming back? I’m in withdrawal.

  19. Nancy Beck says:

    My thoughts exactly. Why is it a bad thing to those who read decide what’s worth reading and what’s not? Why does there have to be a Group of Anointeds who hands down from on high as to What Shalt Be Read and What Shalt Not Be Read?

    I think of the good stuff I’m reading by self pubbers now (and, yes, I still read trad pub), and I wonder how much of it would never have seen the light of day.

    I also wanted to thank you and Dean for setting me straight on the publishing world as it is right now, and for giving back my self confidence. It’s mostly because of you two (and a few others) that I set up my writing business the correct way, and just pubbed my novella over this past weekend. And (will wonders never cease?), I came up with an idea for a short story – something I haven’t done in a long, long time – wrote it quickly, left it for a day, then check on typos/tweaked it just a bit.

    And sent it out to a pro rate magazine yesterday! If it doesn’t work there, I’ll sub a couple of more times elsewhere. But the great thing is, instead of being bummed out if none of the pro mags take it, I can then upload it.

    Win-win! 🙂

    • Kris says:

      Nancy, great to know your self-confidence is back. Isn’t it cool what the writing gods will give you when you unstrap them from that “who will buy this?” harness? Congrats on the attitude shift–and getting a novella up this weekend.

  20. DeAnna says:

    I love that craft beer analogy. I thought I *hated* beer…until I had some of the real stuff.

    Also, a recent Seth Godin post with a brief mention of similar:

    Let the readers be the gatekeepers!

  21. Anne Lyle says:

    I think the commercial publishers who will thrive in this brave new world are the ones with real passion for their output – and a genuine focus on serving their readers, not the shareholders of some distant parent company. My own publishers have just launched a subscription service: all their ebooks published in a 12-month period for a one-off payment (rather less than the total price of the books, obviously!). They did this because they had readers repeatedly say to them “I would happily buy everything Angry Robot publishes, because I know it’s going to be good”.

    I’ve been saying for years that the new “gatekeepers” would be recommenders – people/brands you trust to deliver the kind of book you like. It’s rather fun to not only see it come true, but be a part of it 🙂

    • Kris says:

      Great point, Anne. I used to buy subscribe to the Silhouette Intimate Moments line back when Karen Solem edited (I didn’t know she was the gatekeeper, but she and I agreed on what was good). I loved all the books she bought. Just like I’m loving Asimov’s Magazine right now. Sheila & I are sympatico. I also like Lightspeed for that reason. Good stuff. (And several other magazines.) So a subscription based service to a book line is nothing new, but when folks are willing to pony up for one, then that means the gatekeepers are doing something right. Clearly Angry Robot is. (Note to self: check out Angry Robot’s book line.)

  22. Yes! This is brilliant! I’ve been somewhat amazed that people who love books are complaining that there are too many books due to self-publishing. Say, what? I love books, so I’m delighted that there are so many more from which to choose. And I’m a literary snob of a sort, too; but, like you said, the gatekeepers aren’t keeping the “low-brow” books out of bookstores – the big chain bookstores are filled with that stuff, usually in the special display sections! And, honestly, there are times I swear a particularly trashy “low-brow” book is self-published, only to discover – surprise, surprise! – that it’s been published by a Big Six publisher after passing through the lengthy gatekeepers’ approval process. On the other hand, I’ve found many fantastic literary, science fiction and fantasy novels self-published on Amazon. Bravo to you for being able to look at the publishing field with a clear head! Honestly, I think Gatekeeper is a code word for Emperor, and not enough people are willing to point out the truth about the Emperor’s New Clothes. Thank you for taking an honest look at the Emperor’s outfit!

  23. Brilliant article! There’s no denying that the publishing industry is in the middle of an enormous change, but it’s a change–not a terminal illness. It will adapt (quickly or not) but for independent authors, this is a helluva time to be alive and writing. Publishers and independents have their place, but it’s going to be competitive. That’s not necessarily bad.

  24. Annie Reed says:

    Hey, I write stories about an elf detective, and I’ve written time travel stories. I’ve even won a *gasp* literary award for a pure science fiction tale. And, horror of horrors, now I’m self-publishing. Should I take offense at Mr. Felton’s parting shot? Oh hell, no. I’m having too much fun being my own SOG. *g*

    Great column, Kris.

    • Kris says:

      I love those stories, Annie. Is there a new one for the 4th? And without self-publishing, I wouldn’t be having so much fun reading them. Thanks for the comment.

  25. Yes!

    One of the linked blogs brought up something that struck me this morning when I read your piece. I don’t hear much complaining about how technology is allowing more people to create in other artistic fields. Is it just me, or is it just with writing that there are those who think letting more people create is a bad thing?

  26. Lee McAulay says:

    Elf-detective? Hmm… 🙂
    For me, the best part of this post is your point about the slush pile being “boring”. Great! I get it! Write something interesting!

  27. I read his article before I read yours. When I read his, I about gagged! And I was thinking the exact same things you said in this post. I agree with you – the SOGs won’t be gone. They will still be around in years to come because of those who like the traditional way of being published. So the title itself shows his ignorance.

  28. Laura-F says:

    Got this far…

    “…Amanda Hocking, who is a sort of Tolkien for our times (if Tolkien had been an avid fan of “Star Wars” instead of an eminent scholar of “Beowulf”).”

    …and already didn’t want to read the rest, though I did. If you ask me, the difference in the years to come is not that readers won’t be able to find the books they want, it’s that LAZY readers will be complaining that there’s no-one to tell them what’s good, and the rest of us will be finding what we want just fine, and rejoicing that the interesting books no-one would publish before are readily available to us now. The lazy readers will be okay though, because there’s still the Sunday supplements and the universities to tell what to read and what to scoff at.

    • Kris says:

      You guys rock. 🙂 I have to admit that when I get up and check the e-mail messages, and see 22 posts after I put up a blog, I worry a bit. Before I click on the first, I’m aware that I touched on a cultural zeitgeist, but I’m never sure which way the comments will go. Usually they’re half positive, half negative (which is just fine). Sometimes they’re all negative, which is also fine, if a bit wearing. And then there’s today. You made me laugh in recognition, and nod, and smile. It was a lot of fun to go through these. So thanks.

    • Kris says:

      Laura F., yeah, I nearly stopped at that sentence too. But since so many people had sent me the link, I persevered. Honestly, I was just going to mention this guy and go on to a different topic and then, suddenly!, a rant appeared on my computer screen. So I decided to go with it. I love your comment about Lazy Readers. Niiiiiice.

  29. Suzan Harden says:

    Ms. Rusch, you always seem to have thes posts the day after I have a talk with a certain trad-published friend. LOL I had to talk her down from throwing her backlist online without taking the time to perfect the formatting.

    Things are changing. No one knows what the final form will be. I’m simply being patient and putting out my books. Yes, plural, books. That does make the difference.

  30. Kris,

    Thanks for sharing your experience, and for saying with authority what the rest of us only surmise.

  31. Steve Lewis says:

    “…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.”

    Am I the only one who wants to read this? Also, this made me even more desperate for the Doctor Who mid-season break to be over.

    Damn you Wall Street Journal! (shakes fist)

  32. […] Konrath can’t tackle better than me. It had a lot of misinformation, but that was refuted byKristine Rusch. I subscribe to a great site by writer, David Gaughran (who I can thank for the Rusch link) and […]

  33. Patrick Alan says:

    My mom told me about this Harry Potter book so many years ago and that she liked it. It wasn’t until I heard a few other recommendations that I eventually read and loved it.

  34. Lane Diamond says:

    Can I have a “Amen!” How about a “Hallelujah!” Great stuff.

    By the way, becasue your posts are always considerate and content-rich, I’ve posted the link at my own website. Thanks, and keep up the yeoman’s work.

  35. When I was young and newly married and Catholic and not wanting another baby every eleven months, I discovered that priests were like shrinks. You just kept talking to them til you found one that told you what you wanted to hear. That seems to be like the current querying system. Just keep chugging til someone says yes I like this. And that doesn’t mean the public will. I read some agent websites and how they won’t take this or that and they only love this kind of book. I’m not trying to sell them my story and I don’t care what they like and what they buy for their own reading. I want the people that like the kind of story I write to discover it and read it. And it seems agents don’t get that. At least some of them. Or most of them.

  36. Jane says:

    A wonderful rebuttal. All that I would add is — Snooki, Bristol Palin, Theresa Guidice — a horrible slew of books published by the legacy publishers based on absolutely nothing except “platform”. It amazes me that in a culture where anyone with a minor amount of celebrity can get a six-figure book deal (no talent required and hey, you don’t even have to write your own books!), that people like Felten believe that the gatekeepers truly have the public’s literary interests at heart.

  37. Kris, I thought you would get a chuckle out of this.

    This guy that wrote the article slating self-publishers is a journo called Eric Felton. He used to write a column for the WSJ calling himself “The Cocktail Guy”.

    I had a suspicion, and did a little search. Guess what? He said the poor sales of Bud and Coors were down to “better customer awareness of their bland flavors” because of the rise of craft beers and microbreweries, and the companies treating their customers like idiots.

    Feel free to make your own analogy.

  38. E.R. Paskey says:

    Kris, thank you. I knew that, but I needed to hear it again.

    I worked in a library for five years and the quality of a large number of books coming across my desk to be covered and shelved left me convinced I could write better stories than the ones coming from the gatekeepers. (Some of them were so terrible I’m still not entirely sure how they made it out of the slush pile.)

    Thanks in part to your articles and those of your husband, I’m launching the first book in my sci-fi series next month. Self-publishing has been on my radar for a few years now, but the idea that in order to be a “real” author one has to be traditionally published kept me from doing anything until now. It’s amazing how deeply rooted that particular notion is in people’s minds. It’s also amazing–and frightening–how being vetted by the gatekeepers does not equal success. I don’t think many people understand that either.

    • Kris says:

      ER, thanks for reality check on books published. A friend of mine runs a bookstore and shares all of the galleys that come in when he’s done with them at our writers’ lunch. Sometimes no one will take a galley, even though it’s free, because it looks so awful. (And the cover copy is usually poorly written on those books, the cover art bad, and the font too tiny to read. This from traditional publishers.)

  39. You give me hope. And, yes, I have other things coming behind the recital piece (love that term).

    I also follow your husband’s blog. Good stuff.

  40. Sarah McCabe says:

    Excellent post as usual. Man, I just learn so much from you. I’ve held this opinion for some time but, true to your profession, you are able to articulate it so much better than I and with all your experience to back it up!

    I, for one, wave a fond farewell to our stodgy old gatekeeper overlords.

  41. Steve says:

    Well, Ms. Rusch, that was just excellent. I agree that the debate is well past tired at this point. But that particular WSJ piece was such a bombastic mix of self-satisfaction and paranoia… I’m glad you took one more comprehensive swat at the topic. This was cleansing. Thank you.

  42. Hey Kris,

    Great article. They are losing control of the conversation.

    2011 was the year that self-publishing really broke out into the mainstream.

    Who would have thought a few years back that major newspapers and cable channels would be running regular reports on self-publishing successes?


  43. […] of this, but Kris Rusch and Joe Konrath beat me to it. You should check out both their responses. Krus Rusch goes point-by-point, and Joe Konrath, in a post titled “The Tsunami of Crap”, laughs at the ridiculousness […]

  44. Carradee says:

    My answer is colored by my age.

    I’m in my twenties. Nearly a decade ago, I was writing fan fiction on places like and, and I even had stints on and Much of the time, I was able to guess if I’d like a story or not just by glancing at the few-line summary. Yes, no, maybe? *click* *glance at story formatting* Good, bad, tolerable if it’s a good story?

    Those sites also had functions like “favorite authors” and “favorite stories”. When someone’s story wowed me, I’d look into their favorites and find more great authors.

    How would I find a story to read to begin with? 1. A friend referred it to me (but this happened rarely). 2. I searched the site for keywords that covered the type of story I wanted to read (which was my most common option).

    I think that’s part of Amazon’s popularity as an e-book vendor, actually: a good search engine.

    Between search engines and word of mouth, I don’t think readers have anything to worry about with the online slush pile.

    • Kris says:

      Carradee, thanks for the observation about fan sites & Amazon. What she said about those search engines, folks, is modern word of mouth and how it spreads.

  45. I had to smile as I read this. It rare to read such a well argued rant. How many bad websites and blogs are out there? And do they stop you from finding good ones (like your own)? Nope.

    I hope more writers and readers will find this post.

  46. Tim Myers says:

    Some folks might not realize this, but you were a wonderful gatekeeper as an editor. When I was just starting out, I subbed several stories to you at your magazine, and while you never bought any of my work, your rejections were always positive and encouraging. I changed over to mystery, and now have half a million books in print under seven different names. You continue to inspire me today. I’ve published my backlist and new work on the Internet even as I continue to write for my traditional publishers.
    I never got the chance to thank you for your encouraging words back then, so I’d like to do it now. You are a rock star, and always have been in my eyes!

    • Kris says:

      Thanks, Tim. I’m trundling over to your blog to see what you’ve been doing. I was encouraging to the writers whose work I liked and wanted to eventually buy. So thanks for remembering, and congrats on all of your success.

  47. Kris, I’m normally critical (dare I say snobbish?) about readers who give hero-worship responses to blog pieces but I’ll make an exception just this once. You rock! 🙂

    Miss them when they’re gone? Not as a reader, and certainly not as a writer! The sooner the Transition is over the better, and the New Renaissance can flourish.

    Konrath recently dealt some severe blows to the gatekeepers’ desperate need to protect us from (his words) the “tsunami of crap”, and why it’s just plain insulting to readers to suggest we can’t find a good book without their help.

    Lovely to hear it now from someone who’s been both sides of the editor’s desk. And from someone who successfully writes trans-genre (another gatekeepers’ no-no).

  48. Jane George says:

    Just missed my bedtime staying up and reading this post! And I word-o-mouthed it via twitter, baby.

  49. TheSFReader says:

    Wooohoo ! Very eloquently put ! You should write for a living you know ! 🙂

  50. Joe Vasicek says:

    Bravo! You said it about ten times better than I ever could. We’re at the dawn of a glorious golden age of literature, a revolution that may even rival that of the Gutenburg press. In a world where readers and writers can connect directly, without the self-appointed literati or the soulless media conglomerates getting in the way, it’s a wonderful time to be a writer.

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